Understanding the unmatched thrill of horseflesh is the holy grail of Sarah Maslin Nir’s memoir, “Horse Crazy.” In just under 300 pages, the New York Times reporter relates her life in horse stories and takes readers on a delightful tour of equine history.
The pounding pulse of the book is the author’s determination to share the deep love that animates life for a horse enthusiast.
“All this time, I never asked myself why I love horses,” Nir writes. “That’s because the answer has always been because horses. It’s a response that anybody who has ever felt the ineluctable tug of their big amber eyes, in which you see something much more than your own reflection, or who knows the peace of their breathing, and the shattering wildness of their gallop, immediately understands.”
Nir writes for those who know, but she also ropes in a broader audience by bringing humor, sensitivity and journalistic fervor to horse culture — American, mostly, although not solely. In a delicious chapter that includes an encounter with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, and an aside about Eadweard Muybridge, whose motion photography updated our understanding of how horses gallop, the author also spirits us to India. There, she meets and rides the native mount, a Marwari horse, distinctive for its inward-curving ears.
To her credit, Nir understands that the question of why people love horses has as many answers as there are horse enthusiasts. To explain her own passion, she tells us not only about the horses she has loved but also about herself as a writer, rider and family member. She is the only daughter of a psychiatrist father — a Polish Holocaust survivor — and a psychologist mother. She was raised in a Park Avenue apartment and an East Hampton beach house, and attended Brearley, a private school where she felt isolated by her Jewishness and the shadow of the Holocaust that clung to the family’s identity.
She could feel apart among kin, too. Two of her three brothers were products of her father’s previous marriage, and Nir writes of the pain that came from feeling distant from them. “The truth is that to them, I was an invader, my existence imbued with the heartbreak of their own family that fell apart.”
Over and over, her identity as a horse person has delivered her from life’s anguishes, including a terrifying knife attack.
The details of some of these difficult experiences feel like the least natural parts of the book. While they provide a glimpse into the healing power of horse love, in several instances they also subject secondary characters to judgment that feels incompletely earned. I felt as if I was getting both too much information and too little about some of the more painful interpersonal conflicts.
On the other hand, Nir is fully persuasive and entertaining when describing a particular horse or a memorable riding experience. There’s the time, at age 2, that she falls off the first horse she’s ever ridden; the unlikely discovery of a horse stable in the middle of New York City; the feeling of a horse “slurping” her hair.
I love her description of her horse Trendsetter as “profoundly — pathologically, perhaps — disinclined to expend energy. At home in the barn I keep him at in Whitehouse, New Jersey, rather than spend hours strolling his paddock, something most horses enjoy, he regularly sidles up to the four-foot fence around his pasture and jumps it from a standstill. He then laboriously walks into the barn, straight to his stall, and attempts to put himself in for the night. He is an indoor cat of a horse. He is so keen to stay inside and potted-plant still that I call him my ficus.”
Yet the ficus went out of his way one day to fling himself sideways during a fall to avoid landing on his owner, saving her life.
I was completely charmed and stunned by a chapter on Breyer, the gold standard of plastic model horses. Before my cousin owned her first real mount back in the ’70s, she displayed shelf upon envy-inducing shelf of Breyers in standing, prancing and rearing poses. As Nir explains, for many a horse-loving child, Breyers were the next best thing to a live horse. It remains true today. In 1990, collector enthusiasm birthed BreyerFest, an annual event for showing, selling and judging the toys. Nir’s journalistic journey into the subculture of adult collectors is poignant and illuminating.
She also trains her sights on the racial divisions around horses and our whitewashing of cowboy culture. Spaghetti westerns notwithstanding, Black cowboys were, in fact, a big part of the West. She cites historical data that shows 1 in 4 pioneer cowboys were Black during the late 19th century.
“Horse Crazy” is, among other things, a reliable survey of the ways we have invested in, exploited and befriended these beautiful beasts. The book probably can’t make a reader who doesn’t “get it” feel the human infatuation with horseflesh. For everyone else, it is a reminder that horses go a long way in making planet Earth a nicer place to be.
The Story of a Woman and a World in Love With an Animal
By Sarah Maslin Nir. Simon & Schuster.
292 pp. $28