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Love of horses helps girl overcome disability

A life-long love of horses and supportive parents have helped 12-year-old Sarah Johnson overcome the odds and a disability to become an accomplished rider who holds her own in national competitions.

Life has not been easy for Sarah, a sixth grader at Portsmouth West Middle School. She was born with her right arm and leg significantly shorter. After numerous surgeries, she now has a prosthetic leg and partial use of her arm.

Overall, she is just like any other adolescent and enjoys things like video games and swimming. When she talks about horses, her face lights up and she cannot help but smile.

"I just think they are very pretty," she said. "Each horse has its own personality."

The family has not allowed what some people would perceive as a handicap to dictate their daughter's approach to life.

"I really do not feel like she has a disability," her mother, Jennifer Johnson, said. "She has done everything we expected of her and we have tried not to treat her like she is different and let her do whatever she wanted."

In August, Sarah won 1st place in the United Professional Horseman Association's Challenge Cup at the West Virginia State Fair to earn the right to go to The American Royal National Championship Challenge Cup Nov. 21 in Kansas City, Mo. Sarah placed 6th in the national competition for disabled riders.

"The goal was to make it to the finals, everything after that was just icing," Jennifer said. "To be the youngest out there, and do so well, is amazing. I did not realize there would be adults competing."

Sarah showed her skills by walking, trotting, reversing and just demonstrating her overall control and grace on horseback.

"I was nervous and proud. I did not expect to be so successful," Sarah said about entering the arena riding on the horse Tippy's Sugar Bar. "I think I could have done better but I was happy with it."

"I was extremely proud of her," Jennifer said of seeing her daughter compete in her fifth, and by far, largest competition. "My stomach did flip flops and the whole nine yards. I honestly never dreamed when Sarah was born that she would be riding a horse."

Dee Staley, an instructor at the Mighty Oaks and Little Peanuts Therapeutic Riding School, has worked with Sarah and accompanied her to Kansas City.

"I just sat and balled," Staley said of her emotions when she learned that Sarah had placed so well. "I get more satisfaction seeing these kids do what they are doing than if I was doing it myself."

Sarah has attended the school for the past 5 years. Sarah has ridden Tippy, the 21-year-old Quarter Horse, owned by the Mighty Oaks, for the past four.

"Tippy is just really good," Sarah said. "Nothing bothers her."

Staley said that the horse is amazing and knows when she is needed to perform.

"She gives Sarah fits when she is out here practicing," Staley said. "They put her in the arena and she was all business. Tippy knew what she had to do."

The Mighty Oaks school gives Sarah an opportunity to ride at least once a week for most of the year and she said she really enjoys the school and working with Staley.

"Dee does not yell at me when I mess up," Sarah said. "She just tells me how to make it better."

Staley said she believes it is Sarah's talent and her family that has helped her become such a skilled rider.

"The Johnsons have been very supportive and even though it scares Jennifer to death, they let Sarah try," she said. "Sarah is a good rider, a determined rider. She really enjoys it."

Sarah said her love for horses came from being around her grandfather's horses. She likes that every horse is different and they know how the rider feels.

"Horses are unpredictable. You never completely trust them because they have a mind of their own," she said. "The calmer you are during the show the calmer the horses are."

The future looks bright for Sarah. She has placed 4th in an open competition that was not exclusively for disabled riders and is excited about improving on her skills and returning to Kansas City next year to win 1st place.

She will have to win at another smaller competition to be invited back to Kansas City but may have the opportunity to compete close to home because new rules have created a category for disabled riders at the Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, one of the largest horse shows in the world.