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Dark Horses

A Novel

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A “sweeping and raw story of courage, resilience, and clear-eyed grace” (Sara Gruen, #1 New York Times bestselling author) about a teenage girl’s fierce struggle to reclaim her life from her abusive father in the vein of My Absolute Darling and Room.

Fifteen-year-old equestrian prodigy Roan Montgomery has only ever known two worlds: inside the riding arena, and outside of it. Both, for as long as she can remember, have been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all areas of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan’s relationship with her father has long been inappropriate. She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision.

“[A] heart-pounding, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it debut novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine), Dark Horses explores the themes of abuse and resilience in a way that will leave you transfixed. This is “a provoking and needed book” (Booklist, starred review).

This reading group guide for Dark Horses includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

A darkly gripping debut novel about a teenage girl’s fierce struggle to reclaim her life from her abusive father.

Fifteen-year-old equestrian prodigy Roan Montgomery has only ever known two worlds: inside the riding arena, and outside of it. Both, for as long as she can remember, have been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all areas of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan's relationship with her father has long been inappropriate. She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision.

At the intersection of a commercial page-turner and urgent survivor story, Dark Horses takes the searing themes of abuse and resilience in Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling and applies the compelling exploration of female strength in Room by Emma Donoghue. In much the same way that V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic transfixed a generation of readers, Susan Mihalic’s debut is set to a steady beat that will keep you turning the pages.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. On page 4, Roan describes her father as “conditioned to superiority since conception. Montgomerys were exceptional.” In what ways is Roan exceptional? How has she carried on this legacy? How has she changed it?

2. Compartmentalization is a mental tool Roan’s father taught her and is something she relies on throughout the novel. We first hear it on page 9, as she’s coaching herself before competition (“Compartmentalize, I told myself in Daddy’s voice. All that could wait. . . . I had a job to do.) Later, on page 126, Roan describes leading thoughts of Will “into one of the stalls in my mind.” How does this skill serve her well? What happens in the moments she doesn’t compartmentalize? Do you think it’s a skill that ultimately saves her, or is it a limitation?

3. On page 23, Roan laments that her father “reserved his charm for the public. It drove me crazy sometimes, the man I knew versus the man everyone else saw.” In the hospital, the social worker, Mrs. Adams, asks point blank if Roan “see[s] him as different people” (pg. 126). Performance is clearly a large part of their family life, both in competition and in the regular course of a day, at school, with Will, and even with Eddie and Gertrude at home. Given this, do you think Monty is two “different people”? Is Roan? Discuss how these multiple “versions” of Monty and Roan contribute to each of their trajectories. Like compartmentalization, is performance a skill that ultimately benefits Roan as she wrests control of her life? How does she utilize it later in the novel? Is it ever a hindrance?

4. Both Will and Roan experience deep loss. Will loses his brother Steve, sister-in-law Amy, and their kids. Roan loses Jasper, and earlier, in another way, also her mother, and of course, her childhood and bodily control. When Will tells Roan about the accident, he says, “I lost my best friend. How would you be?” to which her response is “I didn’t have anything to compare it to.” Is that true? Does it become true later? How do each of them respond to these losses? How are the responses different, and in what ways, if any, are they the same?

5. Jasper and Roan’s relationship is the strongest bond she’s ever known. Think about the moments that relationship is threatened or severed. How do those moments inform Roan’s actions? Her agency? Discuss the ways in which Jasper is both a pawn in her and her father’s relationship and simultaneously a wellspring for her strength.

6. Roan and her mother, Kit, have a relationship that is strained and complicated at best, abusive at worst. On page 42, Kit tells her daughter “you chose him,” and later, on page 82 we learn that Roan had told her mother about the abuse as a young child and she, in turn, hadn’t acted on it. By her own logic, who did Kit chose? Is Kit also a victim? If so, does it impact how you view her choices? Discuss the theme of betrayal in their family and how it insidiously reproduces over time.

7. Choice is a powerful theme throughout the novel—Monty and Kit make devastating, horrific choices, and Gertrude and Eddie make choices, too, that affect Roan—but the impact felt begins to shift when Roan starts making choices of her own. On page 249, Monty says, “Every one of your mother’s actions was a choice. When she chose to cheat on me, she chose to leave both of us. You understand, don’t you, that when you chose to cut your hair, you chose to give Jasper to Frank.” Roan also chooses to spend time with Will, and in one heartbreaking moment on page 106 as she’s learning to exercise her agency, she attempts to manipulate her father: “In this moment, I controlled what happened next. If he could use my body, I could too.” Discuss which of Roan’s choices are survival mechanisms and which choices she makes for herself. When do you see the power of her choices change? Is there one choice she makes that stuck with you?

8. The scene where Roan cuts off her hair (pgs. 224–26) searingly illustrates the most obvious parallel between Roan and the horses. Monty uses Roan’s braid like reins: “He’d wind his fingers through it to tug my head back for a kiss or to control the rhythm with which I sucked his cock.” (pg. 225). What other parallels do you see between Roan and her horses? Are there other moments in the novel where she breaks from these similarities?

9. Gertrude and Eddie act as proxy parents to Roan for much of the novel (“Gertrude was family—more of a mother to me than [Kit had] ever been” (pg. 60), and we know they’ve worked for the Montgomery family since before she was born. They care deeply for Roan, and Gertrude is often present in moments where Monty is emotionally abusive, if not sexually abusive. Do you believe she knew the extent of the abuse? Do you hold Gertrude to the same standard of responsibility as Kit, given her motherly relationship to Roan? Discuss these two mother figures and how their silences impacted Roan—in what ways are the women similar? In what ways are they different?

10. After Monty discovers text messages between Roan and Will, Roan confronts her father for the first time, saying, “You want to talk about who’s a sex offender?” (pg. 273) And the next day, after he rapes her, she admits, “I finally understood that what he did was always a form of violence. He’d been hurting me forever” (pg. 276). How did Monty’s breaking this particular boundary—reading their messages—awaken Roan, finally, to the extent of the abuse she’d endured her whole life? Why was there no watershed moment when Will came for dinner? Or when she confronted her mother’s enabling as she packed up her things? Discuss this moment, and how sex ultimately, ironically, became the catalyst for Roan’s fight against her sexual abuse.

11. For much of the novel, Rosemont Farm is largely impenetrable to the outside world, but on page 296, Monty literally imprisons Roan—locking her in her room and changing the security codes to the house: “He made sure of it: I wasn’t going anywhere.” Discuss Rosemont as a character in the novel. What does it give to Roan, if anything? Despite its beauty and size, what does it take away? Would you have continued to live there, as she does at the end of the novel?

12. After her father is hospitalized, Roan discovers photos of herself on his phone and reflects, “the man who’d made these photos loved his daughter. It was hard to understand. Harder to accept” (pg. 329). Do you believe Monty loved Roan? Do you understand or accept it, as Roan attempts to?

13. When Roan tells Will about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, she finally names it as rape (pg. 312). It’s the first time we hear her use this word, and Will’s acceptance of the truth—and love for her—shine through. Discuss this scene, and how their conversation contrasts with the scene where she tells her mother the same thing as a girl (pg. 82). Do you agree with Roan’s version of the story?

14. At the end of the novel, Roan and her mother Kit meet at the hospital. As part of her apology, Kit says, “When I said I had to take care of myself, I didn’t know whether I could. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done” (pg. 337). Does this statement remind you of Roan at the end of the novel? Do you believe Kit could have cared for Roan if she’d stayed? Does their reunion indicate closure? How do you think their relationship will evolve from here?

15. Trauma abounds in this novel and no one escapes unscathed, not even Monty. How do you feel about how his story ends? Are you as satisfied as Roan is, that “his punishment was to watch me. Watch me be free. Watch me be in love. Watch me hold the reins. Watch me make my own legacy. Watch me—and never have me again” (pg. 342)?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Volunteer to help victims of sexual abuse in your area. Visit volunteermatch.org or rainn.org/get-involved to find opportunities near you. Additionally, the organization Stop The Silence has volunteer opportunities for victims of child sexual assault.

2. Go horseback riding or arrange a party to watch a live competitive equestrian event! Visit the U.S. Equestrian Federation website at usef.org/compete/competitions to stream a show or plan a daytrip to a competition in your area!

3. Gertrude is a New Orleans native and her meals are a rare home comfort to Roan. Cook a meal inspired by the area, “rich with Cajun spices and Andouille sausage” (pg. 30) for your book club discussion!
Frederick Aragón

Susan Mihalic has worked as a book editor, curriculum writer, writing instructor, and freelance writer and editor. She has also taught therapeutic horseback riding. She graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi and now lives in Taos, New Mexico.