Writers @ Work Fellowship Winner, nonfiction
A dozen residents are haltering the horses near the pipe corral railing that runs a seventy- foot distance, east to west, and fits neatly between two old cottonwood trees. A large water trough sits at the east end of the railing, a shiny, steel beacon planted right in front of the ancient tree. The horses come here throughout the day to rest and drink in the abundant shade. They huddle together in tight groups to swat off the gnats, flies, and mosquitoes that bite and cling to their chest, ears, and muzzles. To the south of the railing is the bright green twelve-acre pasture where they spend most of their days, heads down, teeth grinding side to side, ears flicking back and forth. There are no fence lines to contain them except the twelve-foot high, razor wire topped, adobe wall that enforces the seventeen-acre perimeter of this prison. The horses are free to roam off the pasture and into the wood shop or the automotive shop or over to the big warehouse that stores all the new clothing, shoes, and bed linens for the ranch. The residents greet them daily, invite them in, help knock off the flies, then leave them to stand in the coolness of the buildings, hind legs cocked, taking their stand-up naps. The boundaries between animal and human are thin here.
The horses are all gathered, standing attentive and perpendicular to the rail, with their lead lines looped loosely around the three-inch metal bar. Each resident has a brush in one hand and a curry comb in the other. The sound of horse hair brushes swooshing across necks and spines whispers into the air.
Tony is standing back from the group, his legs spread wide, hands on his hips. He looks ready to get into it with someone. I ask him, “What’s up?”
“Oh, you know, it’s Sarah and Fred fighting over Scout again. Two fucking babies. They’re gonna get us all in trouble, you watch.”
I look past Tony, down to the end of the rail. Fred is on the right side of Scout, combing his mane. Sarah is on his left side combing his tail. They both hold a low-slung pout on their lips. Their shoulders roll forward and down, hunching their backs into the shape of tortoise shells. Fred is thirty-six, Sarah forty-five. For some reason they’re both obsessed with Scout – a fourteen-year-old brown and white spotted Tennessee Walking horse gelding who has his own issues with neurotic and obsessive behaviors.
“I’m fucking tired of it, we all are. They need to grow the fuck up,” Tony says.
Angie comes over and stands next to me. Tony can be volatile and she wants to stop him before his mania gets started.
“I’ll handle it Angie,” I say to her. “Watch yourself, Tony. You’re getting too involved. Focus on Luna. She needs your attention. How’s her face healing?”
Luna’s injury is why I’m here. She fractured her face on an overhanging shelter beam three months ago, and no one could catch her. The residents chased her into the corrals and round pen. They pinned her into the corner between the hay barn and the chicken coop, where she knocked Tony backwards and ran for safety into the fenceless pasture. The veterinarian came out but couldn’t treat her. Instead he left them my number, which, as a result is now stapled to the tack room door.
“You’ve done a great job with her, Tony.” But Tony’s no longer listening to me. He’s finished grooming Luna and seems to have settled. He walks back over to the grooming box and drops his brushes.
Some days the residents are spooky silent, and other days they’re full of chatter and chaos. Rarely a day goes by where someone hasn’t broken a rule, gotten in a fight, or had an outburst or some other infraction, and usually that person brings a whole group of other residents down with them. Those troubled days are the silent days. No one wants to talk. They keep to themselves, move slowly around the horses, grooming each horse with steady attention to detail. First the face, down the neck, over the front legs, then back up to the chest. Short repeated strokes, over and over. They brush the same small corner of their horse’s body like they are staring into a mirror, wondering how the hell they will ever learn to take care of themselves.
As Tony and all the others finish their grooming, I give them instructions for the afternoon: what horses they will be working with and the skills I want each of them to focus on. Everyone is listening. They ask a few questions, and then fan out with their horses into the pasture to get to work. They spread themselves out wide, trying to claim what there is so little of here – privacy.
I know they need their space, but I also know that not one of them is ready to be on their own with these horses. If they lose their focus, even for one second, the horses will take advantage of the lapse. These horses are hypervigilant. They need only one moment, one second of misunderstanding, and they’ll launch to assert or defend themselves. They’ve seen hundreds of residents come and go from this ranch. Learning to trust, to give themselves over to a human, this is not an option. If we can prove ourselves worthy to them, moment by moment, that’s the best we can do. They are the teachers. They keep us present, keen, concentrating. They keep us alive.
Most of the initial fear of the horses has finally turned toward a semblance of respect. It’s a good first step toward building the kind of relationship few of the residents have ever had. But these horses still demand clear and honest communication above all else. If anyone chooses to play around with that first and most important rule, the horses will swing a sideways kick in their direction, open their teeth and lunge toward them, stomp their hooves onto shoes and shove the residents down to the ground, using their broad chest and shoulder muscles against narrow human frames. Humans own no hierarchy here. We play a demanding game of focus and precision. One mental lapse and we’re out. Even I have no exemption. In my twenty-five years of horse training, I’ve never met horses so determined to hang onto their dominion.
So I watch everyone carefully on this silent day, keep them all in my sight and step in where I am needed for a teaching moment. Then I leave them alone to work things out.
I make the decision to assign Scout to Sarah for the day. It pisses Fred off, but he holds it together, standing over by the water tank, staring at the ground. Fred, like all the residents, has his demons. A fiery ball of red hot anger punches just beneath his skin. When he comes close to exploding, he removes himself from the group. He walks over to Willie’s gate and grabs hold of it with both arms straight out in front, rocking his body back and forth. His long, sighing exhales make my heart drop down to my gut.
“Yeah, Miss Ginger.”
“You’re working with Moo today. You can go get him from my trailer and take him to the round pen.”
Every day I haul Moo over with me. He’s my anchor, my horse of choice for anyone who may be struggling and stuck in a funk. Moo’s a solid equine citizen. He’ll do no harm, and often he helps build up any loss of confidence a resident may be having.
“Will do Miss Ginger. Hey, Miss Ginger, did you know? I got all the horses up today. Groomed them all before anyone else got here.”
For whatever reason, Fred makes shit up.
“Where’s Moo? Did you bring his saddle? Can I ride today? On Sunday I worked with Willie, did all the ground work. Tony helped me. I think I’m ready. Yeah, I’m ready. Think I can ride today? Where’s Moo?”
I point at my trailer.
Fred was the background noise to which we had all become accustomed, a blustery repetition of mostly nonsense filling the air. I keep an eye on the residents and horses in the pasture as they work their skills, while Fred fires off his questions and comments without ever looking up or taking a single step. It’s as if these verbal calisthenics are his form of a physical activity. Even when I’m fast enough to slide in a few answers to his endless barrage of questions, it doesn’t make a difference. Fred doesn’t listen.
“I don’t know, Fred, if today’s a good day for riding. You still need to get your groundwork skills, and when you get those skills…”
“No, no. I got ‘em. I got ‘em, Miss Ginger. Wait till you see me. I’m ahead of the game. I can ride. I’m ready. I’m not afraid of these horses.”
Fred’s world: that’s what we call it. As each resident becomes more and more skilled with the horses, Fred lags behind. He’s a child in a giant man’s body. Everything I teach him is up for re-interpretation. He’s a man floating in his own bowl, with minimal awareness of anyone around him. Fred holds onto a fierce denial of his fear around the horses. He’s terrified of them, and it’s obvious to everyone around him. He armors himself with arrogance and a fake bravado, and most of the other residents just keep their distance.
He is big but not strong. Illiterate yet boastful in his GED class. Hardworking but completely unskilled. Artificially confident, selfish, angry, disruptive and fundamentally fractured. And he is loud, overweight and clumsy. He’s broad across his shoulders, top heavy. He waddles instead of walks. He speaks a goofy style of street-gang slang, and he pops up and down off his toes when standing in place, always pumping his arms downward in time with the upward gyration of his legs.
He’s a wreck waiting to happen. But he loves, loves, loves the horses. Two months ago, he put himself on a diet proclaiming himself a vegetarian. He knows that his over-weight body is an obstacle, a teetering, cumbersome mass that could keep him from being able to mount up and ride.
The only horse I truly felt safe enough to let him work with was Moo. Moo, I knew, would not flat out kill him, which was the fear I held for Fred whenever he worked with the ranch horses.
“Here we go, Moo,” Fred scrambles the lead line around his arms.
“Slow down, Fred. Loosen the rope, be careful not to…” He’s not listening.
“Watch out. I got this thing.”
“Fred, be careful, you’re getting too close to the trailer. Fred!”
“Hey, yeah, yeah. I got it.” He’s bouncing up and down in place.
“Fred, listen to me. That’s not what I want you to do.”
“No, no, no. Wait, wait, wait a minute.” He ignores me and goes off on a rant with Moo.
“Dude, listen up. Come over here. I got it. I got it! Cool. See that? Did you see that? Did any of you see that?”
Fred is screaming. His face all flushed, the color of pinkish mud. His mouth is wide open and in the shape of a childhood howl.
No one looks his way. No one except Moo. Moo finds Fred absolutely interesting. He is mesmerized by Fred in such a way I have rarely seen before. Moo, for all his many great attributes, loves to check out from reality. I call him my Dreamer. He likes being gone more than he likes being here. He has a higher calling. When coyotes and bobcats prowl his pasture, when forty- mile-an-hour winds blow his mane and tail sideways, when blizzards white out his entire vision, Moo stands stoic and perfectly still, peering into the portal of a different world. But with Fred Moo is all ears, animated eyes, his hooves adjusting to keep up with Fred’s constant motion in one place. Fred is a quirk of nature and Moo finds him most fascinating.
“Miss Ginger, Miss Ginger, Miss Ginger. How ‘bout we ride today? I gotta ride today I’m feeling it.”
Why anyone wants to ride horses when they are clearly scared shitless has always been an interest of mine. It is the kind of fear that is mixed with a deep knowing, a profound need to be close to the power of an animal. It can chew a person up and spit them out much weaker. Some people make it through, but so many more are left stranded and starving.
Fred’s fear is housed in a complete and mindless denial, all the while demanding I let him ride. Though I have my hesitations, I decide to put my trust in Moo.
“Okay Fred, if you show me your round pen work, if you can perform all the turns with Moo – stop him on cue, back him up – then I’ll consider the riding thing. But first you have to prove to me you have the skills.”
“I got it. I got it! I’ll make you a believer. You’ll be singing my praises. Watch me.”
We walk over to the round pen that sits on the edge of the twelve-acre pasture, just east of the farm road that splits the ranch property in half. The rest of the livestock crew is still spread around the field, each working with a horse and holding to their focus. From where I am positioned, I can keep them in my periphery while I work with Fred. Working horses all these years has given me a well-honed ability to scan for and detect problems quickly.
Fred practices all his round pen skills in a bizarre but exact sequence. First, he puts Moo inside the circle of the round pen; Fred standing like a post in the center. Then he raises one of his arms out to the side, straight as an arrow, and announces in a booming, affirmative voice: “TROT, MOO.” Moo has no idea what Fred is saying, but he reads Fred’s body language as clearly as a flashing neon traffic sign. Moo takes off at a trot into the direction of Fred’s pointed arrow. Fred stands like a statue with his arm-pointing dramatics and then, out of nowhere, he drops his arm quick to his side and raises his opposite arm with the precision of a traffic cop. “TURN, MOO.” Moo pivots and heads off at a trot in the opposite direction. Back and forth they go, with Fred’s long arrows coming up and down, until Fred decides to bring both arms up to his shoulders, then drop them fast and hard to his waist, army style, tuck his chin to his chest, blow his neck out like a tom turkey, and confidently announce, “HO, MOO.” Moo screeches to a halt, their two large male bodies in complete agreement with one another.
The truth is, Moo knows the round pen work by heart. He has spent years learning all these necessary skills. But Fred’s animations make Moo more of a believer. They wake him up out of his dreamy slumber. Fred’s physical presence matches Moo’s preoccupation with certainty. When Moo isn’t asleep, or visiting another world, he prefers to have clear and sharp communication. Yet mentally Fred is nothing but uncertainty. His clamoring, unconscious spewing of the mouth doesn’t seem to bother Moo, so long as his physical cues are clear.
Fred goes about backing Moo up at the end of a lead line. Next he practices moving Moo’s shoulders to the right and his hind end to the left. He performs all the turns perfectly, all the while a steady flow of nonsensical conversation flooding the air.
“You gotta whip it Moo. Whip it good. Down to the wire. Like we’re on skates. Curl it up. Turn it round. I’m the man. You’re the man. Let’s get down.” Fred is proud. He’s doing some awkward stationary dance move. Taking a quarter step out, a quarter step back. He looks like a child who has never learned how to play.
Oh for Christ’s sake, have I lost my mind. This guy has no business sitting atop a horse.
Fred’s giant gestures coupled with Moo’s immaculate timing have foiled my plan. I’m resistant to admit it, but I have to honor my word. It’s time for Fred to get on and try to ride.
Down at the wood shop Fred has prepared for this day. He’s crafted a three-by-three-foot wide and two-foot tall mounting box, made from two-by-twelve-inch pine boards, a sturdy platform from which Fred can mount. His vegetarian diet demands he cut out the meat and the fats. He’s held to this diet like a religion, losing twenty-five pounds in three months. Each new hole in his belt has brought him closer to riding the horses.
In the tack room of my trailer is the largest saddle I own. I haul it over today and every day, knowing that Fred will eventually ask about it, that someday I will have to give in to his repetitious requests to ride. I know Fred will pour over the pommel and cantle, squish out the sides and over the skirt, to the point where the saddle will become invisible. But this is the largest saddle I own.
I take my time and walk Fred through the saddling process, pulling the saddle blanket up and over Moo’s withers, setting the saddle down on Moo’s back, showing Fred how to measure the distance behind Moo’s elbow where the cinch will fit snugly.
“Okay dude, we got the cinch, the horn sits right here, and we got the seat. It looks a little small for my big ass! We’re gonna ride, we’re gonna ride, we’re gonna…”
“Knock it off Fred, and get your shit together. This is a big deal, not fuckin play time. You have to focus!” I feel like a blister ready to pop.
Cinching the saddle on tight, I’m hard and edgy. My throat burns down the back of my windpipe. I’m holding my breath. I know if I say one more thing, I’m going to slaughter him with words. Fred’s ceaseless talking, his inability to listen, has me reaching for my voice like a knife. I clench my jaw and bite down on my lower lip. Moo starts backing away from us on his lead line.
Tony comes back from the pasture, leading Luna alongside. They walk up to the round pen and lean against the top rail.
“Hey, what’s up with the box, Fred?”
“I built it for my bigness, what do you think? He pops up and down. “ I think I need it, don’t you, to get myself up there?”
“That’s cool, dude. Yeah, you’ll get up there. Are you getting ready to mount?”
“Not quite yet,” I interrupt. “I need to put the bridle on.”
As I move towards Moo with the bridle, I take three long breaths, spread the bit out between my fingers, lift it up between his parting teeth, and pull the crown of the bridle over Moo’s head. I lay the reins over his neck.
Forgive me, Moo. What have I gotten you into?
As Fred climbs up onto his handmade box, the platform digs into four-inches of dirt that cradles the sides. Holding the reins snug and grabbing a piece of Moo’s mane in front of the saddle with his left hand, Fred takes his right hand and twists the stirrup around, where the toe of his left boot can easily slide into the small square space of the stirrup and help power him up and onto Moo’s back.
Fred has tried to prepare for this moment, more than any of us could ever imagine. He raises his big brown boot towards the stirrup, and tips it through the center until it touches the side of Moo’s awaiting ribcage. Fred’s pant belt is eye level. I see all the empty holes he has conquered over the last few months, and yet his hairy belly still flops over the buckle. The holes in his belt puncture my frustration with Fred, and for the first time today I feel his tenderness. He thrusts some weight down into the stirrup, getting ready to rise upward. I am standing in front of Moo, the lead line clutched in my palm, making sure Moo doesn’t take a step.
The mounting block quivers in the sand. Fred’s legs tremble. I hear a long, sorrowful note crawl out of Fred’s mouth and I look up to meet his eye. In that moment he breaks. Water falls downhill. His torso curls in half. His foot falls from the stirrup as he folds and collapses from the mounting box to the ground. The sound that comes out of him is subterranean, like a beached whale, blow after blow, deep and lonely. One of his legs lay across the box, the other folds underneath him. Hunched over and sobbing, his head slumps forward with his hands cupped over his face . His waling sings out into the pastures, and the residents turn away from their horses. They drop their lead ropes and come rushing over, staring down at Fred’s crumpled body on the ground. We sink down around him, comforting him. Touching his big, lumpy body like a baby’s. I can feel our knees touching, the skin of our arms sticking to one another. Fred’s roiling is thick, wet, unstoppable. Our bodies form a capsule around him. We are the blood, the bones that hold him together. Sarah kneels behind him, propping him up, one hand hiding the surprise forming on her face, the other resting on Fred’s shoulder. She can say nothing without sobbing herself. We are stunned into silence, watching Fred’s body heave up and down. And then Angie cracks open. Her face hangs hollow from the bone. Her eyes fill then pour over her cheeks. Tony is terribly uncomfortable. He stands up and heads off for a roll of toilet paper. Fred is grateful when Tony returns. In between blows he tries to catch his breath.
We all know the real stories inside Fred’s sorrow. Each of us has our own. We know not to ask him any questions or to share anything about the past. The rules on the ranch are clear. Don’t dwell on who you were before. Be the person you are becoming.
Fred gasps for air. He is just a sliver of himself, half melted away and shaking. We stay clumped in a tight circle, the mounting box in the middle. Moo holds steady; he hasn’t moved an inch. His head is low, about two-feet from Fred’s face, bending over our bulge of bodies. His eyes are half-closed, ears out to the side of his head listening. Waiting for Fred to make the next move.
I can’t quite look at Fred’s face or anyone else’s. It’s as if my eyes have peeled my skin back and left the whole nerve of my body exposed. I fall away. I see myself sitting on the dirt inside our circle and hovering above it at the same time, peering downward at our small world filled with trouble. How on earth have I arrived here? I see us as children again, innocent and bare, animals alone in the forest, in the dark wind-swept night, curling into the grasses, heading home to the warm earth, where we belong.
“Hey Fred,” Sarah’s voice slips in from the silence. “You can take Scout next time, I promise.”
When he’s ready, Fred picks himself up and brushes the dirt off his pants. We push ourselves off the ground alongside him. He shakes like thunder. Someone brings him a glass of water. Fred clears his throat, blows his nose.
“Thanks guys, thanks a lot. I’m sorry to freak you guys out. I was just, damn I don’t know. I guess I was scared. You know. He’s a big dude. I mean he’s cool. I love this dude.” He looks over and points toward Moo.
“No, Fred. It’s cool. We get it. These horses fuckin’ freak us all out. Damn, dude, you’re good. We got your back.” Tony’s quick to chime in. He’s still uncomfortable with the whole tender show.
Angie walks over to Fred. She looks like a tiny doll standing next to him. She puts her arms around his waist, as much as she can, and pulls him in close. Her head rests just above his rolling belly. The rest of us gather around them. With Angie and Fred in the center, we spread out our arms and create a giant group hug. Touching like this, between men and women, is not allowed on this ranch. We hold on for longer than any of us feel comfortable.
Fred shuffles around the round pen on a short circle, getting his equilibrium back. Moo stands motionless next to the box, reins over the horn, patient and waiting. Fred moves back towards the box, pushes it around in the sand for stability and stands back on top.
I wonder if I should stop him, tell him he has already achieved so much today. But then I look over at Moo. He’s standing tall and ready. He is holding to his mission. Moo shuffles his hooves, putting all four feet squarely underneath his big brown body, preparing to balance Fred on top. Fred grabs the reins and Moo’s mane. His left boot moves smoothly into the stirrup. He shoves off the box, trying to swing his right leg up and over Moo’s rump. He misses. Fred kicks Moo’s left hip hard, his size and flexibility still presenting a challenge. Moo stands dead quiet, like a soldier’s mount, refusing to let any disturbance rock his concentration. Finally Fred prods his right leg across Moo’s rear end, clears and lands hard in the saddle. He sits as deep as he can with his butt cheeks lapping over the cantle. He reaches down to his right and places his right boot into the stirrup.
“That’s the way to do it,” Tony calls to Fred.
Fred looks down on us. His face square and concentrated. Only his eyes show the consequence of surprise. His body swallows the fear. Little driblets of tears still mark his cheeks. No one speaks. Eliza and Angie drag the box out of the round pen. I stand in the middle, watching his hands.
“Pick up the reins Fred, Moos is waiting for you.”
Ginger Gaffney is a horse trainer and writer who lives with her dogs and horses along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. She is currently a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at The Institute of American Indian Arts. This essay is part of a book-length work about her experience working at a prison alternative ranch. Other chapters from this book have been published in Witness Literary Magazine, The Utne Reader, and Animal Literary Magazine.