The unique relationship between people and horses (Manhattan and East Hampton, Long Island, and elsewhere in the US and other countries; late 70s to present-day): “Horses are the perfect foil, partner, and complement to humankind,” says Sarah Maslin Nir, an award-winning investigative journalist for The New York Times. “Horses are freedom,” she explains intimately, describing the magnitude of why horses have meant so much to her. At the heart and soul of her being horse crazy.
“After I file each story, I do one thing before I head home: I search for horses. The rider in me wants to gaze at them, stroke them, gallop with them, but the reporter in me has only one goal: to know their stories.”
That’s what Nir does in her engaging and heartfelt memoir Horse Crazy: tell their stories. Chapters are “named after a horse who told me its story or helped me write my own.” Her memoir, though, is not a collection of separate stories, rather, they form a picture of a passionate, dedicated, hardworking thirty-seven-year-old seasoned reporter whose life has been infinitely buoyed by the horses she’s ridden, cared for, leased, trained, owned, and met.
Each story is interesting, informative, eloquent. Some are especially poignant; others reveal little-known facts and history; and some are eye-opening and cringe-worthy, like the unethical and cruel practices of the $25 billion horse-racing world. Going beyond the personal, Nir takes us inside the larger world of horses, often told through the lens of an animal rights activist.
You may know of Nir through her groundbreaking, investigative series that unearthed the “rampant exploitation” of Asian manicurists in NYC’s nail salon industry. A finalist for the Pulitzer-Prize because of it, her reporting changed lives through legislation.
The most unexpected and gripping story cannot be told in one chapter. On nearly every page, in one way or another, you feel its presence, absence, influence. This is Nir’s famous father’s story, Yehuda Nir, a Holocaust survivor. The extent his story impacted her feelings about horses is memorable.
Yehuda Nir was so busy and sought-after as the head of Child Psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, his daughter couldn’t spend nearly enough time with him. A child psychiatrist, Jewish and born in Poland, he passed away five years ago. His memoir, The Lost Childhood, is apparently used to teach high school students about the victimization of Jews during WWII. When the war ended, it was a horse-drawn carriage that carried him (and some of his family; his father was executed) to freedom. He turned his trauma into something good: treating seriously ill children (and their overwhelmed parents) for post-traumatic stress disorder before it was called that.
Nir’s mother, Bonnie Maslin, wasn’t at home much either, notably during a formative period in her life. A school psychologist, she frequently appeared on talk shows like Phil Donahue’s and Oprah, discussing self-help topics about families and marriages she wrote four books on, along with her husband. In many chapters, especially this chapter in her life, you can feel Nir’s loneliness when she tells us she saw her mother more on the TV screen than in real life.
Describing her childhood as “outsourced to nannies,” the author felt very much an outsider (like her father did), including at an exclusive Upper East Side private school in NYC, where she managed to find horses in surprising places. She didn’t feel she belonged anywhere until horses came into her life, filling her needs for companionship and a place for herself that brought her peace and freedom.
Given both Nir’s parents were psychologically trained, she takes a psychological perspective analyzing why she loves horses SO much. Sometimes feeling “deep survivor’s guilt” for discovering the horse world compared to the “atrocities” her father dealt with.
An important influence on her life was her nanny Beverly, who came from Jamaica and worked hard to achieve the American Dream. Internalizing that meant Nir “felt the importance of untold stories of everyday heroism that shaped our lives.”
Thanks to Beverly, Nir spent countless hours at the American Museum of Natural History, among “seventy-thousand horses . . . iterations of their ancestors galloping backward through 50 million years of time.” Aspects of her museum education are here: the “Dawn Horse,” “the modern horse,” horses painted in cave dwellings in France; the dependence of indigenous Native tribes on horses.
Guernsey is the first horse chapter, because this horse was the first Nir sat on when she was two. Undeterred when she fell off of it, the experience was pivotal. Amigo was the first horse Nir owned, at twelve. (She’s owned five.)
A chapter named Breyers is a collector’s craze you probably haven’t heard of, unless you’re an obsessed horse lover who cannot afford a real one, or a young child who plays with plastic toy horses. The company that makes them has been around since the ’50s, the Breyer Molding Company. Sometime later they created Breyers Animal Creations. It wasn’t until 1989 that they launched BreyerFest, “the Lollapoolza of the model horse world,” bringing collectors to Lexington, Kentucky, as if it were the Kentucky Derby! What makes this annual event crazy is it’s for adults not just starry-eyed children. Last year, Nir reports, 30,000 competitors came to the Fest; and “over a million Breyer model horses are sold each year.”
The Misty chapter is named after the legendary round-up of wild ponies on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague is based on. In Nir’s animal activist’s eyes, you’ll see this annual tradition quite differently than publicized.
Billy is a performance horse she met at the annual Viennese Opera Ball held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. If you’re wondering how horses could make their way to the ballroom, Nir entertains us with that history. Master David is the horse her oldest brother owned for a brief time trying to make it big in thoroughbred racing. The story brings out how age differences (twenty-four in this case) contribute to the lack of closeness and common interests between siblings, how you can still feel very much alone in a larger family. It also brings out the mistreatment of horses for big money. There’s another chapter about a race horse, Willow, in which Nir’s connection to him runs deep. He was the horse she jumped to championship victory. Also the horse that injured her so badly she was told she could never ride again. “Willow was the seat of my highest equestrian glory and my lowest low.” Nir’s a fighter who gets back on horses, since “everything looks better on a horse.”
There’s also Snowman, Shader, Samson, Adonis, Trendy, Tango. Guide horses, therapy horses, Belgian draft workhorses, and a “rare” native breed from India, the Marwari, heavily protected. The timeliest story is about a black cowboy from Texas, another example of racism in America, this one involving horses:
“Historians and Hollywood have erased black cowboys from their rightful place among the sunset and the sagebrush and the Western vistas of our mind.”
Horse Crazy is not just for horse-lovers. It’s for anyone who has a heart.