Gemma Hutchinson and Harlan Baker have both been through cancer treatment as children.
Gemma Hutchinson and Harlan Baker have both been through cancer treatment as children.

Gemma Hutchinson loves few things more than horses.

The 3-year-old’s interest was ignited during recovery between rounds of chemotherapy that targeted cancer in her kidney. She was unable to spend much time around other people during therapy, so she passed the days watching “Spirit Riding Free,” an animated series about a young girl and the adventures she has with a wild mustang.

Gemma’s mother, Kim, recalls vividly those secluded periods while her daughter healed.

“Yeah, it makes me cry,” she said.

The pair spent Friday wandering around the arena at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds during the Region 5 Arabian Horse Association 2018 Championship Show. Gemma was in a pink tutu and boots. By early evening she had dirt smudged on her cheeks, which her mother tried to clean off while she posed for photos with her new friend, Mariner, a light brown and white Arabian horse.

Mariner’s owner, Julie Poor, held the young girl up, so she could try to wrap her arms around the 12-year-old steed. The three had met for the first time during the Warrior Horses for Warrior Kids program, which is in its second year of connecting children living with and recovering from cancer and Arabian Horses, and is coordinated through Region 5.

“It’s her day,” Kim Hutchinson said. “It’s her day of days.”

She said her daughter rode a pony for the first time after she finished chemotherapy — a reward for getting through all the many appointments and checkups. Gemma used to act out more because of physical trauma she experienced while undergoing treatment. Being around the animal helped reduce those behaviors significantly, she said.

Warrior Horses founder Ryan Melendez was diagnosed with very high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia shortly into his senior year of high school, according to the organization. He was named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Man of the Year after he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research in less than three months.

His goal was to pair horses with kids to provide them much-needed emotional support during their struggles. Each $1,000 raised pairs a child with a horse.

Poor said she was a part of the Olympic Peninsula Arabian Club, and her fellow members decided they wanted to sponsor a horse for the program. Mariner, a national and regional titleholder, was selected through a vote.

“They all said it was a perfect idea,” she said.

Mariner is an atypical show horse, Poor said. He is wonderful with children, and instinctively knows to interact with them more gently than he would an adult. When he first met Gemma, the girl covered her mouth and gasped.

“She couldn’t believe it, she was just in love,” Poor said.

Kim Hutchinson filmed the moment on her phone. She said her daughter loves to talk, but is going through therapy for her speech, which was delayed because of the cancer.

Gemma screams when she hears about horses, Kim Hutchinson said. Gemma was silent when she met Mariner, her mother said.

Later that night she put on her helmet and rode out into the arena with other horses that had won during the Region 5 competitions that day. She waved to the crowd and clapped along as her audience cheered for her.

Close by was Harlan Baker, who was connected with a horse through the program last year. The 11-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, and went into remission in 2017.

Harlan remembers how it was before he saw a doctor.

“I was having a lot of bloody noses, and I was really tired a lot, and wanting to rest, and I couldn’t do much that took even a little bit of energy,” Baker said.

Both children were patients at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. The families say the staff provided excellent care to their children. Gemma started an annual toy drive to give back, called #GemmasWarriors.

The two kids were invited to participate with Warrior Horses through connections they made at the medical center. Harlan refers to Extra Extra as “his Warrior Horse.”

The affectionate Extra Extra nibbled at the buttons on his shirt when they first met. Baker said they spend time together occasionally, and he considers Extra Extra a friend.

Baker said it is important to spread the word about Warrior Horses, so more kids can experience what he did. His mother, Gwen, said her son stayed his upbeat self while coping with his cancer, but the program provided him with an even greater support network.

“Getting involved in Warrior Horses connects us with a community of other people who have also struggled with cancer and have gone through treatment,” she said. “I think the power between the person and the horse and the child is very special, it’s very healing.”