You may have seen the name, Sarah Maslin Nir, graced across the pages of the “New York Times” reporting stories from breaking news to exposés. But did you know that since the age of two, Sarah has also been a dedicated horsewoman? Born and raised in Manhattan, Sarah is a true New Yorker. That’s pretty far from the farm, so to speak, yet she’s managed to uphold a competitive career in the saddle, as well as in the newsroom.
“I have managed, despite having this urban background, to have horses in my life, by hook or by crook.” These days, Sarah competes with her two horses, Trendsetter and Gold Standard, in the amateur/owner hunter division. Trendsetter was purchased after her father passed away and left her a little bit of money. The horse provided Sarah with a connection to her father and is a constant reminder of his love for her every time she rides. “To me, Trendsetter is a horse my dad got me from Heaven.”
I asked Sarah why a city girl like herself sacrificed so much and worked so hard to keep horses in her life. “Oh my God, no one who has ever loved a horse has to ask that question! That’s a spurious question from you. Because, horses!” I disagreed though. While we all might share a similar sentiment, everyone’s experience is different, and we each express our love for horses in a uniquely beautiful way.
When pressed, Sarah’s response was no exception.
“Horses can heal trauma; horses are centering. When you come from a high pressure world, horses give you a peace like no other. There is something intrinsic about them; horses are a concept more than a creature. They embody our hopes for ourselves, that wildness and freeness that we try to suppress and try to seek out. Horses let us tap into that, if only for a few minutes on their backs. But the summation of that answer is, because horses.”
Sarah answered thoughtfully when I asked if her love for horses has made her a better journalist. “A big part of journalism, or the interview process, that most people don’t realize is silence, because it’s not a conversation. You are obtaining something from someone. A huge tool is being silent and letting your sources speak their truth to you. And horses communicate silently. You talk to your horse with your body, with your silence. I can see a parallel in the type of listening. In that way, I already have a silent dialogue in my bones from horses.”
‘Speak up for justice’
Sarah tapped deep into her abilities as a journalist, particularly the practice of silent listening, when she dug into the story of sexual abuse in the equestrian world. After reading Mollie Bailey's article in “The Chronicle of the Horse” about the sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy A. Williams, Sarah decided to investigate further. Through listening to the stories of the courageous women who spoke out about their experience of abuse that spanned years, Sarah put the pieces together and helped tell their story.
As a rider herself, Sarah was able to enter into familiar territory to watch and listen. “There’s a rule in journalism, you can’t be too close to a subject or you won’t be fair to it. But there is also something to having a certain level of expertise and understanding, and that improves your ability to do it.” On a weekend when the center was open to the public, Sarah traveled to Flintridge Riding Club, in La Cañada Flintridge, California, to dive deeper into the subject.
Sarah fit in, knew the dress code and the right words to say, and she was able to gather names of Jimmy’s former students. From there, she went on to interview 38 individuals associated with Jimmy A. Williams, including students, trainers, grooms, and officials. The initial story from “The Chronicle of the Horse” included four brave women who told the story of their abuse; Sarah’s research, however, cast an even larger net. The abuse allegations were widespread, affecting many more young girls over a period of almost 40 years.
When speaking with Sarah, her love for horses and the equestrian community is undeniable and was palpable. It comes through in her words and tone, and in the way she lovingly describes each individual horse she has shared her life with. In her connection with her family, her sense of happiness, even her daily life, horses clearly play a vital role in all of those aspects of her being. “I have interwoven horses into my life, and they have become an integral part of my soul.” And yet, Sarah said her love for riding never caused her to hesitate when faced with the opportunity to expose the ugliness that exists in the sport she loves. “There was never a thought in my mind that I wouldn’t tell this terrible side of my sport to protect it; you protect it by telling the side.”
How so? “Silence is cancerous. We speak out so that it will never happen again to another person.”
Shining a light on abuse and enabling others to share their experience is not easy; it requires the reporter to face heartbreaking stories head on and the victims to relive some of their worst memories. As riders, how can we not see ourselves in each and every victim who comes forward to share her story? Still, as both an equestrian and a journalist, Sarah was (and still is, more is coming) committed to seeking out uncomfortable truths, no matter how painful they may be, because for every woman who steps up to tell her story, another gains the courage to do the same.
“Bravery to speak up really underscores, for me, the need for people to speak up, whether you see something or you experience something. I often think that power is a tremendous silencer. Jimmy Williams’s power, and the power of other equestrian greats who have done similar misdeeds, has silenced the industry for too long and left many little girls and little boys in harm’s way. My wish would be to encourage people to speak up for justice and to protect the sport. The only way to protect the sport is to improve it. Whether it is little girls and little boys or the horses, whether it is drugging horses or endangering children, it is incumbent on people to tell the truth. I hope that my story, and those women’s stories, help other people feel safe in doing so.”
Looking back, Sarah has a family history (which you can read about in her upcoming book; more on that later) rooted in resisting tyranny and cruelty from those in power, and it is clear that her father left an indelible mark, making her a better equestrian and journalist committed to exposing injustice and making the world a better place. “My father was a Holocaust survivor. He really felt that living a resplendent life and giving that to his children was a daily victory against the people who tried to annihilate him.
“With my off-track Thoroughbred Willow, I was at the Hampton Classic when I was 17, and we earned second place out of 60 riders. I was a teenage girl, and I didn’t think much of myself. I didn’t wait to hear the results, but my dad did. All the horses were called into the winner’s circle, and my little old Polish-accented dad walked into the ring to accept my ribbon. He put it on his chest, walked out of the ring and said, ‘I defeated Hitler.’”
"We speak out so that it will never happen again to another person."
Make no mistake, nothing will undo the pain; there is no erasing the atrocities Sarah’s father experienced nor the violations those young girls suffered behind closed doors in a barn in California. And yet the words of Sarah’s father hold true for us today. Every time a journalist like Sarah or Mollie writes her article, every time a woman finds the strength to tell others about her experience, every time we get back on a horse and discover the joy of riding, every time we pursue our passions in life, we are defeating those who hurt us.
It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, the stories still need to be told. Reading the graphic accounts of abuse compiled and exposed by Mollie and Sarah, one thing is clear: these women deserved so much better. They were violated by someone they trusted, and they will never see justice for what was done to them. They speak now, not out of vengeance, but so that we can look at the young riders in the sport today and say: you also deserve better, and we are going to fight for it.
‘There is more to be done’
While her investigation has resulted in a greater awareness of abuse within the sport and a push to make changes, the response to Sarah’s story has not been entirely positive. “I am shopping for horses right now, and there are people who won’t do business with me. And that’s upsetting; all I did was tell the truth.” Sarah, who clearly takes after her father, does not plan on backing down. “I am continuing to investigate more stories. I am still exploring other allegations in the equestrian world. There is more to be done."
"My wish would be to encourage people to speak up for justice and to protect the sport."
Continuing to bring these stories to light sends a clear message: it doesn’t matter how many blue ribbons are earned or how you excelled as a horseman. Your legacy is defined by who you are as a person, by how you have protected, developed, and cherished the horses and riders that make up our wonderful sport. And while there are still those who will choose to sweep past misdeeds under a rug, there is an increasingly growing number of brave men and women in the equestrian community today who will not quit in their pursuit to bring the truth to light.
On top of her investigative reporting, Sarah has a book coming out in August of 2020 called “Horse Crazy: the story of a woman – and a world – in love with a beast,” published by Simon and Schuster. “It is about passion for horses all over the world. As I’ve reported, everywhere I’ve gone in the world, I’ve tried to ride there as well, and as I’ve ridden, I’ve also recorded those horses’ stories. So this book is a look at passion for horses all over the world, through the lens of my own passion.”
I asked Sarah who she had in mind when writing it. “It is for horse crazies like me. There’s a tribe of us and a tie that binds us, but it is also my life’s story and my family’s story. I think it is going to appeal to people who love horses, but it also speaks to what drives us to be passionate about something. As a journalist, I find passion fascinating in all its forms, so my hope is that this book explores passion and fascinates those who have a passion for horses, too."
Sarah is currently on rotation in West Africa as a correspondent for the New York Times, but she plans to keep on riding and competing. “The fascinating thing about riding is that it demands perfection and perfection is impossible, so the two diametrically opposed principles make it endlessly interesting and frustrating.”
Thanks to Sarah, and the other riders and writers who stand up and speak out in the face of injustice, the equestrian community can also keep on developing their beautiful sport, and the next generation of riders will hopefully find a safer environment in which to pursue their dreams, passion, and love for horses.
Graphics by Cadre Collective.
Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.