The Horse Healer: A Novel. By Gonzalo Giner. This new book was released 04-14-15!

April 15, 2015

Book Review by:
Sharon Powers.

     As a young woman, my favorite novel was, Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell; I read this book more than thirty times because of my love for the story and, of course, for my love of horses. I was what people called, “horse crazy.” My bedroom had books about horses, Breyer horse statues, horse magazines, horse stickers, and, of course, I watched horse movies whenever I could (International Velvet starring Elizabeth Taylor, etc.). I told everyone that I was going to grow up and have a horse farm, and later, that I was going to be a veterinarian.
[Image: 2] [Book: 3]
     It was no surprise to anyone in my family that by my teenage years, when I had earned enough money, I was able to purchase a horse. I was able to bring to my family’s home in the country, a beautiful black mare that I named “Beauty.” My Beauty stood about 14.5 hands high and was a Quarter Horse Mix. Unlike “Black Beauty,” from the story, my Beauty didn’t have any white markings. Oh, but did I love her.

     I would hug Beauty around the neck and ride out on the farmland and local roads by our home. In the fall, I entered my horse in the local county fair, and during hunting season, I let my father take her deer hunting. Beauty was an excellent trail horse as well as being beautiful in the show ring. It has been nearly fifty years now since I hugged her around the neck and left her behind to go to college; though I missed our rides in the countryside terribly, I just couldn’t take her with me. I can only find her now if I look for her with my mind’s eye–and when I do, I can only hug her in the memories I’ve stored away in my heart.

Diego’s horse was a sorrel-colored Arabian mare
that he called “SABBA.”[4]

     I mentioned, above, that long ago I wanted to be a veterinarian since I loved animals, and horses, in particular. It was this old desire that pulled me towards reading, The Horse Healer: A Novel, by Gonzalo Giner. As I began reading the novel, I was greatly and happily surprised by this book. I guess I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. So…before I tell you more, let’s take a quick look at the synopsis.


The Horse Healer: A Novel,
is based on fact, but fiction-
alized with new characters
and events added to the story
–this is the real Al-Nasir. [5]

     Don Marcelo, the lord of  an inn in Malagón, the city situated on a trade route between Toledo and Al-Andalus and on the shores of a “Great Lake,” had, but three years ago, lost his wife, the mother of the couple’s four children.  The children and their father, Don Marcelo worked to keep the inn going, until poor health put Don Marcelo into bed.

     The four children, Diego, Belinda, Blanca, and Estela, worked to keep the small inn running and to care for their invalid father; that is, until word came that the great Muslim leader, Muhammand Al-Nasir, had sent his fiercest warriors, the black-skinned Africans, born and raised to kill, to conquer the Christian territory.

Close up of Al-Nasir’s
Imesebelen during the battle
of Navas de Tolosa. Note: See
the full image below. [6]

     The, “Imesebelen,” meaning, the bridegrooms, sent to conquer and ruthlessly kill all Christians, were making their way towards the little family’s beloved city of Malagón. Everyone in the region began to flee in terror. Don Marcelo placed the burden for protecting his three girls on his son, Diego’s, shoulders; he told them to run…as an invalid, he had to stay. At the last moment Diego left the girls to go back for his father–who, in the end, he could not save. His decision to go back led to disastrous results–his sister Belinda was killed by an Imesebelen while trying to protect her two sisters; Blanca and Estela with their flame red hair, were taken into captivity to be sent to Al-Nasir’s harem.

From an old text on the treatment of horses
by the albéitar (veterinarian). [7]

     Narrowly escaping the Imesebelen, Diego fled on his horse Sabba, and headed to Toledo. Devastated, Diego wants to make his decision right, to go back to Muslim country for his sisters, but finds the ways barred to him. Eventually, Diego is taken in by an “albéitar (veterinarian),” by the name of Galib and soon is apprenticed to him. Diego has begun a new journey that is sad, yes, and traumatic, indeed. But what Diego doesn’t know, is that soon, very soon, he will be in for more excitement than he can imagine.

     This story is more than a horse story, it is more than a slice of the reconquest of medieval Spain, it is even more than the story of a lost boy who must make his way in the world. Diego’s story encompasses a momentous time in history where an orphaned boy grows into a man who can help to shape the future and save a people. But what happens to this horse healer, his horse friend Sabba, and the boy’s sisters will shock you! Diego and Sabba’s journey into the pages of history during the momentous times of the “reconquest of medieval Spain” will leave you gasping!

This map shows the location of Toledo (almost center of the map) where Diego studied to become an “albéitar (or veterinarian).”  Malagón, Diego’s home city (not shown on this map), is located between Calatrava and Toledo–closer to Calatrava than Toledo. Al-Nasir’s forces captured Calatrava, and then went on to capture  Malagón. Later in the book, when the three kings unite to stop Al-Nasir’s incursion into Christian lands, and to retake lands lost to Al-Nasir, the great battle of LAS NAVAS DE TOLOSA took place in 1212, indicated by the words “Las Navas de Tolosa (by the two red stars).”

Andalusian Horses, as you can see, are well
built, having a head with either a straight or
subconvex profile. They have beautiful eyes
and are elegant, with a beautifully arched
neck that carries a “long, profuse and often
wavy mane and tail.” They have strong legs
“with ample bone, broad flexible joints; and
the hoof is well formed, sound and iron hard.
Generally, they are large horses, standing be-
tween 15 to 16.2 hands tall. Grey is the pre-
dominent color “followed by bay and black
which is more rare (also, chestnut).[9] Manes 
and tails are often braided to show the beaut-
ifully arched neck and to keep the mane out
of the way of the reins, and, of course, to
prevent tangling.  [10] Andalusians are men-
tioned in the book and especially during the
battle at Las Nevas de Telosa. Additionally,
the Andalusian is also called, “Spanish
Horse, & Pura Raza Española,” with the
breed originating in Spain’s Iberian Penin-
sula. Throughout most of  history, the 
Andalusian has been known for its
prowess as a war horse. [11]

     Well, I can’t really give you an exact quote from the book because the book, itself, is an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) from NetGalley. An ARC is the NOT final version of the book which may change dramatically, including page numbers and text before publication. Hence, no exact quotes can be given. Nonetheless, what I can do is tell you about a discussion between Galib and Diego (the albéitar  [veterinarian] master is Galib and the apprentice is Diego). In this discussion Galib instructs Diego in the albéitar’s art. So…this is not a direct quote from the book. 

     In the conversation, Galib indicated that he was happy that Diego was dissatisfied with things that weren’t clear to him. Galib begged Diego to never give up on the attitude that he already seemed to have of questioning things. The master said that he was right to try to reason out the cause of an animal’s injury, pain, or death. Galib rubbed Diego’s hair and smiled affectionately. Then Galib said that Diego should also be modest in his work, especially when he didn’t know the answer. Galib concluded that in situations where he didn’t understand, that Diego should then cast his eyes towards heaven. Your god and mine know everything. We are, after all, but a small speck compared to him. And even though we may seek truth, He is pure truth. (Again, these are not the words from the book. You will have to wait for the final version of the book and publication on 04-14-15. I just wanted to share with you one of my favorite sections of the book.) 
Look at this massive horse! It is the French Breton, mentioned
in numerous places in the novel, but here (in the book) is where
you can check out what Diego thinks about these horses, bred
to carry men with armor on their backs and to “…knock down
fences and [literally] walls of men in battle.” I think this
massive horse could do that, don’t you? [12] And what do you see
happening with a whole company of these horses, armored
and mounted by knights in armor and wielding swords, lances,
and morning stars charging at a field of infantry? [13]

      From the opening pages I loved this book. I was immediately drawn into the lives of Diego and his family. Although it felt immediate to me, I was present in a way that compelled me to turn the pages, captivated by the lives of those simple and good people.

   The multiple tragedies that came with the incursion of the Imese- belen warriors virtually had me by my shirt collar and wouldn’t let go. I had to know what happened after the murder of Belinda and Don Marcelo, and the capture of two of his children, Blanca and Es- tela. Reading about them taken to the Imesebelen encamp- ment, the kidnapping of those two girls and their treatment, left me breathless.

    Of course, I was thankful that Diego had escaped, but, as a reader, I groaned when I saw the tragedies he had to bear. Experiencing with the journey to Toledo, along with Diego, had me biting my nails and turning the pages even faster. Oh, my gosh!

Here, in “Scenes From a Slave Market,” we see two white women who have
been captured and are being offered up for sale. There are no girl children here,
but it was a very lucrative trade to obtain girls young so they could be used at
a very young age sexually, as well as to be trained to serve their masters.[14]

   From the introduction and synopsis we know Diego eventually becomes appren- ticed to a the best albéitar [veterin- arian] in the whole of the area –master Galib. We also sense in Diego a great love for horses, and in particular, his “Sabba.” My point, here, is that I had to tell you how much I loved that Gonzalo Giner pulled us into the story of this family. 


Emir of the Almohad Dyn-
asty Yakub al Mansour, with
his bodyguard. Yakub al
Mansour reigned from
1184-1199. [15]

     I also like Giner’s choice to have the person that teaches Diego the art of healing horses be a Muslim. Aside from the wonderful irony, having Diego being forced to deal with Galib is great, since Diego now harbors much resentment against the Muslims and the Imesebelen. Diego, though, learns from Galib that the Muslim religion is like any other, in that there are good Muslims, and not good Muslims, just like there are good Christians and not good Christians. Giner has Diego learn that even Galib hates the actions of the Almohads. Galib pointed out to Diego that it was the Almohads, not peaceful Muslims, that were to blame for the murder of  so many innocents. 

Image: The Hero’s Journey [image only] [16]

     Another compelling technique Giner utilizes in his storytelling is “The Hero’s Journey.” The hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell explained, in a now famous quote from the Introduction of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Undoubtedly, the hero’s journey is at once a technique that helps in creating intimacy and also forces the reader along on the journey where the protagonist grows into something more than he was.

Ender’s Game is the win-
ner of the Nebula and
Hugo Awards. Ender’s
 is a very popular
Hero’s Journey story.[17]

     Since I have extensively written about “The Hero’s Journey” in my blog posts, I will not bore you with another repetition of the material, nor will I unduly add to this post’s length by such repetition. If, however, you would like to read more about the fascinating world of the hero’s journey (in detail), then, one of my posts you might enjoy is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Part 2 ‘Monomyth: The Hero’s Journey]. Simply click on the link, here.

     Part and parcel of the Hero’s Journey is the growth of the hero (protagonist). Diego’s growth has much to do with how he handles his adversity, how he refuses to give up on his dreams, and how he seeks out and finds people to help him. The Hero’s Journey satisfies the longing and desire for our own journey–here, we find it vicariously through our protagonist.

This is one way to tell a horses’ age. [18]

     In the book, the discussion about how you tell the age of a horse by looking at its teeth is spot on. As many of you know, I lived in the country and raised my own horses (see the story, above). The albéitar or today’s veterinarian and anyone who purchases horses, knows how to look at a horse’s teeth to determine its age. 

     Well, here’s the problem. Sabba (Diego’s horse friend) was mature at the beginning of the story, then as the story progresses, some seventeen years, we see Sabba and Diego in the battle of Las Navas de Telosa with Sabba acting like a youthful mare, not one who must be around twenty or twenty-one. An average lifespan of a horse is 25-30 years, so Sabba was fairly old by the time of the battle. No where do we see Giner have Diego address Sabba’s aging or how fit she was in her twilight years. It bothered me that this important aspect of Sabba’s life was not addressed.



    1. Parallel story threads run throughout the novel. I’ve already mentioned The Hero’s Journey and Diego’s growth, above.

     2. The two girls–who grow into womanhood during the length of the book–and their two stories alternate in the book with Diego’s.

     3. The story of the horses, including Sabba, and their importance during this time. The horses touch other themes in the book, for example, Diego’s growth as an albéitar or veterinarian.

    4. Political movements amongst the various countries, monarchs, and leaders, and how common men, such as Galib or Diego, interact with the Kings because they had to keep the monarch’s horses well.

     5. Diego’s motivation: Is Diego running away from the past, or his motivation propelling him towards a goal? Diego seems ashamed he did not live up to his promise to his father, but at the same time, he wants to make right his mistakes. So with this tangled issue, what is Diego’s true motivation?

This is one artist’s conception of the battle at Las Navas de Tolosa. Import-
antly, the artist includes the Imesebelen for the Caliph. [6]

     6. Love and sex: Diego gives into temptation with Galib’s wife, Benezir, and it ruins his relationship with Galib. What about Diego’s lost love with Mencía? Since it was Diego’s choice to leave Mencía, and since he believed it was true love, why did he go? Why did he refuse sex with the woman pur- chased for him (for the night) by Men- cía’s uncle? Did Al-Nasir Love Estela or was his “love” something else, like possession, control, sexual desire, or fascination with her uniqueness (red hair)? Why did he have Estela flogged, leaving her scarred?

     7. Women in the book: Fatima, Benezir, Mencía, Diego’s three sisters (Belinda, Blanca, and Estela), Najla (sister of al-Nasir), and Sancha de Laredo. What do these women have in common? Why does Estela think she must have something in common with Mencía, even though she doesn’t know her? How did women in the Middle Ages survive? What did women, then, have to give up?–think about what each woman had to give up, or what they lost.

     8. Diego loved his horse friend Sabba. At what point in the story did Diego fail Sabba? Was Diego “running away” or was he “running towards” his goal? Did this failure help Diego grow as a young man? Did Diego also fail his standards as an albéitar (veterinarian) in regards to Sabba?


     So many wonderful themes, motifs and issues could be addressed in this book. For example, did Diego “make things right,” and with whom did he make things right, if anyone? How can he ever make right the death of his sister, Belinda? Infidelity with Galib’s wife? Betrayal of his albéitar  (veterinarian) standard to do no harm (which he does with Sabba)?  Others?

     So many delicious things to contemplate in regards to Giner’s novel (and I never even addressed his time at the monastery). If you choose to read this book think about these questions as you go through the novel and see what delightful insights come to you.

     I highly recommend this book to those desiring to be veterinarians, lovers of all things Spanish, history buffs, women who struggle for women’s rights or who want to become more knowledgeable about the past, horse lovers, lovers of large horses, war horses, or modernly dressage horses, those who love healing, etc. Only those readers who are young or of a sensitive nature should consider other themes regarding violence and death, sexuality, enslavement, and descriptions of medical procedures, before they read the book.



     Given all the reasons I have stated, above, I award this wonderful book a rating of 5 stars out of 5 stars.In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, not only for the horses in the story, but also for Diego’s growth, and his desire to be really good at his art. I loved the stories of the women and the courage of them to fight even though it was very costly. Most of all, I love how Gonzalo Giner pulls us into the immediacy of the story, making us feel and walk along side the characters.

     Thank you for joining me this week as we got to look at a very enjoyable book, The Horse Healer: A Novel, by Gonzalo Giner. Please join me next time as we take up a book very different from this one. It is one, I am sure you will enjoy reading about. So…

Until next time….

This flower is a double Rose of Sharon. [21]

…many happy pages of reading.

All my love,


[1] The Horse Healer.” [Gonzalo Giner] Retrieved 04-05-15. 
[2] Black Beauty.”  [Anna Sewell] [image only] Retrieved 04-09-15.
[3] Black Beauty.” [Anna Sewell] [book only] Retrieved 04-05-15.
[4] Arabian.” [sorrel] Retrieved 04-09-15.
[5]Muhammand Al-Nasir.” Retrieved 04-11-15.
[6]Los Imesebelen.” [martes, 8 de julio de 2014.] Retrieved 04-11-15.
[7]Gabinete del albeitar.” Retrieved 04-11-15.
[8] España, entre 1157 y 1212.” Retrieved 04-12-15.
[9] Andalusian Horse.” [by ele6767] Retrieved 04-13-15.
[10] The Traits of the Andalusian.” Retrieved 04-13-15.
[11] Andalusian horse.” Retrieved 04-13-15.
[12] Le Cheval Breton.” Retrieved 04-11-15.
[13] Medieval Times Crusades Knight on Horse Statue in Armor w/ Sword.” [Item Is No Longer Available.] Retrieved 04-13-15.
[14] Scenes From The Slave Market.” [Otto Pilny] Retrieved 04-13-15.
[15] Emir of the Almohad Dynasty…. Retrieved 04-13-15.
[16] Joseph Campbell – The Hero’s Journey.” Retrieved 04-13-15.
[17] Ender’s Game.” Retrieved 04-13-15.
[18] Cowboy Heaven Consulting.” Retrieved 04-14-15.
[19] Run Towards – Not Away.” Retrieved 04-14-15.
[20] Five Stars.” Retrieved 04-14-15.
[21] Pictures From My Garden.” Retrieved 03-29-15.
[*]” Retrieved 04-09-15. 

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