Review by Liz Dexter
Sarah Maslin Nir is a staff reporter for the New York Times who, by her own admission, has sought out horses wherever she’s travelled to write a story. This is how she has been able to include horses from around the US and the world as well as her own stories of her own horses in this fascinating and absorbing (but I’ll quickly say: not upsetting) book.
Each chapter is named after a horse that has been in her life, but they are all celebrated, the stories about them concentrate on their lives and, where they are no longer with us, the fact is smoothed over and not dwelled upon (I know there are other animal lovers out there who worry about such things). Interwoven with these stories of horses owned and visited – and it’s amazing just how many horses one can be given, gratis; I also loved her tales of leasing out horses to pay for their own old age/the upkeep of other horses – is her own story of survivor guilt and feeling out of place in the fancy horse world as the daughter of a man who escaped the Holocaust for a new life in the US in childhood, an over-achiever married to another one, his first crop of sons ignoring their little sister for much of her life. Being the outsider allows her access to different experiences at times, and she still acknowledges her privilege.
While there’s a fascinating chapter of the weird-eared Marwari Horse (look them up and be prepared to be surprised; this is not a horse breed of which I was aware before), a horse which you won’t see outside India as there’s a ban on exporting them, most of the stories in the book centre around American people and their horses – and those horses rather fascinatingly range from little plastic models at actual shows for … little plastic models, to giant work horses used to patrol Central Park. We meet the real Misty of Chincoteague and the horses used on urban farms, to dish-faced Arabs and the ubiquitous racing thoroughbred.
Nir grows up in New York, where you’d expect not to find many horses, but she manages to track them down nonetheless, including at a terrifying-sounding urban stables where the horses are stacked several storeys high with slopes to get between stable and ground. As a reporter, she has a good attention to detail and a power of description which certainly helps when things get peculiar, as well as access to various experiences, such as helping to load horses onto a plane and travel with them, not something I’d considered before.
Moving further afield, one of the most interesting chapters was the one on Black cowboys, who have pretty well been whitewashed out of history and the myth of the West. As with all the other sections, Sarah goes and interviews experts with direct experience, in this chapter Larry Callies, who established a museum of Black cowboys after finding a photograph of them, and William Loren Katz, who has published various histories of the Black West. She’s led to this path of enquiry having worked for an elderly Black couple, the Blairs, who had a stable on Ward Island in New York where they taught children who had never seen a horse about self-worth and hard work. I loved all the links she drew between her early horse-loving experiences and the wider range of people she could access as a reporter for high-end publications.
There are some notable falls described in detail, some difficult horses and some wonderful ones. The author doesn’t gloss over the hard work and money needed to own a horse (even if you’re given it), and even manages to track down the woman who gave her her first horse, now (sorry) running a hunt in the US; Nir does express her reservations about engaging in hunting and mentions it’s banned in the UK, but achieves the ultimate in outsider acceptance while doing it. She tells her story with feeling but with a clear eye, never sentimental and always respectful of the species she’s spent her life with.
The new hardback edition published on 03 September is illustrated, but full disclosure: I haven’t seen the illustrations. Thank you to Simon & Schuster for making this available for me to read through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Liz Dexter has at times been horse crazy and a highlight of her life was riding an Icelandic horse. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Sarah Maslin Nir, Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal (Simon & Schuster, 2020). 978-1501196232, 304 pp., ill. (publ 03 Aug / 03 Sept [ill. ed.] 2020)