Horses, and the (Literal, Figurative) Heart of a Child.

Marion E. Altieri, New York Writer

Ten years ago, Hall of Fame Trainer, LeRoy Jolley posed a question to me:

“Who loves a horse more than a 13-year-old girl?”Marion Gram and Pony 1956

He asked because he–like me–was miffed about the silly ways in which the American horse racing industry tries to “market” the sport, when really, it’s very simple.  The most-effective way to market horse racing–doesn’t involve big hats; face painting for children or beer-bust days.

This, he proposed:   that the best ad campaign for horse racing wouldn’t be on the pages of “Sports Illustrated,” but rather would be large, lush ad in “Town & Country.”

That ad, with just a photo of a single horse running, all fours off the ground, should read,

“Every little girl wants a pony.  Every woman wants a pony in the  eighth at Saratoga.”

BOOM.  The great Mr. Jolley knows whence he speaks:  he’s been around horses and racing for, well, for a while. And he’s watched as fans and owners come and go.  He knows that females have an almost gut instinct regarding horses:  even the tiniest of little girls–babies, even–respond to a horse in a way that virtually no other animal connects.

This informal study is not to diminish the roles of either a)  males in the lives of horses, or of (in my case) b) cats in human lives.   This isn’t an anti-male piece, nor an anti-any-other-companion-animal article.  Don’t get all nutty on me, now, reading into it that which isn’t there.

Marion and Horse 1959

In my own life–and I didn’t realize this until Tuesday–there’s a profound Truth about The Heart of… Anything. The Heart of Anyone.

Briefly, for those of you who may not be aware:  in April, I had open-heart surgery.  My aortic valve never grew after I was eight years old, the age at which I had Rheumatic Fever.  So, for 52 years, my poor heart was trying to function with a valve that refused to grow up.

Like Peter Pan, my little aortic valve tried to stay childlike.  (Unfortunately for me, this affected negatively every other aspect of my health, for the majority of my life until April 6th.)  But on that beautiful day in April, a deeply faithful surgeon worked with God to bring my heart up to speed. Literally.

The path to complete healing will take quite a while yet…but that’s enough about that aspect of our story.

Just after my surgery, a nurse in ICU–then several other nurses and techs in ICU, PCU and cardiac rehab–told me the same story.  That there seems to be an actual connection between the physical heart and the emotional/spiritual essence that we call, “heart.”  That most open-heart surgery patients cry a lot, for quite a while after our surgeries–actually, usually more than other post-surgical patients.  And that it’s OK.

Marion E. Altieri Mommy's Little Horsie Writer  Then, at my first post-hospital follow-up–my cardiologist said the same thing.  He seemed to be both amused by this fact that he’d seen time-and-again–and delighted.

Being a bit of a romantic, and a writer, of course–I embraced this thought.  I didn’t feel so badly when water would just roll down my face when I was in the hospital, or even today.  (Four months later.)  This, I know, is a strange, but apparently absolutely-true fact about open-heart patients.  Our physical hearts are connected to our emotional centers.

I find that to be not-only comforting, but beautiful.  Most of us heard the story–perhaps 15 years ago–about a woman who received a heart transplant from a 17-year-old boy who played basketball when he was on this Earth.

During her recovery, and at home–the recipient started taking a sincere interest in basketball.  She didn’t know about her donor’s involvement in the sport–she just craved All Things Basketball.

Back when I heard about this, it occurred to me that this made complete sense.  I thought that, perhaps indeed, the heart is more than just an organ made of molecules and cells–that, as a living, beating representation of Spirit–the heart of a human (or animal) ties the person/animal to her/his deeper Self.  To The Big Picture.  To, yes, to God.

So that brings us to the purpose of this article, for Talk of the Track.  Wrap this up, Marion:  here it is.  Three days ago, as I gave and received Love and Spirit with Artic Storm Cat, the white Thoroughbred who’s in training with Gary Contessa–I embraced him with great glee.  My emotional heart felt full–full of joy–at peace.Artic Storm Cat with Marion 1

It was as I drove home that I nearly hit the brakes, as I exclaimed aloud, “OH, MY GOD.”  It all came together for me:  I began riding Quarter Horses at age four.  At age eight–my heart valve stopped growing.  My heart stayed that of a little grrrl–at least part of her did.  (I’ve given my heart a personal pronoun:  of course, she’s a her/she.)

Eight also was the age at which I started demanding of my Mother, that she should get a horse for me.  (This was not feasible, for many reasons, including financial and space.  We lived in a city.)  I proposed that my “Palomino Pony,” as I harped, could comfortably live in Uncle Mi’s tool shed.

I’m sure that Mommy was sick of hearinng me whine, “I WANT A PALOMINO PONY!!!!” as I stomped my feet and glowered at her.

I was relentless.  The best Mommy could do, was to increase the time I got to spend at my cousin’s house in the country, riding his horse.  I was eight.  Eight.  Rheumatic-Fever-stunted-aortic-valve-obsessed-with-getting-a- “Palomino-Pony”–EIGHT.

Eight.  The heart of a child.  All this came together in one big “Whoosh!” as I drove on Tuesday.  I thought about the abandon with which I approach any horse–even those who are supposed to be “mean,” including John Henry. And how often those “mean” horses (including John Henry) have just shaken their heads and,  sure, exchanged breath and hugs with me.

I believe that, even “mean” horses tolerate children and those with the hearts of children, because they identify with the underlying innocence there.

So when Wise Dan kissed me on the lips–and Bella Attrice pulled me into herself–and John Henry literally touched his eyeball to mine–and Artic Storm Cat snuffled all over me, my physical and emotional heart responded with bliss.

I connect with horses because, early in my Life, the relationship began–but shortly thereafter– I was blessed to have a heart who wanted to remain young, and to stay in touch with those horses.

(N.B.:  I’m not suggesting that my connection to horses in any way is superior to yours; I’m merely relating my theory, about my very-personal story.)  So, my surgeon fixed my physical heart, but she (my heart) never forgot the relationship with The Horse that we forged together, all-those-years-ago.

I’m not thrilled that I had surgery, or that the physical healing is taking so long–but I am SO grateful to God that I learned something about myself–about the Truth of the heart-heart connection–about the fact that yes, I–you–we, indeed, are “…fearfully and wonderfully made.”*

Inside…AND way, deep, down–inside our bodies and our souls.

If you love horses like I do–if you connect on this level and think, “It’s almost cellular…”–well, yes, Possum, it IS.

Thanks be to God!


* Psalm 139: 14