Strong bond leads Eaton, Colo, teen and her paint horse to success on national competition circuit
December 23, 2015
Lexi Miller lounged on the high railing of the round pen at her family's house in Eaton, Colo., unaware of her horse trotting up behind her. He gave her leg a slobbery kiss, and instead of being disgusted, the 17-year-old shrieked in surprised laughter.
"He's a lot like a dog," Lexi said, dangling a hand into the pen for the paint horse, Winston, to press his fuzzy nose into.
Lexi and Winston, 9, are a team. They've been together since he was born. When his long, thick tail is unbraided, its auburn kinks even match Lexi's hair.
After giving Winston one last pat on the head, she turned to brag about him.
Together, Lexi and Winston have won 14 world and reserve world championships in various events. They compete in everything from jumping — Lexi's favorite — to barrel racing to showing and more.
It was a long, cold day in the off season, and Winston doesn't get as much training when Lexi goes to school at Dayspring Christian Academy. So after a few minutes of energetic prancing with no praise, he trotted back over and nudged Lexi again. She raised an eyebrow at him and shook her head again with a laugh, right as his tongue slipped out to lick her once more.
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Winston is small for a paint. Because of his size, everyone told Lexi and her mother, Sharon Miller, he would never be good enough to win titles. Despite her love for Winston, Lexi believed them. When she aged into the 14-18 division, the doubt took over, and she started her first competition in tears.
Then Lexi and Winston won two first-place titles and second- and third-place titles, making them the overall circuit winner in her age division.
"It's really special to have a horse that everyone thought would never be good enough and be so successful with him," Lexi said.
The love of animals has always come naturally to Lexi.
The first time Lexi was on the back of a horse, she was 6 months old. She started showing horses when she was 3 or 4. Her mother used to show horses, as well, before she started breeding them. Her father ranches cattle and owns several feedlots.
Lexi has two seasons of competition left before she goes away to college, and she's hoping to catch the eye of recruiters for the equestrian teams of some of her dream colleges in the South, such as Texas Christian University, Texas A&M or Baylor.
In the face of all her success, Lexi's parents make it a priority to teach her humility.
"If we put everything that she won (together), it'd almost look like a shrine, and I don't want her head to get that big," Miller joked, her tone turning more serious when she said many people in the horse community focus on the wrong things. "If I saw that she was caring more about the win than compassion for people or the horses, I'll pull her off the horse and we'll go home. I'd rather have a kid with a beautiful attitude and personality."
For Lexi, all the success is still surreal. Although she's confident in both her and Winston's abilities, she still gets insecure when she goes to large competitions. Her family can't afford the exorbitant show clothing or the horses with the best breeding. But Winston has proved you don't need impeccable bloodlines, and Lexi does fine in secondhand show jackets.
Now a junior, Lexi balances increasing homework loads between sessions with her horse trainers, Tom and Leslie Lange in Greeley. She doesn't have time to do other extracurricular activities and continue to keep up her A and B grades and spend time with Winston. Sometimes, that means forgoing football games with her friends for competitions across the country.
Not many kids at her school participate in equine or agriculture events, but she said at this point, they're all used to her being "the horse girl."
Smiling softly, she reaches over the pen and gives Winston a carrot treat from her hand. He gobbles it up, nudging her fingers with the heart-shaped patch on his nose Lexi says looks like Mickey Mouse. She gives him one last pat, then it's time for her mother to put Winston in the barn for the night so Lexi can do her homework.
When Miller's pulling him away by the halter, his lips purse out like he's trying to give Lexi one last goodnight kiss. ❖