If you read horse blogs at all, and particularly if you read blogs about OTTBs, you've heard about Natalie Keller Reinert and her blog Retired Racehorse. Natalie is a wonderful combination of knowledgeable horsewoman and experienced rider of TBs both on and off the track, and she has a passion for my breed of choice that practically bleeds off her words. By now you can probably guess I loved her debut novella, The Head and not the Heart.
This e-book follows Alex, a 20-something gallop girl and aspiring trainer, during a particularly challenging time in her life. From the outside, everything looks wonderful; she's the lover of a very successful British trainer (named Alexander-yep, Alex and Alex) living in the heart of race country in Florida. My favorite part of the book is how Natalie creates this world for the reader-the weather, the stables, the people, the SCHEDULE (ugh, a schedule that a person in racing keeps would kill me dead), and of course, the horses. Only a person with first-hand knowledge of racing behind the scenes could write race horses like Natalie does-all of them, from the yearlings to the 2 and 3 year olds in race training to the broodmares to the foals to the retired stallions. It's beautiful and it's tragic, because anyone who knows horses knows without a doubt that they will hurt you. They will absolutely Break. Your. Heart.
I admit, I wasn't a huge fan of the title, but it's a theme that emerges again and again in the book, and after I finished the last page I see why Natalie used it. If you make horses your life, can you do so in a way that is necessary to be sane and successful in the business? Can you remain detached, keep these beasts at a distance, in order to protect yourself? Or, is the very thing that keeps people in horses-a passion and a yearning, to ride them, to train them, to care for them, to be with them all day everyday, the same thing that will destroy a person in the end? Not to mention the physical pain, the injuries (both to body and to pride), the constant dirt and grime, the 3 am emergencies, the 4:30 am wake up calls....are we all crazy?, she asks. Alex has her whole life ahead of her. Can she live it without horses and be happy?
I'm obviously not going to give THAT away, but I will say that Natalie does a masterful job of keeping us guessing until the very end. She also keeps the reader engaged throughout Alex's time in Florida, both in her home with Alexander and his training facility, as well as her travels to New York City with its restaurants, night-life, a riding stable (!) and finally to Aqueduct. I admit I loved her Florida setting so much I didn't want Alex to leave, but the writing is so strong that no matter where she is we are going right along with her, and I for one was happy to do so. Still, the scenes set in the barns and at the track are so engaging it's hard for any other environment to compare. Speaking as a horse person, that may not be an accident.
One of the things I found so interesting was Alex's relationship with Alexander. He is twice her age, and there is a fascinating dynamic between them because she is "just" a gallop girl and he is The Man in every way in the facility (a major in Women's Studies could deconstruct this whole thing much better than I). I love how Natalie doesn't shy away from the complexities of such an arrangement, describing both moments of bliss and times of awkwardness and pain between the two, not to mention the issues that come with being the lover of a man who is both older and more knowledgeable in the field you're BOTH working in. I couldn't get enough of their interactions with each other; every touch, every word spoken (and unspoken) resonated with me as true, and I've never had a relationship even remotely like theirs. That's good writing.
So Bravo, Natalie. I loved this debut of hers and highly recommend you skip tomorrow's Starbucks (or whatever) if money is an issue for you, as it is for me, and plunk down the 3 bucks to read The Head and not the Heart. Lose yourself for awhile in a novella centered around the world of horse racing, written by someone who knows it, loves it, and doesn't sugarcoat a thing.