Since childhood, horses have been a way of life for Johne Dobbs of Champaign, who now serves as the second-ever female president of the largest equine breed registry and membership association in the world, the American Quarter Horse Association. It's a role she comes to with a lifetime of experience working with the breed.
There is a note of pride in Dobbs' voice when she talks about her hometown, Tuscola, where she and her four sisters grew up on a farm caring for and riding horses; the girls had ponies from a young age, then kept quarter horse mares starting from around age 11. Dobbs is the oldest of six children born to Suzanne Huber and the late Bill Huber (brother Rudy Huber, now a local farmer, never shared the girls' interest in horses).
Said Dobbs: "I came up in AQHA showing with my sisters. It's a great thing for girls, especially at certain ages, when peer pressures kick in. It kept us busy: we were responsible for keeping the barn stalls clean, bedding the straw, grooming our mares, and riding them. It wasn't work — we all loved it. We would sing together in the barn. The older ones helped the younger ones. It was a great lifestyle, and we were lucky to have it."
For the girls, spending time with the horses every day taught responsibility and provided a place apart in which to exercise their independence.
"Growing up with them," Dobbs said, "you can go out and talk to your horse, and they're nonjudgmental. And you can ride them. Our parents wouldn't let us ride on bikes out on the country roads — they thought it too dangerous. But we could go all over on horseback."
Over the course of her life, Dobbs formed lasting connections with other horse people through her involvement in AQHA. She has friends across the states and around the world who share her passion for horses and for the American quarter horse in particular.
"I've met so many people over the years, including one of my best friends, who lives in Texas. We met at age 17," Dobbs said. "We have the same aged children, and we would see each other at shows and cheer for them. Now we compare notes on our grandchildren. We still get to see each other at events and recently got to ride in Wyoming together over the wide open spaces — it was a huge treat for me."
It was through Dobbs' involvement in AQHA shows that she met her ex-husband, and likewise how Dobbs' son and daughter each met their spouses.
"My son, Travis Dobbs, and his wife Johnna, have a son, Cooper, age 11, and a daughter, Dylan, age 9, who live in Jonesboro, Ark. They continue to show in various horse show events: roping, barrel racing, halter, hunter under saddle, pony pleasure and walk trot," she said. "My daughter Courtney Dobbs Clagg and her husband Josh Clagg have two daughters: Carly, age 5, and Quincy, 2.They enjoy a white pony named Chocolate."
Dobbs said it's an honor to lead the organization that has been so central to her life ever since her youth. She enters the position with a deep love of the breed and wide-ranging experience working with quarter horses. Over the course of her lifetime, she has kept somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 quarter horses.
"The quarter horse is America's horse," she said. "The breed is derived from the Spanish horse crossed with English. Its name comes from colonial days: The colonists would have races through town, running horses that were sprinters, and most towns at that time were about a quarter mile across.
"It's a very versatile breed that's excellent for cutting and reining, as well as for pleasure, recreation, and jumping," Dobbs said. "It can do just about anything, including its original purpose, which was ranch horses to work cattle."
Besides involvement in AQHA horse shows, Dobbs also trained horses and taught riding lessons. For a time, she stood stallions on her farm, breeding 700 to 800 quarter horse mares. She has foaled a good number of quarter horses and even bottle-fed a few when their dams died.
In the 1970s and '80s, her father had quarter horse racehorses, so she learned that end of the breed's employment as well.
Today, Dobbs owns and operates Johne Dobbs Equine Insurance in Champaign. She has just one horse at present, Good Barbella, who is being trained in Missouri.
Dobbs, who has served on the AQHA's executive committee for the last four years, said she plans to continue recent programs the organization has been working toward.
"Getting kids involved is probably the most important thing to me," she said. "I like to say I'm the second female president and the first mom.
"Keeping horses is a great way to teach children so many important lessons about life, including mortality. Horses are a lot of work. You take care of your horses before yourself. They eat before you do and get water before you do. It's like being a parent."
But you don't have to have a horse to benefit from learning about them, she said.
"We hope to roll out a new youth initiative that we have been working on called 'Take Me Riding.' It will be a high-quality Web-based application for iPad or tablet that has stories and games about children and horses — not just quarter horses," Dobbs said. "We hired Bean Creative, the company that does work for 'Sesame Street,' and we are working with 4-H, Pony Club, and Breyer Model Horses. This is something that's never been done, and we hope it will build interest in younger age children, even if they don't have their own horses.
"Our youth organization (AQHYA in Amarillo, Texas) has new leadership, too, and they're just igniting. There are so many more interesting things for young people to do, even if they don't have a horse. Besides showing, horse shows have speaking and judging competitions that kids don't need a horse."
Another important program Dobbs said she fully supports is a leveling initiative introduced in January, designed to provide a more level playing field at AQHA shows and to encourage new people to show. She said the program has been well received by members.
Dobbs and her new executive committee will go into session at the end of April at the organization's headquarters in Amarillo, Texas.
This column is dedicated to your pets in The News-Gazette circulation area. If you have a special pet story you'd like to share, please send an email to Siv Schwink at email@example.com. Schwink is a freelance writer and interpretive naturalist. She lives in the country with her three kids, a dog, a cat, two budgies and two ferrets.