When 17-year-old Devon Peterson, then 12, was getting her first break from chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia, all she wanted was to “feel her heart beat from something other than fear.” So, despite doctors’ orders, she was allowed a brief ride on her beloved horse Dudley.
When the Bellevue teen met with Make-a-Wish Idaho later that year, she related that powerful memory. After a short remission, the fast-growing cancer recurred in her brain, crushing her vision in her right eye and causing a limp. Life-saving treatment required a move to Salt Lake City without her twin sister, Gracie, brain surgery, radiation and ultimately a bone-marrow transplant using her father’s marrow.
She came back to her health and her horses with a vengeance, but time, and friendships, had moved on. She couldn’t attend high school with her sister because not enough people were vaccinated, and Dudley was retired with arthritis. Undaunted, she rode her dad’s horse, Super Dave, to compete in high-school-rodeo barrel racing and pole bending, and in annual skijoring races. She suspended her wishing.
Wish-granter Tracey Parsons had stayed in touch with Devon throughout this time, talking through her ultimate wish and reminding her to keep dreaming. “Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron” remains Devon’s favorite movie. She thought she would like a horse just like the one in the film. He needed to be smart and fast and goofy, all business at work, but willing to play and swim in a river with her. He had to be a buckskin with a mane and tail as lush as Spirit’s, and be able to be ridden bareback.
Idaho had never had a request for a horse before. And, by now, COVID-19 was a very real issue to contend with, like cancer.
“We are learning a lot,” said Make-A-Wish Idaho’s Brenda Young, who was building a network among the rodeo circuit.
After four years of waiting, and raising thousands of dollars for Make-A-Wish dressing as princesses with her friends so other wish kids could have their wishes come true, the perfect horse was found in Montana. Parsons and co-worker Robin Gilmore presented the surprise this month with the help of Devon’s aunt, Trudy Peterson, and her son, cousin Paul, who stashed the horse at River Sage Stables until it was time.
“I saw Paul riding that horse earlier and I was all, ‘Dad, Dad, that’s it, that’s exactly what I’m looking for,’” Devon said. “And then I grumbled about how Paul always gets the best horses.”
Aunt Trudy had gotten Devon down to her arena under the auspices of showing her riding group how to run a barrel pattern. She was none the wiser.
Just before the reveal, made easier because of the masked crowd, someone asked Devon’s mother about Make-a-Wish.
“It’s bittersweet. We all know why we are here. That’s what brought us together,” Jennifer Peterson said. “When they first approached us in the hospital, I was all, ‘Hell no, that’s for dying kids, that’s not her! I thought they knew something I didn’t. Fortunately, my obnoxious response didn’t chase them off, and they explained it was for any child with a life-threatening illness. And before she even got close to her dream, she made a friend in this dark space and that friend, Tracey, was able to make her find the color the rest of us couldn’t see.”
Masks couldn’t hide the joy or stop the tears when Devon was introduced to the beautiful horse. They went nose to nose and seemed to instantly know each other, the same way she connected with her scruffy little orphan dog from her bed at Primary Childrens’ in Utah.
The horse is renamed Koda, which is a Native American name meaning “the ally.” In between her online schoolwork, and working riding other people’s horses and cleaning barns with her sister, Devon is on or near Koda, usually riding past her sister saying, “You wouldn’t believe his trot, you wouldn’t believe.” He is exactly the horse she was looking for.
On Nov. 3, Devon will reach a milestone birthday, three years since her bone-marrow transplant.
“Life isn’t how I saw it. It doesn’t look like most people’s, but it is my life and I think it’s going pretty well,” Devon said. “My dog is named Hiccup, and it reminds me that there are always hiccups between you and your dreams.”