Nine-year old Brianna Payne has spent nearly her whole life battling cancer. On Saturday, she took hold of the reins.
Standing outside a century-old homestead shack in the late-morning sunshine, Brianna stepped up to a wooden mounting block and eased her way onto the back of Yellow, a 22-year-old quarter horse. Reins in hand, she gently guided Yellow through the countryside, working their way up to a high point of the secluded Kuhlmann Ranch that neighbors Pictograph Cave State Park.
The trip was supported by Erin’s Hope Project, a nonprofit organization based out of Miles City that has been providing outdoor adventures since 2011 for children and their families battling life-threatening illnesses.
“It’s amazing to see the joy in the family’s eyes,” said Pam Hurr, vice president of the organization. “And likewise, this brings a lot of joy and healing to us, too.”
Pam and her husband, Ron Hurr, created the project in memory of their 9-year-old daughter, Erin, who lost her two-year battle with a brain tumor in 2010.
Like Erin, Brianna’s battle is also against brain tumors. She was diagnosed at the age of 2 with a rare type of tumor called an ependymoma, a grade 3 tumor on her brain stem that required immediate surgery and radiation.
Again, at the age of 5, doctors found another growth, requiring another round of radiation.
Four years later, following an every-six-month MRI routine, doctors found another dime-size tumor above her cerebellum in December. They also discovered the cancer had spread to her spine.
“This time, we were shocked — we thought it was gone for good,” Brianna’s mother Carla said. “She showed no symptoms and was finally getting back to acting like a little girl again, playful and always dancing.”
The family has since moved to Billings from Ronan for Brianna to undergo chemotherapy treatment at Billings Clinic. She finished the last round in August. The family will travel to Salt Lake City for a MRI Oct. 5 to see if the treatment was successful.
“Now it’s a waiting game,” Carla said. “But we’ve learned to have patience and faith.”
Carla said she was told there is only a 10 percent chance the treatment will be successful.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s enough,” she said. “We are hopeful and optimistic. And Brianna’s strength gives us strength. She has been so strong throughout all of this.”
The family was guided by Kuhlmann Ranch and Bitter Creek outfitting sisters Theresa and Sarah Kuhlmann for a one-hour horseback ride.
“It was very peaceful,” Brianna said. “I can’t believe this was all for me.”
The outdoor adventure began with a stretch Escalade limousine arriving in front of the family’s home in the Heights. The driver, in a tuxedo, greeted Brianna with a dozen red roses in hand.
Her stepfather, Brian, two younger brothers, Hunter, 1, and Walker, 8 months, and the rest of the gang piled into the limo and listened to Brianna’s favorite hip-hop music on the way to the ranch.
Bitter Creek Outfitters is a family-operated business that provides scenic trail horse rides on the 7,000-acre cattle ranch about 10 miles southeast of Billings.
“Horses can be very therapeutic for children, empowering them with their strength,” Sarah Kuhlmann said.
“And it’s a really neat bonding experience, learning to become one with the horse,” Theresa Kuhlmann added.
It wasn’t Brianna’s first time on a horse, but it was her first time leading a horse on her own.
“Brianna has overcome so many fears, and it's just amazing to see her courage today,” Carla said. "Her smile gives us hope."
As the family overlooked the Yellowstone Valley on the backs of their horses, they knew that the day couldn't last, but the memory certainly would.