Book Review: ‘Horse Crazy’

A delightful journey and summer 2020 must-read for equestrians everywhere!

Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Horse Crazy” is half autobiography, half horse tales that remind readers all equestrians have one commonality: a love of horses.

The book journeys through Nir’s life, her New York City upbringing with well-known psychiatrist parents and a father who survived WWII as a Jewish boy. Readers learn she’s been horse crazy since birth – her parents enrolled her in riding lessons hoping to get her to sit still for a change and she was hooked. Nir is frank about her life – while she was clearly privileged in ways, she also felt very lonely and was a bit of a misfit at the Brearley School and describes horses as being her family as much as her actual, human family.

There was one frank chapter that I, as a reader, particularly appreciated. The chapter titled “Snowman” discusses Nir’s experience as a student at Andre De Leyer’s stable (Andre De Leyer is the son of Harry De Leyer of eighty-dollar champion fame). She describes Andre and his wife Christina as abusive bullies towards horses and students who used antiquated training methods based on a sense of horses as “beasts to be subdued.” She expands from her experiences with the De Leyers into a broader discussion of abusive practices in the hunter/jumper world – I appreciated the chapter as I don’t feel that’s a topic often discussed frankly in the horse world and it’s a tough conversation the sport needs to have.

That said, the book otherwise isn’t so dark and the rest of the journey – and this book is a journey – is a fun ride through nearly every facet of the horse world.

Sarah in an early riding lesson aboard Guernsey. Photo courtesy of Sarah Maslin Nir.

There are tales of Nir’s brief time as a mounted auxiliary police officer patrolling Central Park her senior year of high school, her time working with a trail string leading tourists on rides, her part-time job at the famed Miller’s tack store when she was 13 – Miller’s paid her in Breyer models – the tale of her father collecting her ribbon at the Hampton Classic and telling the crowd he defeated Hitler, to name just a few standouts.

On a less autobiographical note, readers are treated to tales of Nir riding Marwaris in India while working as a freelancer writing about spas and luxury vacations. When she came back to the US, she sought out Marwaris here and discovered Francesca Kelly, an advocate for the breed known for smuggling Marwari semen stateside for her breeding program. There’s a chapter devoted to Breyer horses where Nir explores what draws people to collecting them – I’ve never been a Breyer horse collector, myself (somehow missed that part of horse-crazy childhood) but that made me really understand what the collectors, children and adults, see in those plastic horses – an opportunity to have horses even if they can’t own a live horse. This is a theme further explored in another chapter.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Maslin Nir.

My two favorite chapters, though, would have to be either “Misty” or “Swamper.” “Misty” delves into the famed Chincoteague ponies and readers meet two young sisters who own a “buyback” pony. Buyback ponies are basically sponsored, the owner pays the auction price they’d pay if they brought the pony, but instead of taking them home, they turn the pony back over to the island, allowing them to live out their days wild. The two sisters said of their pony, “We bought her her freedom.” To me, “Misty” highlights how horses mean something different to everyone. “Swamper” meanwhile examines the history of the Black cowboys and explains how Nir discovered that history herself – it not only highlights the importance of preserving horse history but also brings attention to an element of that history that’s been relatively unrepresented for far too long.

“Horse Crazy” is a delightful journey providing a peek at parts of the horse world many don’t get to see. Nir’s writing is simultaneously lean, with few if any extra words, yet poetic. Each chapter is seamlessly woven together but could still stand alone as a short story and the book as a whole is endlessly compelling, yet something that can be put aside for a day or so and picked back up without losing the thread. At heart, “Horse Crazy” serves as a reminder that everyone has a story and that those stories may not be what they seem. It perfectly captures the breadth of the horse world and the myriad meanings horses have to horse people of all stripes. Anyone who has ever loved a horse can find something to love here!

“Horse Crazy” will be released on August 4th. You can pre-order now.