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In 'Dark Horses,' A Secret Circles An Aspiring Equestrian

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The most important word in the life of 15-year-old Roan Montgomery may be compartmentalize. She's an accomplished equestrian, on course to be an Olympic medal winner, like her father, growing up on the rolling grounds of her family's farm and attending a prestigious school. She loves horses, especially Jasper. She loves competition. But there is a secret that weighs on her soul. Roan Montgomery is abused. Her story is at the center of Susan Mihalic's debut novel, "Dark Horses."

And Susan Mihalic, who's worked as an editor, curriculum writer and therapeutic riding instructor joins us now from Taos, N.M. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN MIHALIC: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you think Roan finds in horses, but not just horses - the barn, the stalls and even mucking the stalls?

MIHALIC: I think it's all a sense of connection for her. People who love horses tend to be passionate about it, and she is passionate about her horses and her riding. Even if her father weren't an Olympic gold medalist who is training her to follow in his footsteps, she would still love horses and being exposed to them. There's so much you get from the horse world. It goes beyond riding. It's a relationship.

SIMON: Even before you know what's going on, it's upsetting in the book when you hear her father say, well, you can be good, or you can be the best.

MIHALIC: He is obsessed with perfection. And he holds the horses and her access to them over her head. She doesn't have to compete. She really wants to compete. So this is a means of control that he has over her.

SIMON: Has this story been smoldering in you a long time?

MIHALIC: It has. I became obsessed with the idea of writing a story about sexual abuse that was different from anything that had been written before. I wanted to explore the control in the relationship. I wanted to explore who had the power, why they have it, how they willed it. And I wanted to take people into a world where the daughter, Roan, is powerless against her father. She thinks she's powerless. She believes it. He leads her to believe that she's complicit in the abuse. So she has a lot of weight on her shoulders. Again, especially for a 15-year-old, she's dealing with a lot. And as you said, compartmentalize is a very important word in her world. That's the only way that she can function.

SIMON: Without giving away too much of the plot, Roan has an accident on a horse...

MIHALIC: She does.

SIMON: ...Which every rider does at one time or another. Hospital personnel have questions. But tell us about the boy named Will who comes into her life 'cause he's not part of the horsey set.

MIHALIC: With the family trauma that she's under, they sort of bond through trauma, actually.

SIMON: Yeah.

MIHALIC: There's a psychological foundation to that. Will is a catalyst for her to start examining her relationship with her father and to start wanting to broaden her world. Her world is very narrow, and she loves part of it for what it is. She hates part of it, but she realizes - Will leads her to understand - that there's a great big world out there.

SIMON: It's very hard to read about the abuse of anyone. But I've got to ask, what's it like to write about that?

MIHALIC: I approached it with a lot of respect for Roan and with a lot of love for her. Within the realm of what I was doing, I really did try to take care of her. The reason I wrote it as explicitly as I did is that I thought it would be more powerful. I didn't want to fade to black when the going got rough because I wanted the reader to experience, as much as possible, what Roan experiences and bring them to understand what her choices are and what her lack of choices is. It was a matter of bringing the reader right up to the line and making them uncomfortable and making them unable to put the book down. That was always in the back of my mind. How far can I go with this before they throw the book across the room?

SIMON: How much of your life is tied up with horses now?

MIHALIC: I taught therapeutic horseback riding. I taught for two years at a summer camp in Florida, and then I taught for four years in San Diego. And seeing the connection between the riders, mostly children, and the therapy horses was really special. It was a wonderful job. It was just a grand experience.

SIMON: You know, you can sense a little of that in your novel. Horses help Roan get through this period in her life, don't they?

MIHALIC: They do. As she says, she tells Jasper everything, almost. They make great listeners. They're not really good at giving advice, but...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, you can finish their sentences that way.

MIHALIC: That's right. They don't mind.

SIMON: What do we understand about life better when we have a relationship with animals, do you think?

MIHALIC: I think animals are empathy with fur. They are unconditional love, and they express it. No matter how good your relationship is with your partner or your siblings or your parents, you know, there are ways that you can be misunderstood. And, you know, fighting is absolutely normal. Arguing is absolutely normal in a relationship. But when it comes to animals, there is unconditional love there. They are the definition of it. They never have a bad day if you treat them well, and they're always there for you when you've had a bad day. I think we have a lot to learn from animals.

SIMON: Susan Mihalic - her novel, "Dark Horses" - thank you so much for being with us.

MIHALIC: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.