It took journalist Sarah Maslin Nir 17 years to come to terms with her sexual assault. During that time, the only companions she could trust were horses. "On two legs I was a victim. Given four more, I felt invincible."

By Jason Sheeler
July 31, 2020 11:33 AM
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Sarah Nir with her horse, Stella
Victoria Will

Sarah Maslin Nir told no one after she was raped in the summer of 2001.  She spent years blaming herself for what happened one night in East Hampton, N.Y. when she was 18. A local bouncer offered her several drinks and then offered her a ride home. Nir was carried to the beach and the bouncer climbed on top of her.

“I thought to myself, ‘You drank drinks he gave you. You got in his car. This is what sluts get.’ I really believed it.” She believed it for a long time. Nir finally entered therapy in her late 20s and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. But what allowed her to survive before she found her way to therapy, she firmly believes, was the solace she found in horses. “I’ve always felt most free around them,” she says. “Without knowing it, they’d been saving me my whole life."

Nir, whose new book Horse Crazy chronicles her — and America’s — obsession with the animal, says her relationship with horses began simply, but in adulthood came to be symbiotic. “As a child, I needed something to love really, really hard. I found that with them.” Nir says the animal’s needs for constancy mirrored her own. “As I got older, they were there for me when so many people in my life could not.” Today she’s realized horses taught her resilience and compassion. “I think a good horseman recognizes that it's not a mount underneath them — it's a soul.”

The author in a riding competition
Paws and Rewind LLC.

Nir’s affinity with the animal began early, when she first sat high atop a mare named Guernsey at 2 years old. Formal lessons in New York’s Central Park began at 8. Ribbons, trophies, and broken bones quickly followed. Today her skin bears the bruises and scars of falls and bucks, a visual timeline of her relationship with other horses named Amigo, Willow, and Trendsetter. “Culpa equestribus non equis,” she says. “The horse has never to blame, it's the human.” A horse’s skin, she says, can also tell a tale. “Horses are vulnerable to us too. A dimple here or white fur regrown where the fur was brown indicating abuse. We climb on their backs like a predator would. We demand so much of them—our needs supersede theirs in this relationship.”

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Nir and her three brothers were raised on Park Avenue New York City by a mother and father who worked, respectively, as a psychologist and psychiatrist. (Her father, Yehuda, was in private practice, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Her mother, Bonnie Maslin, found a career as a television expert, appearing on Oprah and Donahue.) Yehuda, who died in 2014, had survived the Holocaust with a forged Catholic baptismal certificate. His experiences, detailed in the book The Lost Childhood, not only shaped her life, but her very existence was a trophy. “My father saw his children's success as a victory lap right around Hitler,” Nir says.

Young Sarah at riding lessons
Sarah Maslin Nir with her family

“Around the dinner table, conversations were about what the Nazis had done to my grandfather,” Nir remembers. It became clear that any problem she would have, could never match the horror her father had endured. “All the way through high school,” Nir says, “I had never known cruelty. I once told him that in comparison, I don’t feel like a real person.” Her father’s response: "Never envy me my wounds. I envy you are spared your own."

She wasn’t. But, like her father, she survived.

For more about Sarah Maslin Nir's story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. 

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.</strong