Sarah Maslin Nir is a New York Times staff reporter, whose job has taken her to wild-fire ravaged California and post-earthquake Haiti. But she’s also always been a secret horse girl who has collected the stories of horses at different places her work has taken her. It’s that latter part that prompted her to write Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal, which was published in early August.
In our podcast conversation, Sarah describes her book as “a reported look at obsession”—the world’s obsession with horses as well as her own. Through solid reporting, Sarah allows readers to live vicariously through her first-hand exploration into lesser-known corners of the horse world. These include the long-buried legacy of black American cowboys, the “stinking adorable” but powerful Marwari horse of India and an up-close look of how imported warmbloods adjust to cabin pressure as they’re flown across the ocean in a 747. Woven throughout these stories and more, are personal anecdotes and reflections of how she fed her horse fix growing up in Manhattan to non-horsey parents. Each chapter is named after horses who have influenced her, both in general (think Misty of Chincoteague) and up close.
To give you more about Sarah’s life as a Times reporter, she was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for “Unvarnished,” her investigation into New York City’s nail-salon industry. Before becoming a staff reporter in 2011, she freelanced for the paper, reporting from places like West Africa and the Alaskan wilderness. Sarah graduated from Columbia University and earned a master’s at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. As for her current horse life, she owns three horses and competes in the Adult Amateur Hunter. Appropriately, when she and I spoke over the phone in July, she was at a New Jersey competition with Stellar.
You can listen to the full-interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, here’s a snippet of our conversation.
Q: Do you have a favorite chapter or section of the book?
SMN: One of my favorite chapters is called Swamper. It is about the erased history of the black Cowboy from the American narrative. One in four cowboys in the American west were actually black and the writers of our narratives as a country were white and they didn’t include these people. And so I sought out black cowboys around the country who are trying to reinsert themselves in the national story where they belong, and that was really meaningful to me. As a Jew and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and an immigrant, I didn’t think horses were mine, they belonged to someone else and I was sneaking in. But the truth is, horses don’t care what you look like or where you’re from, they just care, as Monty Roberts says, that you’re a safe place to be, and they don’t judge and they are inclusive and I’m so glad I was able to tell the story of horses being truly inclusive.
Q: Can you talk about that a theme in the book about failing a test before you succeed?
SMN: I talk about it often in terms of the hunters. People ask me, ‘Why are you a hunter-ring queen?’ And it’s because it’s terrible, it’s impossible. You can’t succeed. You get one hair’s breadth of a lead change late in the back and you’re out of the ribbons. You’re slightly quick to the first fence and a tiny bit deep and you can look like you didn’t exist, and it’s miserable in its own way, but the feeling of getting it right is deeply powerful, particularly with how easy it is to fail. And I think that that really steels someone’s character and makes you tough and makes you resilient, and horses have always done that for me. And also learning from example. The horses try, try and try again … anything we ask of them, they want to get it right. They don’t always, but they keep trying, and I think that’s a really important lesson that they’ve taught me my whole life.
Q: In the chapter titled Cadillac Boy, you talk about how you flew with a group of horses. What was it like?
SMN: The journalistic impulse to figure out why and how things work is very hard-wired into me. I always want to pull things apart and understand it. And here we are in America with these beautiful imported horses that so many people have and cherish, and I wanted to understand the mechanics of how do they get here, where do they come from, so I actually got on a 747 and flew to Amsterdam for the express purpose of flying back that same day in that same plane but this time with nine Dutch Warmbloods in the belly of the 747 and it was really interesting to see how horses are transported, how they come to America. And believe it or not, I think the entire system works because of one simple, humble ingredient, which is hay. If a horse is chewing on a bale of hay, they can withstand turbulence, they can withstand cabin-pressure changes, they can withstand being loaded onto an airplane and it was my job as an equine flight attendant to keep my charges supplied with hay. And one of the sweetest parts was as the landing gear deployed, I was actually standing in the cargo hold with the horses. So you don’t take a seat at that point and buckle up. You essentially latch on to the horses and hang out with them to keep them calm and I was in a shipping cube with three horses as we started to go down and they didn’t know what was happening to them. Their inner ear was all of a sudden changed and they were sort of shocked and they all crushed their heads into me the way a foal goes under a mother’s udder for safety, and it was such a profound experience to realize that I had become their safety. And then we touched down and we were home. … And then they immediately went back to eating hay. They were like, “What is happening to us. Oh, there’s hay.”
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman Podcast features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. The next episode is with top equitation, hunter and jumper trainer and judge Geoff Teall about his system for helping his students “see a distance” and more. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.
This podcast episode is brought to you by SmartPak.com.