Local nonprofit Square Peg Foundation’s founder Joell Dunlap found inspiration during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order to write her first novel, “A Damn Fine Hand: A Story of Women Riding for Their Lives.” She’s using it to raise money for the organization.

What started as a short story but evolved into a novel examines the connections that racehorse riders have with each other and the relationship they have with their horses. Dunlap herself galloped horses on the track and wanted to take the reader along for the ride, which she describes as “a thrill that changed my life.”

“I really wanted to write about the sensory experience of what it feels like to be on a racehorse that’s flying down the track, and at the same time I was thinking about the power of story,” said Dunlap.

She was specifically influenced by the work of Charles Dickens as he was known to give children a voice in his stories and it influenced how people viewed child labor laws. Similarly, Dunlap was inspired by “Black Beauty,” which gave an animal a voice and how that changed our perception of animals.

“I started playing around with giving a horse a first-person voice and realized that the great thing about horses is that the way their brains are organized they’re only capable of being fully present all the time,” said Dunlap. “We spend so much time and money trying to touch that in a spiritual practice, and here these horses model that all the time. So I wanted to just play around with giving a voice to that.”

The book is available only as an e-book through Gumroad, but if she pursues a hard copy it will be sold at InkSpell, Dunlap said. The book deals with adult subjects and is not suitable for young readers.

All proceeds from “A Damn Fine Hand” go directly to the Square Peg Foundation, which pairs horses in need of another career with children and adults with cognitive and emotional challenges.

“The idea behind (the Square Peg Foundation) is to use people’s intrinsic interest to ignite and nurture curiosity, expression, friendship and communication in a physical and a human environment that is accepting and kind, so that marginalized people and people who know what it’s like to feel like a ‘square peg’ can feel that their difference is what makes them special, not weird or lonely,” said Dunlap.

Square Peg has also partnered with Beach Break Entertainment to host a drive-in movie night fundraiser on Friday, May 7. The movie “Seabiscuit” will be featured. Retired racehorse and local celebrity Paco, or Fighting Furrari, was one of the horses to play Seabiscuit in the 2003 movie and now Paco resides at Square Peg.

A short film, created by film students at Stanford University with footage of equine employees of the Square Peg Foundation, about a day in the life of a therapy horse will be screened prior to “Seabiscuit.”

“We’re all pining for social events, so we wanted to plan something fun and safe,” said Dunlap. “We’re excited for a COVID-safe and family friendly event.”

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