Saratoga Springs tends to attract horse lovers, especially during the summer season.
Perhaps no Spa City visitor has explored their passion for the creatures in quite the same way that New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir has done with her debut book.
The Pulitzer Prize finalist is slated to visit the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday for a discussion with WAMC’s Northeast Public Radio’s Joe Donahue on her aptly titled book “Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World In Love with an Animal.”
In it, Nir gives readers a reported look at obsession, including her own obsession with horses, as well as that of horse owners, trainers and cowboys around the country.
The book was published by Simon & Schuster last year, though Nir had been incidentally working on it for years before that, in between assignments that had her covering everything from kidnappings by terrorists in Benin, West Africa, to wildfires in California.
“What’s interesting is that I realized that I had been writing it for years in the clandestine second journal that I kept when I was on my reporting trips. So when I go around the world for the New York Times, when I’m finished with my work I always sneak off and find the horses,” Nir said.
Growing up in New York City, Nir is an unlikely equestrian. However, as she describes in the book, her very first memory is of riding (and falling from) a horse at the age of 2. Despite the intensity of the experience, or perhaps because of it, her love of the animals only seemed to grow.
The book is divided into chapters titled after horses that Nir has met and loved throughout her life, of which there are many, and she connects her passion for these horses to her identity and family history.
“I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant Jew who didn’t feel like she belonged. I have a tremendous amount of intergenerational trauma,” Nir said.
Becoming part of the equestrian culture that Nir grew up around, which she describes as a world of “Jackie Kennedy and Americana,” gave her a way to “pass” as American, to belong.
Using her personal narrative as a jumping-off point in the book, she introduces readers to eccentric subcultures and passionate equestrians like Dr. George and Ann Blair, who work to restore the legacy of Black cowboys.
The Blairs run a riding academy on an island in Harlem River and Nir worked for them for a time, well before she began working on the book, and it was there that she first learned about the erased legacy of Black cowboys. She later visited Texas to ride with Black cowboys who were trying to reclaim that legacy. Through her research, she found that one in four cowboys working in the 19th century were Black, though that was hardly ever depicted in westerns and other American origin stories.
“Being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose people were quite literally almost erased from this planet, I felt a real parallel in the metaphorical erasure of Black cowboys from the American story because that’s the story about the best of us. That’s the story about our origins and their removal is larger than just missing a story. It’s missing out on identity. That was a very important part of the book for me,” Nir said.
One of the most captivating characters Nir interviewed for the book was Francesca Kelly, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and has several Marwari horses, which are incredibly rare outside of India. Kelly is an advocate for Marwaris and has worked to bring the breed to the United States.
“Horse Crazy” also explores a subculture that has grown around Kentucky’s BreyerFest; an annual event in which attendees show, sell and judge Breyer toy horses.
“I come to understand that they’re just as passionate about these creatures and that they can see the beauty and the life in these ⅛ scale plastic figurines. Who am I to say that they’re not just as horse crazy as me?” Nir said.
One of the challenges during the writing process was figuring out what horses and characters to leave out.
“I’ve had 36 years of single-minded obsession with these creatures and I’ve met millions of people it feels like who share that, and so the winnowing process was a challenge,” Nir said.
Writing about her personal life was also an adjustment, especially because as a long-time reporter she’s used to leaving herself out of the story.
“That was the most uncomfortable part about producing this; I became the narrative thread in a memoiristic sense that tied together all these stories,” Nir said.
Within that, she also reflects on the cruelty she experienced at the hands of family members and while it was difficult to write about, Nir felt she had to include it.
“Memoir has to be true in order to resonate. People can tell when you’re pulling punches and people can tell when you’re softening a blow and then it doesn’t speak to people,” Nir said. “One of the most gratifying things about ‘Horse Crazy’ is I grew up fairly privileged in this unique circumstance of this urban horse girl and I’ve had people from all over the world with such different circumstances . . . saying that they felt like they were me. That I think speaks to the power of true experience.”
In the coming months, Nir, who owns three horses, will be working on a middle-grade book series, which unsurprisingly will be about horses. While in Saratoga Springs this week she plans to do what she usually does on trips: find the horses.
“Horse Crazy with Sarah Maslin Nir” starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Nancy DiCresce Room at The [email protected] facility. Attendees are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. For more information visit spac.org.