The appeal of a book called Horse Crazy risks being limited to those who are. Yet many moments in Sarah Maslin Nir’s restorative memoir will chime with readers indifferent to things horsey. Part love letter, part reportage, it niftily braids together her family history, the history of horses, and the stories of the humans on and around them. The result is a tender and at times funny book about belonging.
Nir grew up between New York City and the tip of Long Island. Her parents — struggling professionals, ‘two doctors seeking to climb a ladder of affluence’ — had bought a Park Avenue apartment for $45,000 and a beach shack in a patch of East Hampton too shabby for swank Manhattanites. Born in Poland in 1930, her psychiatrist father — a Holocaust survivor who had evaded Hitler as a boy — was ‘emphatically a foreigner’. Attuned to his Freudian methods, Nir wonders if her love of riding — ‘the sport of kings and Kennedys, a pursuit dripping with elitism and Americana’ — is a symptom of her urge to be less Jewish, more American.
In fact it was her parents who first plonked her on a horse: she was two, and they were keen for her to sit still. They had no idea that their parenting ploy would spark in her a lifelong obsession. In the decade she’s worked for the New York Times she’s reported from around the world, and wherever she’s gone she’s sought out horses.
Her equine encounters are recorded with an immediacy that makes us feel like we’re standing by her side — or sitting with her in a kayak. She describes in painterly detail the feral ponies of Assateague Island swimming across a saltwater channel, the tiny foals with ‘trumpet noses and peach fuzz manes’ paddling alongside their dams. Historical details often serve as cliffhangers. Take the time Nir goes for a gallop with an army officer in India: before we hear that she made it safely to the green-marble ravine, we learn about Eadweard Muybridge, the man who figured out how a horse gallops and in doing so invented the motion picture.
Nir has a journalist’s knack for inserting herself into a story: ‘I was there to understand the industry of horse-importing’, she writes of an assignment at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. A moment later, notepad and pen in pocket, she’s leading a Dutch warmblood up a ramp into a steel box that’s then winched up by a forklift and slid into the belly of a Boeing 747. When she discovers horses and their humans in unexpected places, Nir feels less out of place herself.
Compelling and curious characters abound, including the model-horse collectors who travel across America competing with their playthings. Nir herself had a stable of 65 Breyers: ‘I knew as a little girl that horses were beyond the reach of my striving family. Fortunately plastic horses then cost 26 dollars.’ But even she struggles to understand this particular subvariety of horsiness. The real stars of Nir’s show are living quadrupeds — from Billy, a Norwegian Fjord horse with a trot-on part in Aida (the favourite opera of Nir and her father) to Willow, the bargain-rack thoroughbred who one day torpedoed to the ground with Nir on top.
Her life with horses has induced a kind of survivor’s guilt: ‘Even writing intermingled paragraphs about ponies and Nazis feels off.’ It doesn’t feel off to the reader. Six weeks after that tumble with the thoroughbred, and against her doctor’s advice, Nir climbed back into the saddle and won second place at a show. She was nowhere to be found when the rosettes were being handed out, so her elderly father strode into the winners’ circle, turned to the judge and exclaimed: ‘I defeated Hitler!’Nir writes: ‘He didn’t feel like an outsider, he felt like a champion.’ Her book might just make others feel the same.