Horses may not literally heal hearts, but one special Quarter Horse is going to give it a try. Hidden among the fancy warmbloods showing off their paces at the Sacramento International Horse Show, which concluded Oct. 6 at the Murieta Equestrian Center in Rancho Murieta, California, was Maidu, a Quarter Horse gelding.
Six hours south of the horse show lives Emily Heimsoth, a 14-year-old girl who for the past three years has suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This rare disease causes the muscles on one side of her heart to be enlarged and struggle to pump blood normally.
The illness has limited her activities and will likely worsen, according to her family. Heimsoth lives on a ranch in Ridgecrest, California, a town that was in the news earlier this year for the earthquakes that rocked the region in July. Heimsoth’s house was lifted off its foundation, displacing the family.
“It’s the memories that make the house, not the stuff inside of it,” she said. “I’ve learned to look at things differently. It’s been a tough year.”
So Heimsoth was surprised when her mother, Melissa Henderson, suggested they take a family vacation to the Sacramento International Horse Show. As they watched the jumpers preparing to tackle the FEI World Cup qualifying grand prix, Heimsoth started to wonder if maybe this vacation had something to do with the wish she’d submitted to the Make-A-Wish Foundation many months ago: a wish to own her own horse.
Many wishes are submitted each year to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which works to make dreams come true for children with critical illnesses. Jennifer Stolo, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Northeastern and Central California and Northern Nevada, said the organization’s local chapter serves 400 children and, by extension, their families and communities.
Stolo said the anticipation of a wish being granted gives the affected child something to look forward to and may actually have a positive impact on their physical health. “We have the opportunity at Make-A-Wish to bring happiness back into their lives,” said Stolo. “It’s a very special moment.”
Heimsoth has ridden western for many years and has been learning to run barrels, although her heart condition sometimes makes it difficult for her to ride as much as she would like. She’s grown up with her grandmother’s two horses on their Ridgecrest property, but she never had a kid-friendly horse of her own.
A group of equestrians came together with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to grant Heimsoth’s wish. Just before Friday’s $36,500 Murieta Inn, Spa & Restaurant 1.45m FEI class, they presented her with Maidu, an 8-year-old gelding purchased by Megan Vincent at Pacific Coast Building Products. Dale Harvey, Sacramento International Horse Show event manager, helped orchestrate the perfect reveal.
“Anna [Zablah, of Murieta Equestrian Center/West Coast Equine Foundation] had the idea that we would present it where the horse came in flanked with the color guard so you really couldn’t see the horse,” said Harvey. “The color guard split apart, and there was the horse. The little girl was stunned, to say the least. She was speechless. We did that Friday night, and the second night we did a smaller presentation where we presented her with a Sacramento International cooler, and she was really amazed.”
Heimsoth said she was completely overcome.
“I was super excited but also shaking and crying,” said Heimsoth. “It was a bit emotional. I could tell he’s going to be a good horse. I can’t wait to ride him and learn to do barrels. I rode him bareback when we were there, but only for a few minutes.”
Equestrians know that the purchase of the horse is probably the least expensive part of the sport, so organizers made sure they also provided Heimsoth with the things she’d need to care for Maidu. Elk Grove Milling donated feed; West Palms Events and Riding Warehouse donated tack and gear; West Coast Equine Foundation and the Murieta Equestrian Center donated $1,000 of riding lessons, and actress Kaley Cuoco, an avid equestrian herself, paid for the transportation to get Maidu back to Heimsoth’s ranch.
Harvey said the show often works with area charities and is particularly known for granting inner-city kids the chance to exhibit for free, so he’s used to emotional presentations, but this was something different.
“It’s by no means the only thing we do like that, but it’s by far the most emotional and impactful, I think,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can do when people actually work together, you know?”
Melissa Henderson, Heimsoth’s mother, said she found out her daughter’s wish would be granted back in mid-July. It was a tough secret to keep, but she managed to keep from ruining the surprise. Henderson said the team searched for months to find just the right horse that would be bomb-proof enough for Heimsoth’s younger siblings as well.
“She can’t run herself, so the horse is her feet and can keep her running all day long,” said Henderson. “She gets tired really easily. She can play for 20, 30 minutes and then she’ll be tired for a few hours. She gets a little frustrated that she can’t do what her younger sister can. She does a lot of sitting and watching. But with the horse, she can do what she wants.
“Actually, last night she told me she wants to take [Maidu] trick-or-treating instead of walking up and down the hills,” Henderson continued. “I told her we’d see how he does, but we may be able to make that happen.”
Heimsoth returned home Monday after the show and resumed her usual routine, but she said all she could really think about was the impending arrival of Maidu.
“We have a pen and everything being set up for him,” she said. “I’ve been deciding where his stuff is going to go. I honestly can’t wait to ride because when I rode him bareback for a little bit, it seemed like he already knew a lot, so he doesn’t need me to train him.
“I can already tell we’re going to be good.”