When her beloved horse got sick and was unable to compete again, Steffani Burton thought her riding days were over.
But with determination, skill, countless hours of practice and a bit of sheer luck thrown in, the 18-year-old was able to ride and compete again this year, winning a championship freestyle reining title in July at the 12th annual Youth National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship Horse Show in Albuquerque, N.M.
Burton, who graduated from Brainerd High School in 2004, will attend Montana State University in Boseman this fall. This week she is competing in the Canadian Nationals before heading directly to college to begin her freshman year.
Burton, the daughter of Tom and Deb Burton, has been riding since she was 7 and competing since she was 10, taught by riding instructor Mary Linder. Her forte is western pleasure, but she's competed in many different styles of riding, including hunt seat, show hack and saddle seat, she said. As a young girl, she took the school bus to Linder's barn and rode the horses for as long as she could each day.
"That's why I'm at where I am today," said Burton. "Because I would ride those horses, hours on end."
Her family bought her a horse, Top Contiego, when she was 15. Her much-loved horse got severely ill after receiving a bad batch of shots in 2001, she said. The horse had a 10 percent chance of survival and after thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, Top Contiego got better but was unable to compete again. The Burtons gave the horse to Linder to be used as a lesson horse.
"He was my best friend," said Burton. "He's the only horse that means that much to me."
In 2002, Burton showed one of Linder's horses at Youth Nationals in Albuquerque. She made the first cut in hunt seat and western reining but didn't place at the national competition.
Without her own horse, Burton didn't think she would compete during her senior year. But then she learned that Cedar Ridge Arabians in Jordan was looking to sponsor two teenagers to show their horses throughout the year. Burton had to apply, write an essay and submit a videotape demonstrating her riding abilities. She was stunned when the horse ranch offered her the sponsorship.
The sponsorship has meant that Burton was able to ride and compete using the well-trained Arabian horses at the ranch, receiving free training. Her travels to various horse competitions were paid for by the ranch, including meals, hotels and airfare. She has spent the past year driving the more than two hours to Jordan to train two to four days a week, staying at the ranch. She was training at the ranch for much of the summer, when she wasn't competing at riding competitions.
"I would have been done forever," said Burton, if she hadn't received the sponsorship. "I'm unbelievably grateful for what they provided me with."
At a Scottsdale, Ariz., Arabian horse show in February, Burton won two championship titles. She was named a reserve champion at the Sahara Sands Horse Show at the Minnesota State Fair in May.
At Youth Nationals in July, Burton competed in freestyle reining, reining, and seat equitation. She was elated when she was named the national champion in freestyle reining while riding Spirit Seeker, an Arabian gelding from Cedar Ridge Arabians.
Spirit Seeker, as it seems, wasn't as thrilled.
During the freestyle reining competition Burton dressed her and Spirit Seeker up like '80s pop star Cyndi Lauper, performing their four-minute routine to Lauper's hit, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." The gelding wore bright orange fake eyelashes, fishnet stockings, eye shadow, a pink tutu and had its forelock, sprayed both pink and green, teased into "'80s hair," she said.
"He was so embarrassed," Burton said of Spirit Seeker. "You could tell by the look in his eyes."
Burton competes in a national Arabian and half-Arabian national horse competition in Canada this week and then her parents will drive her to college in Boseman. While she was excited to compete at the Canadian Nationals, it will be bittersweet. This is the last horse competition of her riding career. Burton plans to major in civil engineering in college.
"It will be real sad," Burton said of this week's final horse competition. "I would love to train horses the rest of my life but I'll definitely have it as my hobby. It's probably kept me out of trouble. Every day I'd go and ride my horses. It's a huge part of my life."
While in high school, Burton attended classes her senior year at Central Lakes College. She has been active in other sports, including volleyball, golf, downhill skiing and Junior Olympic volleyball in Brainerd.
Burton credited her mom, Deb, who owns Country Fabrics in Brainerd, and her dad, Tom, who is a special education teacher at Franklin Junior High School in Brainerd, for helping her become a successful rider by hauling her and her horses to her many riding lessons and horse shows.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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