DECATUR, Ill. | Austin Cannon's belt buckle gleamed and glinted in the sun as he helped his little sister, Sydney, lead Chloe, the 6-year-old mare they both show, out of the arena at Lazy Creek Acres.
The 13-year-old boy has been around horses all his life and is already a confident and accomplished horseman, having recently earned several honors through the Pony of the Americas Club.
This summer, Austin competed in two of the organization's shows — the MidWest Regional Show in Gordyville in late June and the club's National Congress in July.
The youngster once was more reserved, said his mom, Kelly Cannon, but working with horses has done a lot to bring him out of his shell.
"Believe it or not, he used to be really quiet and shy," she said, adding that the sport also has improved his life in other ways.
Austin was born with a chromosomal abnormality — a partial deletion of chromosome 9. He explained his disorder in simple terms.
"There's something in my DNA that looks like a candy cane, and I lost the hook of it," Austin said.
Kelly Cannon said the rare disorder affects things like her son's speech, balance and muscle tone, making some everyday tasks more difficult and others, such as riding a bike, impossible.
"He has a lot of delays as far as motor skills, and so this was something he could do to help with his balance and build up his muscle tone," she said of riding and showing horses. "Physically it's helped him tremendously."
Austin started showing at age 3, taking after his brother, Cody, now 16, who gave up showing horses this year to focus on playing football for Mount Zion High School. The older boy has five national championships under his belt, his mom said.
Kelly Cannon and her husband, Clay, both started showing horses at an early age.
"I started probably when I was 5 or 6," she said, adding that she spent a lot of time at Lazy Creek Acres as a young child.
She showed with Pony of the Americas until she was 18, competing at the state and national levels, and attending college for horse judging.
At the recent shows, Austin competed in a variety of classes as judges evaluated Chloe (whose show name is "Suddenly Irresistible") and the boy's riding ability and control over her. He scored the most points out of all boys in his age group at the regional show, and was named the reserve high point winner in his age group at the national competition.
The Mount Zion Junior High School seventh-grader was rewarded for his victories with a saddle at the regional competition and a chair at the national competition.
Chloe, who belongs to Oklahoma veterinarian Dr. Rosslyn Spencer Biggs, came into the family's life three years ago to bring along a new challenge for Cody, Kelly Cannon said.
"She's made things interesting," she said. "Cody taught her quite a bit and then handed her down to Austin," she said. "And he's even taught her more."
Austin said it has taken a lot of hard work and dedication to achieve success with Chloe, but the horse has been his best so far.
"She's just a good horse to ride," he said, adding that all the work he's had to do with her has made him a better rider.
The ride has not been without its bumps, though. Something spooked Chloe at a show in April, and Austin lost his balance, falling off and breaking his elbow.
"I fell down, and I couldn't even move my arm," he said.
But the youngster has never been one to give up.
"He got a cast on, and he was riding the next day and ready to go," said Kelly Cannon.
Getting back on was a little scary, Austin said, adding that "love for showing ponies" keeps him going.
He said he is dedicated to putting in the time to get better.
"We try to be out here basically every day that we can," said Austin.
The youngster said he doesn't let challenges stop him from trying or doing the things he likes, and he can do what any other kid can. Austin tried out for the school's show choir, earning a spot this school year.
"It's the first thing that he's tried out for and made," his mom said with a tinge of pride in her voice.
Austin and his family have made an effort to share their love of horses and the sometimes-therapeutic power of working with them. They regularly volunteer with local Special Olympics equestrian competitors and events.
Eulah Gahwiler, who has owned Lazy Creek Acres since before Kelly Cannon started going there as a small child, said she has enjoyed working with multiple generations of local families.
"It was the highlight of my life," she said of teaching so many children to ride.
The children of Decatur are better for having known and learned alongside a competitor like Austin, who is an inspiration to the people he meets, Gahwiler said.
His friends and family are very close, and those who love him have always offered their full support, Austin said. "They love me no matter what I do."