Horse riding is the only sport where riders compete on an equal basis regardless of gender. It was the horses that drew me to horse racing, and the idea of equity that helped keep me interested (and the data, but that’s an aside to this story). I grew up in a country town in New Zealand with parents who had zero interest in horses, so I took myself along to pony club and begged people to let me borrow their horses. From there, I worked as a strapper (or if you are American, a hot walker or backstretch worker) to help fund my way through university where I studied physics and maths. After graduating, I had a few jobs related to my degree, but eventually moved to Australia, and back to the horses doing data analysis on the racing industry.
I don’t work with horses on a daily basis any longer, but I do get to write about them. Both in non-fiction format for a couple of horse racing magazines, and in fiction format in my books. My Merindah Park series is set on a horse farm owned by four siblings whose gambling addicted father almost loses the farm.
Two Hearts Healing is the third book in the series. It can be read as a standalone, because like many romance series, the books are tied together by family, not by story arc.
Serena is a jockey who rides racehorses for her neighbour Lee, as well as other local trainers – until she has a bad fall and is injured. I based this accident on a couple of real life incidents; Single Gaze’s fall in the ATC Oaks and the day Miss Andretti’s bridle broke during training. I chose these two because both horses were fine afterwards. In the book, the bridle on Tam’s Reward breaks during a race, and the horse clips heels with the horse in front of them, and falls. Tam’s Reward is fine, but Serena suffers a head injury.
Fast forward to the day that Serena is cleared to leave the rehabilitation ward and go home, and thus the beginning of the book. Guess who trained Tam’s Reward and feels a ton of guilt for his horse hurting someone? That’s right, Serena’s neighbour, Lee. Who better to ask for a favour? Serena wants to ride again. Her family are worried she’ll get hurt again, so she turns to Lee who can’t say no.
As part of my research for this novel, I interviewed four women jockeys who’d all had falls from racehorses that resulted in head injuries. I’m hugely grateful to Libby Hopwood, Gina Mitchell, Amanda Smith, and Naomi Hemmings for their open discussions about life after a head injury and the challenges. All four of them said the most annoying part of a head injury is people saying “oh, but you look fine.” It’s something to bear in mind when meeting people – you never know what is happening in their life, and being kind means not dismissing what they say. The interesting thing about interviewing four different people for research was discovering what was the same for all four people, and what was different. Each of them had different pathways towards recovery, with some of them riding again and others having their balance badly affected in the long term. They each all had issues with light and noise sensitivity at the beginning, however, this faded for a couple of them, while the other two learned ways to manage their sensitivities going forward.
After I wrote the first draft, I sent this book to a sensitivity reader who read for chronic illness. The feedback was highly valuable, and I implemented all the suggestions to improve the book. I’d completely recommend using a sensitivity reader as part of writing process. I hope that I’ve written a story that is at first a romance, and at best, is kind to readers who are going through similar issues as Serena. The title, Two Hearts Healing, is based on the idea that a horse and a human working in partnership is two hearts working together. The Fédération Equestre Internationale used #TwoHearts as their Rio Olympics slogan, and Two Hearts Healing is about how working with horses can be part of a healing process. Oh, and spoiler – there is no magical cure for Serena, just hard work and coming to terms with a changed future.
About the Book:
Australian author Renee Dahlia takes us back to Merindah Park for this rural romance about letting go of the past and the healing power of horses.
Home. It’s been a long journey to recovery after the horse racing accident that nearly killed me, and now I’m ready to embrace life. Yes, I have a head injury, but that’s not going to stop me creating a survival list of all the things I was too polite to do before. Number one on the list is to ride again. Also on the list: kiss Lee Edwards, my former boss and hot-as-hell neighbour. Not that I’m going to write that one down where anyone might see it.
The last six months have been hell. Not only did one of my horses nearly kill my stable jockey, Serena, but the accident wrecked my friendship with her brother and reminded me that I’m a failure. Just like my father said I’d be. I moved to Australia, the other side of the world, to get away from his negative voice and create a new life as a horse trainer. And now Serena is on my doorstep, demanding to learn to ride again. I can’t do it. I won’t be responsible for hurting her again. So why is it so hard to say no?
Content Warning: This book includes discussion of toxic parenting, and a traumatic brain injury.
About the author
Renée Dahlia is an unabashed romance reader who loves feisty women and strong, clever men. Her books reflect this, with a sidenote of dark humour. Renée has a science degree in physics. When not distracted by the characters fighting for attention in her brain, she works in the horse-racing industry doing data analysis and writing magazine articles. When she isn’t reading or writing, Renée spends her time with her partner and four children, volunteers on the local cricket club committee, and is the Secretary of Romance Writers Australia.