Sarah Maslin Nir, HORSE CRAZY

Sarah Maslin Nir, HORSE CRAZY

With the Hampton Classic horse show around the corner, New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir’s debut memoir, Horse Crazy, is more timely than ever. As she traveled the world for work, Sarah secretly documented the history of horses in each region, satisfying a lifelong obsession while also developing her own personal narrative. From growing up as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor to working for the founder of The Black Cowboy Museum and meeting a woman whose own horse obsession led her to nefarious deeds, Sarah’s story is as complex and riveting as the animals she loves.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Horse Crazy.

Sarah Maslin Nir: Thank you for having me, your first in-person.

Zibby: My first in-person. I’m a little nervous about it. I’m like, what do we do?

Sarah: Live humans interacting sitting next to each other.

Zibby: Live humans. An actual person in front of me. You can watch me shuffle through and hear my dog. As you know, I loved your book, loved, loved. Could not put it down, read every word, just obsessed with the way you write and what you were writing about. I just loved it. There was a poetic quality to how you write. The sentences were really beautiful. It didn’t even matter what was happening. It was how you were writing about it. Then what was going on was also really interesting. I didn’t say that very well. Why don’t you tell listeners what Horse Crazy is about and why you wrote this memoir?

Sarah: It really gratifies me to hear that you like the lyricalness of the writing. I am a reporter for The New York Times. As a journalist, you’re not exactly allowed to have a flourish with your pen. It’s the facts. Get it right. Get it straight. Writing reported nonfiction that became memoiristic enabled me to have fun with my pen and feed my literary self that I’ve bottled up for so long. Thank you for clocking onto that. To answer your question, I’m a reporter for The New York Times. I have been there for a decade. I actually started out as the party reporter. I did 252 parties in eighteen months. Then I moved on to be a breaking news reporter and investigative reporter. I’ve actually traveled all over the world for The Times serving briefly in West Africa and in Haiti. Everywhere I went, when I finished my article, I’d put down one notebook and I whip out another, just my own, and I’d go find the horses. In finding the horses, you always find the stories behind them. Those stories are people. I realized I’d been writing this book for years just by dint of my own personal obsession. Horse Crazy, I like to say, isn’t a book about horses. It’s a book about obsession, a reported look at what makes us obsessed. It just so happens that my focus is these wonderful creatures. I found people all over the world just like me. I actually pitched the story to Simon & Schuster, who published it as a compendium, like an almanac of these animals all over the world and people who love them. I ended it, “This isn’t my story. This is the story the horses have told me.” They pushed back. They said, “Actually, we think it is your story.” Then that became the narrative through line, is my own personal journey with how horses have saved me and healed me being the glue that holds it together.

Zibby: Wow, so I shouldn’t have even called it a memoir because it’s not exactly a memoir.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s a journey through obsession turning my reportorial lens on myself. Yikes, as a reporter, you don’t ever use the word I or me in anything I write. It’s forbidden. That was the hardest part of this book.

Zibby: That’s why it was structured with a horse for each chapter? Was that from your original proposal?

Sarah: Yes, exactly. They were sort of an almanac of these animals. They were like, “No, no, no, it’s an almanac of you and exploring your own obsession.” I should say, I have always kept my passion for horses totally secret until the last two years. I cover really, really challenging corners of the world. I did a large investigation into — for example, if people know my work, it’s usually into New York City nail salons, a big exposé on the labor exploitations and health effects manicurists face that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Zibby: I remember that. That was amazing.

Sarah: Thank you. I was worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a New York Times reporter if I revealed that so much of my heart and soul was caught up with ponies. I was speaking to a friend who’s a book author. He said, “What do you want to write about?” I said, “Actually, horses.” He said, “Sarah, the only thing that matters is passion. Passion translates. It’s a universalize-able thing. It doesn’t matter the subject. That’s what readers want to hear.” I think that’s kind of the theme of your podcast, right? There’s such variety and so many stories, but passion translates. That inspired me to come out as a horse girl.

Zibby: Wow, but why were you embarrassed about it?

Sarah: I just thought that it was soft. Perhaps that is a little bit of the misogyny that’s tied up with horse sport that I talk about in the book. It’s this thing that is a focus of women. At least in North America, it is really predominantly female, the hunter/jumper world that I’m in. It’s seen as cushy, as a light thing even though it’s extremely — I’ve broken my vertebrate several times. I asked you when we sat down for this conversation if I could have a pillow because I’m in constant pain. It’s as extreme as hang gliding or mountaineering, piloting an animal at velocity, but it’s minimized, I think because of the feminine connotation. I had minimized it in my own way.

Zibby: It doesn’t sound feminine as you were bareback riding in all these foreign countries. I can’t even remember. It’s crazy, the stuff you were doing, the galloping scene where you’re taking off to the — whoa, it’s a lot, and all the times you fell. You’re not even riding. You’re like on one of those things that come in bars, you know, the rodeo thing that throws the —

Sarah: — Oh, yeah, that just buck you off.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s like you in this story. You’re just constantly —

Sarah: — It becomes such a great objective correlative for life. Falling off is part of riding. It’s not a failure of riding. It is part of the journey. I say to fall off is to ride and to get back on is to live. In that way, examining my own passion for these horses — why am I so obsessed when I’ve broken myself so many times? I’m not that good, but I’m addicted. To understand that was the journey of the book.

Zibby: You had this passage early on about what appealed to you so much. This is how you described the riding and what it was about it. You said, “It was all so hopelessly decadent, but we were naïve to the image we cut, prancing on horseback to do our lunch and shopping in the fanciest town in America. We picked blackberries from horseback on the way home, and dismounting back at the barn, we ate hunks of bread and cheese in the shade with Amigo tearing grass beside us in silence. It was a decade before cell phones and we don’t have a single picture to document our ritual, and I’m glad for it. We were so present. I can still smell the grass, the brine of horse sweat, the sticky mint on my palm. Best of all, it was a world away from the high pressures of high school and my higher-pressure parents and the whizzing, buzzing city that enveloped us and kept us far from horses most of the year. It was the only world that felt my own.” It’s so nice.

Sarah: Thank you. I really examine in the book, why was I so committed to this world? I’m the daughter of an immigrant, a Holocaust survivor, a Jew from New York City, truly out of place in this elite, Waspy world of Jackie Kennedy and cashmere and , so I felt. I think my obsession was about passing, about belonging. My father had masqueraded under several different identities as a Catholic in order to survive persecution by the Germans during the Holocaust. Here I was really shoehorning myself into this world trying to pass in another way. I really unpacked that my parents were psychologists and psychiatrists. Of course, I’m screwed up, and I got to dig into that. In the book, I talk a lot about identity. What makes you belong? What makes something your own? I would say to Dad, “Dad, this isn’t our world. This is Ralph Lauren’s world of cashmere and .” He’d say, “Sarah, not Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lifshitz. Ralph Lauren’s original name is Ralph Lifshitz. He’s a Jew from New York just like me.” That spoke to me about, identity is what you make it and what you define of it. You can choose it and create it yourself. If I can go on —

Zibby: — Please. This is your show. Go for it.

Sarah: Well, I could talk about horses endlessly. I ended up working for a black cowboy in Harlem as a teenage girl. I didn’t know that one in four cowboys were black in the American West in the pioneer era. They have been totally erased from the American origin narrative. Even though I’m not cowboy stock, somehow, that’s all of our origin narrative. It makes us wild and free. They’ve been removed. You never see them under a Stetson on the silver screen. The Marlboro man is white, white, white. Yet the West was integrated. I didn’t know anything about black cowboys until I worked for this gentleman in Harlem. In the black cowboy’s erasure from the American story, I saw a parallel to my own people’s almost literal erasure from this planet. I ended up riding with the black cowboys in Harlem, the founder of The Black Cowboy Museum who’s a postman who spent his life savings to recreate a space for this community in the horse world. It’s just a weird journey that horses took me on, but really, a journey into finding myself.

Zibby: I loved when you were doing that riding in Harlem, how you asked why you — you were required — not required. The owner of the barn wanted you to ride in front of the kids who would come in on field trips. You felt bad about it. You were like, “Why don’t they ride? What’s the point of this whole thing?” He told you, “The point is not to teach them to ride. It’s to teach them to dream.” That was so awesome. It gave me chills.

Sarah: I’ve heard that story myself a million times because it’s my story, and I have chills sitting here. Look at my chills, Zibby. Chills. I said to him, to Dr. Blair, I said, “We have these inner-city children coming to pet these horses at the New York City Riding Academy,” as we called it. “We don’t teach them any riding. What are we teaching them?” He said, “We’re teaching them that they’re part of the American story, that there is a different world out there from the one they feel is inevitable laid out before them in the ghettos and in the poorest tracks of the city. We’re teaching them to dream.” I’ll never forget that sentence as long as I live.

Zibby: That was really inspiring. With any obsession, I feel like obsession has a negative connotation. I wouldn’t have described this book as a book of obsession, so I’m interested that that’s how you saw it. That sounds bad to me, like I’m trying to quit or it has a hold on you that’s bad as opposed to a passion, which is something you’re really into and it’s a great thing. Obsession, to me, sounds like Glenn Close in Basic Instinct. Not Basic Instinct. What am I talking about? Fatal Attraction where it’s an uncontrolled, negative thing.

Sarah: First of all, I’m obsessed with your podcast, so I think it’s a positive.

Zibby: In that reference, you can keep that one.

Sarah: Think about it. I have deeply injured myself. An X-ray technician looked at my spine once and said, “That was almost a game-ender.” Is the obsession healthy? Oftentimes, I have felt unworthy when I can’t achieve in this incredibly demanding sport. Maybe there is a negative side of obsession, but obsession is also a driver. Obsession with achievement, obsession with a passion can be a tremendous, positive flame under your tail that sets you going. Maybe I don’t mean obsession negatively, but I also accept the negative sides of this obsession. I’ll tell you a really interesting story from the book, is about horse crazies, which is a word of honor to me — also, crazy can be negative, but I wear it with a badge of honor — who are obsessed with plastic horses.

Zibby: I — no, I’m sorry. You go ahead.

Sarah: No, no, ask away.

Zibby: I was going to say, after I read that was when I was pulling out all of my late mother-in-law’s stuff from the basement. I pulled out all of my sister-in-law Stephanie’s stuff because her mom had been holding it all. Long way to say, as I was saying before, I pulled out all her horse-riding ribbons. She was a huge horseback rider. Then I pulled out a whole crate of those horses, the plastic horses. I was like, this is exactly — it was so crazy. I just read that upstairs, put my book down, and then there it was.

Sarah: They’re haunting you.

Zibby: They are. I know. I was like, this is a cosmic something.

Sarah: For the people who don’t know, they’re 1:9 scale models of horses, hyper-realistic. They’re children’s playthings, which is why you found them in a box packed away. However, there is a tremendous community of adults who take them around the country and compete them. Competing is not like making dioramas with them or decorating. It’s literally store-bought models against store-bought models. Then for criteria I can’t understand, the best one wins. Just so you understand the scale, they have a Lollapalooza called Briarfest in Kentucky every year where the derby is. Thirty thousand people show up. Thirty thousand people are into this. I came to a convention, a smaller one, a model horse show, totally skeptical thinking, who are these wackados who are doing this? in full honesty, really violating the journalistic tenets of being open and absorbing. I left inspired by them. Here was this community of people who, unlike me, are not thinking about what the world thinks about them. They were engaged in unmitigated play. We lose play. Your show is about moms. How often do moms wish they could just play with the same abandon of their children? We lose it. Here were people holding onto it tightly. I would deem them just as much horse people, even if they’ve never pet a real one that’s not made of plastic acetate, as I am because they see the whimsy and joy in it just as I do.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit more about the pain. You have had so many injuries, the back and what you were just discussing. I know it’s an obsession, but still. You had one line in here, too, that was like, I know that I keep hurting myself, but I’m not going to stop anyway. I felt like this was a cautionary line. Is there some part of you that wants someone to be like, maybe you should take it easy? Do you know what I mean? What’s this about?

Sarah: That’s so interesting. I’ve never been asked that. That’s an excellent question. I have to think hard about it. Again, my parents being therapists, there has to be a deeper reason. There is. The calculus of how important this is to me is apparently something I’m willing to die for. I feel that way about my job for The New York Times. I’ve gone into very dangerous terrorist kidnapping zones in Benin in West Africa. At moments, I thought, this is your workplace. I thought, you know what, you are willing to die for this. I don’t think you want to be reckless for it, but there is something about the importance of these two things in my life that I am willing to risk it all. Horse Crazy is a journey into understanding what is so compelling about this. It has to be more than their big amber eyes and the way they feel when I rest my cheek on their flank. I think there is. I wanted to examine that in other people. There are women in this book who gallop away from shattering marriages. Actually, the cover of the book is a rare Indian Marwari horse. You’ve read about it. For people who haven’t read, they’re just like regular horses except they have a delightful addition, which is curly Q ears on the top of their head. I became totally smitten with them when I rode them in India. I was like, I have to have a Marwari. It turns out you can’t. They’re banned for export by the Indian government that considers them a rare commodity and wants to protect them, but there’s one lady on Martha’s Vineyard who has like a dozen of them. I called her up. I was like, “How do you have a dozen of these?” She’s a very decadent bitch. She’s like, “Come to my farm. You’ll see. Come. I’ll see you this weekend.” All right.

So I show up on her farm, Francesca Kelly. We swam with the horses. We galloped with these wild Indian horses. She told me how she’s been the steward of them going back to India for twenty years — she’s a British socialite — to cultivate the breed and support them in their country. She got a couple out before the ban. Then it locked down. I said to her, “Francesca, great story. Thank you for the weekend. The ban was in the nineties or something. How come there’s a two-year-old here? How is there a four-year-old horse?” She looked up at me from her floor of her mansion in Martha’s Vineyard. She said, “Sarah, you come up with tremendous adventure when you’re engaged in tremendous duplicity.” I was like, what the hell? It turns out she’s been smuggling their semen on Air India flights in her pockets, rare Indian horse semen, and building this illicit herd. Then, as you asked, why are you willing to go to these lengths for these animals? That’s risking a lot. There has to be more to it. I said to her — I often say this. The sum total of my job description, and yours too, is the question, why? That’s it. If you wanted to answer what a journalist’s life is, why? She’d given me the what, the horses. She’d given me the how, the smuggling, but no why. Why you, Francesca Kelly? Why are you the steward of these horses for twenty years going back after this initial safari ride that made you fall in love with them? She went on a ride with her husband. It turns out she’s been going back, yes, to cultivate the horses, but to have a steamy love affair with the safari guide from that initial ride she went on twenty years ago. Their love affair has spanned both their marriages and destroyed hearts. She said, “Sarah, yes, horses are the story, but are they ever the whole story?” I feel like saying that to you. Yes, Zibby, horses, they’re the story, but are they ever the whole story? That’s the Horse Crazy journey in the book.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. On top of traveling everywhere for The New York Times and doing all of that work, you have your little notebook on the side where you took notes, but when did you write the whole book? What was that process like? How long did that whole thing take you? How did you integrate it with the rest of your busy life and all of that?

Sarah: Really interestingly, I think I have been writing this book my whole life as a narrative alongside my own work. When I have a particularly harrowing phone call to make to someone who’s just lost a loved one in a tragedy for The Times, which I do periodically and is very, very challenging, I pull up a video of a horse galloping on my screen. I just look at that while I make these really painful calls. That’s almost an analogy for how horses and their story have always been a through line in my life. This was quite easy to write because I’ve always been living that story, and much easier than the journalism I do, though it’s deeply journalistic. There’s a lot of reporting into how horses’ saliva works. I went flying with importing horses in the belly of a 747 with nine Dutch Warmbloods to understand the importing business and a lot of that. Horses have been a story, almost like a musical note that’s been humming in the back of my head, so it just came out.

Zibby: All right, awesome.

Sarah: That’s not how it works with the stuff I do for The Times. I’m slamming my head on the desk slaving over it. This just trotted out, to be corny.

Zibby: Funny, ha ha.

Sarah: Not funny.

Zibby: Funny, not funny. I’ll give you a ha ha. Do you love what you do at The Times? It sounds like you love doing this.

Sarah: Oh, I love what I do at The Times.

Zibby: You love both.

Sarah: Yeah. I can’t believe there exists a job where you can be a professional busybody. I get to ask people about their deepest, darkest things and get in people’s face and be like, tell me about you. I need to know everything about you. I’m allowed to ask. That’s just so delightful. That’s what I would do anyway. It’s like a cocktail party on steroids. That’s my life. It’s really fascinating.

Zibby: I know, I’m almost sad that cocktail parties are going to come back because I really enjoyed have thirty minutes to get to the innermost secrets of everybody I talk to. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it. Every conversation will be like an interview.

Sarah: I don’t have shallow conversations. It could be draining, but to be able to do for a profession — a lovely man who passed away who worked at The Times, Charlie Delafuente, as his retirement party, twenty-nine years, he said, “I wanted to say this for twenty-nine years, so I’m going to say it now. I can’t believe you’ve been paying me for twenty-nine years for what I would’ve done for free.” That’s how I feel about working at The Times. Don’t tell them. They can keep paying me.

Zibby: Don’t listen. Log off. Log off. So what next for you in life? You have this amazing book out. You’re busy as a reporter or journalist or whatever you want to call it.

Sarah: Both.

Zibby: Both. Where do you see things going?

Sarah: So much, Zibby. I actually love that we’re doing this now because I just signed a couple new developments. I think I’m allowed to talk about it, but I just will anyway. I have a children’s book series coming out with Abrams on horses, so sort of taking the journeys from this book and making them middle grade. They’re actually going to be told from the horses’ perspective, which will be really fun.

Zibby: I love that.

Sarah: I’ve never done any fiction, so that’s going to be really exciting. Talk about letting your pen fly. I also am working on an investigative documentary series on the horse world that is just getting underway.

Zibby: That is cool.

Sarah: The horse media moguldom, I’m trying for. I just got to corner more horse markets and more different venues.

Zibby: I love that. Now you need a children’s book, like younger.

Sarah: Oh, yeah, kids, like really little ones?

Zibby: Really little ones, just because I have a few.

Sarah: Do they like horses? Great, I have three sold already, then.

Zibby: Yeah, pre-sell. Your pre-orders are taken care of.

Sarah: It’s really amazing to align all your passions. If you had told twelve-year-old me that I would be writing about horses and making movies about horses, she would’ve just punched you in the nose and been like, liar, this is what you do on the side. This is your private dream. Now it’s becoming my life.

Zibby: That’s so great. Having ridden, ha ha, through this journey with you —

Sarah: — Wait, hold on. Ha ha. Payback.

Zibby: All right, I deserved that. It’s really satisfying to see what’s coming out of it all because it obviously comes from such a pure place of passion and interest and, really, respect for the animals. The way you talk about horses, I haven’t heard anybody else talk about them. I feel like I’ve learned new things about them. I used to ride a little bit as a kid or whatever like most — I shouldn’t say like most people. A lot of people I grew up with, every so often, we would — it was on the thing with the ice skating and something you tried.

Sarah: It’s a girl thing.

Zibby: I’m no more horse person than the next person. All to say, after this book, though, I felt very differently. All of a sudden, by the way, I posted about this book and then I got like five pitches about other books about horses. I was like, no, no, no, it’s not that I want to read more about horses. It just made me rethink of them, think of them in a new way, in a deeper way knowing the history of them. It was just really cool from an intellectual exercise perspective.

Sarah: I’m really honored by you saying that because that was my goal in writing. I didn’t want to write to preach to the converted. I say in the beginning of the book, when anyone asks me, why do I love horses? I say, because horses. That’s just an answer that every horse person understands. It’s not a book just for horse people. It’s a book for anyone who’s ever wanted to understand passion. You being able to derive that from it and go on a literary, intellectual journey with it is my whole goal. Thank you for achieving it for me.

Zibby: Oh, great. Boom, off the list. There was so much, though, also about your dad, and about your mom too, but really, the relationship between you and your dad and his inherited trauma and Judaism. There was so much. The way that everything came full circle at the end with the hunt, oh, my gosh, you just tied it up with such a nice bow.

Sarah: I always joke that people are going to get this book and be like, why is there so much Hitler in this book about horses? I had a lot of self-consciousness writing those threads. I come to terms with it in the book. I say, braided together, those are threads of my life. I have to tell my truth and show that tapestry. With a father who had, really, his life forged in the fulcrum of war, I felt deep self-consciousness just of having a comfortable life. How are you allowed to be okay? How are you allowed to have a problem with your pony when your father had such atomistic problems as survival? My father would say, “Never envy me my trauma. I envy you were spared your own.” It really made me realize that we’re all on our own journeys. Putting those different threads together, I had a really extreme self-consciousness about writing it, just as anybody who’s the product of intergenerational trauma has a shame about living a happy life. How are you allowed this? How are you allowed this victory?

My father saw riding horses as one giant victory lap spitting in the eye of the forces that tried to wipe us out. Actually, I’ll just tell one quick story that you read in the book. One year, I competed in a very tony horse show, the Hampton Classic, the crème de la crème. I was about fourteen, sixteen. I can’t remember. I was sure I was garbage. I had a deep sense of unworthiness inserting myself in this world. I put my horse away. I went to find funnel cake. I’m there for the cake. My dad, this elderly Holocaust survivor who knew nothing about horses, waited all day long at the ringside burning in the sun. When they called the winners of sixty or so horses, I had won second place. The horses, as you know, trot in for a victory lap. They go into the winner’s circle. There in the line of gallant steeds is my little old dad because I’m nowhere to be seen. He puts that second-place ribbon on his chest. He turned to the judge and he said, “I defeated Hitler.” I got it. It’s the craziest thing, but I got it. Maybe that’s part of what drove me to this obsession, continuing the victory lap.

Zibby: I love that. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sarah: For aspiring authors, write, write, write, but I don’t mean write and sit down with a pen and make it beautiful. I was just saying this to someone. Actually, I was interviewing a veteran who has extreme post-traumatic stress disorder. That prevents her from doing so much, and from writing, but she has a story to tell. I said, “Anytime you think of a thread of a story, pop your iPhone on a recorder. Make a voice memo. Just go.” To me, that’s writing. That’s just storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or punctuated. Start getting your story out even if it’s just to your little recording device. That’s the first step. So many times, we stop ourselves before that with, I’m not good enough. It could never be me. It’s someone else. My dad had a motto. I will leave your listeners with this. It was, let them say no first before I tell myself no. I just love that. It’s guided my entire life. Let them say no first. Don’t do the work for them. Try, and let them say no first. Chances are they’ll say yes.

Zibby: Love it. Wow, I feel like your dad just came in with his two cents.

Sarah: Little Yehuda.

Zibby: A little fly-by.

Sarah: Fly-by Yehuda-ing, I love that.

Zibby: Sarah, thank you so much. Thanks for this experience of reading this book and getting to chat with you. I’m so excited for all the things you have coming up. It’s really awesome.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m excited for the things you have coming up, and more in-person stuff. Should we touch hands?

Zibby: I don’t know.

Sarah: Look. A real person.

Zibby: In person. Thank you.

Sarah Maslin Nir, HORSE CRAZY

HORSE CRAZY by Sarah Maslin Nir

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