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Dakota Willimon, Not Just A Typical Teenager

By Ann Bullard

As a youngster, she was a cute little blond who could ride a horse and who was popular with most who knew her. In those days, she was known simply as "D." But cute little girls grow up - in this case into a tall, willowy beauty, who looks more like her mother than some might imagine.

"D" no longer does justice to this equestrienne. Rather, Dakota Virginia may better tell the tale of a bit of a comic, often so-southern lady who lives up to her family heritage and that of the sport she has loved all of her life. Named for her grandmothers and two - or if you count all of the variations - four states, she carries the Willimon mantle well. But of Bud and Cindy Willimon's only daughter, you would expect no less. She has a bright and sunny nature and an outlook on life that has helped make her one of the most popular of the junior exhibitors.

It's difficult for those who watched Dakota on her first pony, or even in her early equitation career, to believe she is in her final junior exhibitor season. She began riding soon after she could sit up. If you count the hours her mother rode while she was pregnant, the now 17-year-old has been part of the Saddlebred world for more years than she is old. One might wonder what would have happened had the daughter of Bud and Cindy Willimon not inherited her parents' love for horses in general and the American Saddlebred in particular.

Dakota's riding talent has helped her win not only on her own horses, but as one of the most sought-after "junior professionals," on many other people's horses as well. She is one of a small group of 17 and under riders whose abilities rival those many times their ages, and as such she is often called upon to show horses for others.

Take last year for example. Dakota started the season at Asheville, riding a pair of horses for Debbie Foley and one for Sam Stafford. The blue ribbon and tricolor she won aboard Foley's Hollywood Scandal gave notice of the unbelievable year to follow. By season's end, Dakota had shown 19 horses for 13 different trainers at a total of 11 shows. Blues and tricolors from Rock Creek, Midwest, Harrodsburg, and Blue Ridge set the stage for Louisville.

Almost every time you looked up at Freedom Hall, especially if it was a junior exhibitor class, you saw Dakota. Three-gaited, five-gaited, five-gaited pleasure, road pony, road horse, fine harness and equitation, she was there catch-riding for four trainers and riding equitation for her home barn, Rob and Sarah Byers' Premier Stables.

The results: four championships, six reserves, a fourth and sixth - in 12 classes. This included the Kentucky Equitation Championship for riders 14-17 and a reserve in the Kentucky State Fair Senior Equitation Championship. As Rob Byers cautions, "You'd better enjoy it. There'll never be another one like it."

The person behind the makeup, top hat and jods

"A typical, silly teenager." That is the way Dakota describes herself, someone with varied interests beyond the horses and her friends.

She loves art - to read about it and its history. "I've always wanted to do design," she said. But her reading choices show another side: stories about World War II, Southern literature, "girly" books like the Nanny Diaries and lots of fashion magazines.

"I just like to hang out with friends, to go shopping - I'm a big shopper," she said. Like mother - like daughter, that's one of many activities they enjoy together.

"Sometimes I come home and practice, then go back to Lexington to school," Dakota said. Her typical week revolves around classes Monday through Friday, but Saturdays are a different story. "On Saturdays, I ride my equitation horse (Worthy Am I), then I hang out, shop, and spend time with my friends. I'm a big shopper. Mom and I have girls days out when we go to lunch and..." If you've seen the way Dakota and Cindy dress, then you know the rest of the story.

"I'm just Dakota," the self-described perfectionist said, adding that she lives in a world that's half-full rather than half-empty. "Sometimes I set standards that I have a hard time meeting - for myself and for other people. I can get upset if things don't turn out the way I want them to be."

She talked for a moment about giving up team sports, participating in drama and other school activities her friends have time to do. "I'd try out for plays, but couldn't do them because of riding. There was a time when I wanted to quit. I was really sick of it, but then I realized how much I would miss riding. I do have to give up stuff other kids do, but I would hate not to have it. I don't know what I'd do in the summers - I have so many good friends in the horse business. I can't imagine not being part of it."

Fortunately, Sayre School, in downtown Lexington, Ky., is accustomed to people keeping schedules that revolve around horses. Nancy Brannon, Callie Clifton, Brooke Jacobs, Ann Mary and Walt Robertson are among the Sayre alumni who chose horses as their athletic activity.

It's pretty tough for a "typical silly teenager" to evaluate herself, so to get a better appreciation of Dakota, I asked some of her closest friends.

Kelsey Price, Tate Bennett and Dakota are known as the "Simpsonville Trio." Those who see them around the horse show grounds agree that if you see one of them, the others won't be far behind, unless they are getting ready to ride. Then their friends are on the rail.

To Kelsey Price, who is four years Dakota's junior, but the closest thing to a little sister Dakota has, she is simply, "everything to me. I don't know what I'd do without her. I'd have a hole inside me, if I didn't have that one friend to go to when I need to talk."

"I've known her all my life. She's very outgoing, caring, and very fun to be around. And she's always there in the tough times, wanting to know what's wrong and how she can help," the so-personable daughter of Kris Price Knight said. "Sometimes after school she'll come and get me and take me out to dinner for the fun of it. On Saturdays, she takes me to the mall and we hang out."

Both girls competed in the World Cup invitational competition in 2001. "When we were there, we made up dances and poems about South Africa and team cheers," Kelsey said, recalling some of the shared silliness teens enjoy.

Dakota has become a "horse show sister" rather than "horse show mom" for Kelsey on many occasions. "At a show, she always wants to do my makeup," Kelsey said. "She's always on the rail helping me. Sometimes she drives me to horse shows two hours away."

Louisville is a special challenge, not only for Dakota, but also for Kelsey, the petite daughter of a trainer who has to be at the grounds hours before her daughter needs to be ready. Again, Dakota steps up. "Sometimes we stay in the same room or just spend the night together before I have to show. She does my makeup, my bun" and makes sure Kelsey is on time and ready to show.

Sarah Byers had this to say about Dakota. "[She] is the closest thing Rob and I have ever had for a kid." Byers calls the young lady behind the makeup "real sensitive and a good person. She is the oldest at our barn now; the next is 14. Dakota's always ready to help. She's never outgrown loving the barn for all the right reasons. If she had the time, she'd be out there helping with the fun show."

"I think she's the best of Bud and Cindy both - fortunately, she doesn't have a temper," Byers said, evaluating her junior exhibitor star. "She'd give you the shirt off her back, just as they would. Not that she hasn't been spoiled, but she doesn't act like a spoiled brat. She's grown up with a lot of kids who have much more than she has and has seen how some of that has been. She has a lot of natural talent, like her mom, and has never minded coming over here and riding old school horses, doing whatever is necessary. She's never been a prima donna about that kind of stuff."

Dakota also is determined. She is always up to any challenge, and has proven that by winning numerous titles including the much-coveted National Horse Show Good Hands championship.

According to Byers, Dakota is "more of a Southerner than she knows, like her mama, grandma and daddy. She likes smaller Southern schools where people still dress up a bit, where guys wear khaki pants and starched shirts. She's not one to wear a ragged old t-shirt and holy-jeans. She likes to dress up."

The road to stardom

Those who know Cindy and Bud Willimon are not surprised their daughter excels in her horse activities. Cindy showed in the Carolinas and has been a top catch rider since she and Bud married. Bud has built his professional farrier business into one of the most successful in the country, adding a number of assistants and a full line of supplies.

The two of them have built Southern Venture into the leading horse transport company in the Saddlebred world. Just as expectant owners wonder what a foal will be like, the Willimons and their friends eagerly anticipated Dakota's arrival as well. And so did Dakota. Typical Dakota, she came early - and in the middle of Louisville.

"I thought I didn't have a friend in the world," her mom, Cindy, said of spending State Fair week in the hospital with her newborn daughter. Bud had commitments to clients, and Rob and Sarah had customers and horses to put in the ring.

"None of us had gotten to see her," Sarah Byers recalled. "She was very much a preemie - she fit in Cindy's hand when she was born."

Dakota's love of horses was surely predestined, but Bud was taking no chances. While Cindy was pregnant, he bought a pony and put it on the front porch of the trailer. Bud's next purchase, when Dakota was 9 months old, was a palomino pony called Diamond. In time Diamond went to the Byers, where he helped start young riders for the rest of his life.

Dakota has ridden since she was old enough to sit on a horse. She was in her first lead line class at the age of two-and-a-half. Except for a few breaks along the way, she's been there ever since. "I really started riding at two," she said, adding that she began at Premier Stables, her only 'home barn.' "Renee (Biggins) taught me while she was there. Mom and Sarah have told me that I would quit all the time and then go back."

Dakota began showing in tournaments and Academy when she was three. Her first 'real show horse' was Sultan's Commander; and at 21 he was three times her age. Their walk and trot career was short-lived. "I didn't do so well," Dakota recalled. "I'd never won but one class until Louisville. Then I won the 7-year-old age group. I didn't know what hit me."

Byers was amazed by the performance of Dakota and the former show gelding. "We had been putzing around all summer - the horse was a hundred years old and looked like it. I don't know if it was the combination of the old world champion in him and something in Dakota's blood when she rode down the ramp at Louisville - but I remember standing there wondering where that kid and that horse had come from. In the victory pass, he was trotting over the top of the rail."

This was Dakota's seventh birthday and that birthday tradition has continued ever since. "I don't believe Dakota has gone a year without winning something at Louisville on her birthday," Byers, her friend, trainer and second mother, said.

At the Fall Classic, Dakota was in tears when she didn't make the cut in the Walk and Trot finals. "I had big tears in my eyes," she recalled. "That afternoon Sarah asked me if I wanted to canter."

They cantered and Dakota showed the next four years in the 10 and under division.

"The next year, I didn't have a horse, but showed horses around the barn," Dakota said, recalling riding Gucci in equitation and other canter classes. "That winter, we got The Billy Bob; we thought he was a prospect we would buy - then sell."

That "really scrawny" horse blossomed at Premier and Dakota won three show pleasure world's championships with the animal she calls "my favorite horse in the whole world."

Selling Billy was tough, especially when Dakota was between horses. But she has handled it well, and has reveled in the gelding's many world's championships since those days.

"Billy was their first horse in training after Sultan's Commander," Byers said. "They bought him for almost nothing. One of the things Dakota's known is her Mom and Dad are enough in the horse business, they have to sell. He's probably putting her through college."

A year and a half of showing Jimmy Church brought a number of equitation wins, including her Lexington age group. At 12, she won the 12-year-old age group, Kentucky Riders 13 & Under Championship and a Top 10 in the UPHA Finals with Weeping Willow.

She began her other "career" - as a "junior professional" when she was 12 years old, riding such horses as CH Sarah Katherine, CH Perrier, Worthy's 'Ristocrat, CH A Touch Of Champagne and driving several of Larry Boyd's roadster ponies. They earned top ribbons everywhere they showed. Other people's horses, particularly CH Vittidini, were Dakota's mounts in her 13-year-old season. She showed Andy Bitner's champion to the 13 & Under Five-Gaited World's Championship after tying reserve in the qualifying class. She had proven herself as a girl who could get a good show out of anything she rode, but soon the desire to show equitation surfaced. Dakota's parents and trainers decided that they were willing to go down that road with her, if that's where she wanted to go.

First came the challenge of finding a horse. Cindy tells the story. "We were at Smith Lilly's looking at a horse that really wasn't everything we needed when Lynda Freseth called on my cell phone. She told me, 'I've found Dakota's new equitation horse - you have one day to get here because someone else is coming to buy him.'

"We hopped to it and drove to Mike Roberts Stables in Missouri. Dakota stepped up on this big gelding, made a couple of trips and we were sold. When we wondered what to call him, Lynda said 'Wilson' from the movie The Castaway. When Tom Hanks was stranded on a desert island, his only companion was a volleyball that he named Wilson. It was his only hope.

"'This horse is your only hope to get back to equitation,'" Lynda told Dakota.

They clicked and, 'Wilson,' officially named Worthy Am I, has carried Dakota back to the top of the equitation world, including winning the Kentucky Equitation 14-17 title and a reserve in the Saddle Seat Equitation Senior Championship at Louisville. At Penn Nationals, they won the Good Hands Finals against the very best riders in the country. At the American Royal a few weeks later, she earned the reserve tie in the USA Equestrian Saddle Seat Medal.

Dakota's final junior exhibitor season started off in blue-ribbon fashion, with a pair of equitation wins at Tampa Charity.

What lies ahead

The Willimon team hopes for another stellar horse show season, but as Rob cautioned, anyone would be hard-pressed to have a more exciting season than last year. One more year of being at home with family and friends. Then it's off to college.

The South Carolina-bred teenager is going back to her family roots at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. "All the Willimons have been to Wofford. When I visited, they asked me 'are you another one of those Willimons' " she said with a smile.

The 1,200-student school has a Division 1 football team. Their stadium is the Carolina Panthers training camp. And it's close to her grandmother and Bud's two daughters from a previous marriage.

She dreams of a career in communications - or in fashion, perhaps with a fashion magazine. She thinks of living somewhere far away - New York or California. "But I love Kentucky and South Carolina where the rest of the family is. I love my family," she said.

Dakota visited the school recently - and talked about taking a lighter load than normal her first semester and getting out for the Royal. She has an old Saddlebred at home and will be looking for a stable for her practice horse.

"Miss Cindy took me to Clemson," Kelsey said of her recent show in the Carolinas. "We went by to see where Dakota was going to school. It won't be the same without Dakota."

Somehow, one imagines that Dakota will find lots of opportunities to ride in the Carolinas, and that summer will find her home in Kentucky, going to county fairs and championships. But for her family and friends - Cindy Willimon may well have summed up the immediate future. In speaking of Dakota's graduation, she said, "We'd better wear dark glasses and carry buckets."

Tears - of joy and sadness - are as sure to flow as is the knowledge that the youngest of the Willimon clan will be back. To paraphrase: you can take Dakota out of Kentucky (or away from Saddlebreds), but you can't take that love away from her.

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