PRESCOTT - Not long ago, 16-year-old Blair Willette of Williamson Valley got the inspiration to try horse reining from her older sister, Jordan - and she's been enjoying the ride ever since thanks to an undying passion for her animal and a sincere dedication to the sport.
For the first time in her short reining career, Blair and her 8-year-old gelding, "Whizin In The Dirt," qualified for the prestigious Adequan North American Affiliate Championships, a national tournament Nov. 24 through Dec. 3 in Oklahoma City. They did so in early October after winning the National Reining Horse Association's Southwest Regional Affiliate Finals Youth ages 14-18 Championship against some 30 competitors in Scottsdale.
Blair said a lot of training went into claiming the regional title. She rides at least three to four times a week, including occasionally after school and many times at night.
She developed an affinity for reining with Jordan, now 19, and they grew together in it.
"She (Jordan) got bit by that horse-loving bug and she kind of pulled me in with it and I fell in love with it on the way," Willette said this past week. "She came across reining and just liked the adrenaline, and pretty soon I was right there with her doing it."
In reining, riders guide their horses at different speeds through a precise pattern of circles, spins and stops in a show ring. Success in competitions requires the horse to be responsive and in tune with the rider.
Whizin In The Dirt, also known as Rascal, was Jordan's old horse that Blair presently rides in tournaments. Blair said Jordan got the gelding in Oklahoma and quickly learned a lot from him. Jordan passed down Rascal to Blair so she could have an experienced horse with which to train and compete.
This year, Blair - the current 14-18 youth champion of the Desert Reining Horse Association and youth champ of the Arizona Reining Horse Association - and Rascal also took home the 14-18 youth championship at the High Roller Reining Classic in Las Vegas.
"I'm still growing with him (Rascal) and we're really having a blast doing it," Blair said. "I think I'm teaching him a lot and he's teaching me even more."
Blair rides with Rascal several hours a week from her home. But once a week Blair travels to Phoenix with Rascal to meet with Scottsdale-based horse trainer Troy Heikes.
Heikes, who trains reining horses, has coached Blair in the execution of her maneuvers on Rascal and in show-ring strategy during lessons for less than a year. He has worked with Blair on developing her self-confidence to become a consistent winner, but he's already sensed that Blair has a natural feel for reining and "can read a horse real well."
"She has a great attitude about things and comes in with a great work ethic," Heikes said. "She takes the good with the bad. When she does good she's humble about it, and when she does bad she works at getting herself better."
Well in advance of competitions, Blair makes sure that she and Rascal are injury-free and physically fit enough to take to the arena.
"It is a lot of exercise doing this, and so we can't get tired or anything," she said. "It's just training a lot and growing along the way."
After every practice and tournament, Blair said she learns something about how to improve as a rider.
At the North American Affiliate Championships, Blair will ride a pattern with Rascal that a group of judges will score according to specific criteria.
Blair and Rascal are charged with completing a pattern with a high level of difficulty that includes high speeds and swiftness of maneuvers. The rider must make the ride pleasing to watch while also showing his or her ability to keep the horse under control and listening throughout the pattern.
"If the horse looks like it's not doing what the rider's telling him to or looks out of control, you get docked points from the judges," Blair said.
Blair's goal is to finish in the Top 10 at nationals, but she said she will not be upset if she's lower in the standings since this is her first go-around on the big stage.
"I just want it to be a learning experience and make my state proud, and show the youths here that they can go out and do it, too," she said.
While Blair's victories in reining are impressive, her accomplishments outside the arena are perhaps equally stunning.
This year she has served as treasurer of the National Reining Horse Youth Association and the Arizona Reining Horse Association's youth. In addition, she is the Southwest regional delegate to the National Reining Horse Association.
Blair is a scholar as well. A junior at Tri City College Prep High School, she maintains a 4.0 grade point average. She's student council vice president of her junior class, president of the Junior Lions Club at Tri City, and a member of the National Honor Society and National Math Honor Society.
"I love the challenge and I love putting myself out there for opportunities," she said. "I really love being involved with the community, and that's really a top priority of mine."
Although she is under time constraints with her workload, Blair wants to continue reining through the rest of high school and hopes to make nationals again next year. However, she plans to turn her focus primarily to academics after she enrolls at a college or university in a couple years.
"I might not continue with reining during college, but I do plan to pick it up afterwards," Blair said. "I can't stay away from it for too long."