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World equestrian champion is riding high

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- The eyes of the equestrian world are on Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fort Worth, Texas this month. Champion riders will be crowned at both the Pinto and American Junior Paint horse associations world shows. This week's Fox 4 Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever will be a top rider there and out to take championship titles at both shows just like she did two years ago.

"This little boy is Lightning," said Fox 4 Young Achiever Samantha Stubblefield as she led her handsome horse out of the stable to the riding area. "And he is the best thing in the world. He's very kind and loving and he has a great personality. And he loves me."

And Sam, as she likes to be called, with a great personality of her own, loves that big Paint horse right back. They have a special bond that makes them a championship team.

"I've gotten so used to him it's kind of like sitting in your favorite chair," said Sam. "And it's just the way the saddle fits and the way you fit with the horse."

This petite 12-year-old who has been riding since she was five is in control of a 1,200 pound horse, doing demanding precision riding moves that got Sam to the top in both American Junior Paint and Pinto horse world finals two years ago.

"The key is to be very focused, to be on top of your game," said Sam. "To be presentable. And look like you're having fun. You're confident. And you're meant to be showing this horse in the big arena in a world championship show in front of all those judges. But really, it's also about being very in tune with your horse. You guys know which way you're going to go. You have to make sure you know each other. You can't just go to a show on a new horse and get on and expect to win. You have to put the time and effort into getting to know the horse and get in sync with him."

"She's got a way in that pen that kind of stands her out from everybody else," said riding instructor Renee Garrison.

Garrison trains Sam at her Misty River Equestrian Center in Independence. With Garrison's coaching, Sam has become one of the top 20 Paint horse riders in the nation in her age range.

"You've got to have the want and the desire and she's got it," said Garrison. "She would be on that horse 24-7 if I'd let her."

Sam's superbly skilled, of course, and very bright, articulate and delightfully engaging. But there's something more that makes her a winner in the saddle.

"In the show world," said Garrison, "you have to be super, super confident. You have got to tell that judge, 'I'm the best. Don't look no further.' And not many riders can get that right off the get go. She has it naturally, in her own presence. And so when you get someone that's got also balance on a horse without having to teach it, you've got a kid that can do amazing things on an animal."

Top-level riding is a major commitment for Sam. Training alone takes eight to ten hours a week minimum and then much more before a big show. And then there are the shows. Sam competes in up to 36 horse shows a year, most of them to far off cities. So she's gone from school a lot. But Sam hits the books before she goes and while she is on the road. And at Moreland Ridge Middle School in Blue Springs, Mo. where she just completed sixth grade, she flourishes in academics and as a class leader.

"Sam has done such a great job with the responsibility and taking her own ownership of it," said her Moreland Ridge reading teacher Megan McMullen. "That is something that is unique to her, that she doesn't wait for her family and her parents to say, 'I need my work. I'm going to be gone.'"

Intelligence, discipline, responsibility and drive -- all of the qualities of a champion.

"It's fun and I just love putting the effort into it because it's not work for me," said Sam.

Sam says the best thing about competing at the major horse shows is hanging out with the many friends she's made from all over the country and supporting each other.

The Pinto Horse Association World Show is underway right now until June 21st in Tulsa. The American Junior Paint Horse Association World Show is June 27th through July 5 in Fort Worth.

Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

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