Calling all horse girls! Read an excerpt from this propulsive new novel

This week, Susan Mihalic releases her debut novel Dark Horses. It's set among the pastures of Virginia, and follows a young equestrian prodigy who is coached by her strict — and, at times, oppressive — father who has offered her no other life path but to follow in his footsteps (ideally, all the way to the Olympics). As the book follows protagonist Roan's time inside the arena, she begins to unravel and grapple with all the elements of darkness within her relationship with her father. Below, read an excerpt of Dark Horses.

***

I WALKED DOWN the wide brick aisle of the training barn to an earthy potpourri — the pungency of horse, the dried-grassiness of alfalfa and timothy, heavy molasses-laced feed, and vitamin-rich horse urine.

I ignored Diva, greeted Vigo with lumps of sugar, and crossed the aisle to Jasper's stall, taking the halter and lead rope from the hook on the door.

"Hey, you." I rolled open the stall door. "We're riding out." Jasper dipped his head to place it in the noseband of the halter, and I buckled the strap.

I removed his stall blanket, led him to the crossties, clipped a rope to either side of his halter, and went to the tack room. On two walls, saddles perched on saddle trees, protected from dust by canvas covers. Rows of bridles lined the space above them. On the third wall, the heavy winter blankets hung ready; it hadn't been cold enough to use them yet. On the fourth wall, shelves held grooming kits, each labeled with the name of a horse. I took Jasper's kit and swiped a handful of sweet grain from the feed room.

His lips skimmed it from my palm.

"Your daddy sees you hand-feeding that horse, he'll have your hide," Eddie said. He had a leg wrap in one hand and a bottle of liniment in the other.

"I always hand-feed him. Anyway, Daddy's not here."

"He's in the foaling barn. I always say you got more guts than brains."

"Thanks."

"It's not a compliment," Eddie said.

I laughed. "How's Sadie?"

"Drugged up on muscle relaxants. She may lose the foal. We'll know more in the next few hours." Eddie continued on his way, turning toward the stud barn.

As I groomed Jasper, I spoke softly to him. Daddy believed communication with horses should consist of commands and signals and the occasional soothing "Easy, boy," or "Good girl," because they couldn't understand anything more, but I told Jasper everything. Almost.

He was in good flesh despite the hard competition at Middleton. Some horses came off a three-day event up to thirty pounds lighter, but Daddy and Eddie took equine nutrition and hydration seriously.

I took his bridle and hunt saddle from the tack room.

"We're going into the hills. What do you say? Good boy."

For an hour, I rode him up and down the hills that rose above rolling meadows carpeted with winter rye. From the crest of the hills, Rosemont looked like the toy farm I'd had when I was a kid. Our house sat at the top of a hill, Gertrude and Eddie's farmhouse lay below it in the curve of the driveway, and beyond their place stood the employee apartments, built to match the character of the original structures. The pastures were dotted with horses. Fences, dark brown rails dipped in creosote, raced across the fields at right angles.

Regardless of Mama's attempts at manipulation and the trouble brewing between her and Daddy, I felt good. I was doing what I loved best in the place I loved most — and alone with Jasper, I had room to think about this afternoon: A boy had asked me on a date.

"I can't go," I told Jasper. One ear swiveled toward me, indicating he was listening. What would a date with Will be like? What would we talk about? Would he kiss me, and would it be hard or soft, with tongue or without? Given his remark about Sass, he might expect more than kissing.

My fantasy of pizza and a movie and a gentle good-night kiss — okay, with tongue —dissolved. He was a total burnout, and he knew nothing about horses. Ride on, for God's sake.

Jasper turned his head to look at me, and I became aware that I'd stopped riding. I was simply sitting there, stock-still, halfway up the hill.

"You're right," I said. "It doesn't matter. I'm not going on a date with anyone anytime soon."

Except the memory echoing in the back of my mind made my guts coil like I was the one colicking, not Sadie. Sunday night supper, Gertrude's casserole, and Daddy.

I did have a date. And it was tonight.

Copyright © 2021 by Susan Mihalic. From the recently published DARK HORSES by Susan Mihalic, published by Scout Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Related content: