From the time she first grabbed a saddle horn and slowly comprehended the world around her, Dakota Missildine had one major goal in life — to become Miss Rodeo USA.
Few people ever realize their dreams, but Dakota achieved hers in a spectacular way on Jan. 17, 2010, in Oklahoma City.
That’s when and where she basked in the glow of cheers and applause as she galloped around the huge arena before thousands of spectators at the International Rodeo Finals.
"I was up on a horse the first time when I was three," she said, during an interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News. "Since that time, it’s been my life. I don’t know of any other way to live."
With her crowning, Dakota undertook a major responsibility — one that will continue through the rest of this year until she turns her title over to her successor.
She hasn’t been home much since mid-January because part of her victory entails traveling across the country to represent the rodeo industry.
Once she gets into "Ruby," her 2004 Dodge 3500 truck, Dakota knows she’ll be driving thousands of miles from one state to another — participating in local and regional rodeos, visiting hospitals, lining up at fish fries and anything else to help promote her favorite sport.
She once spent four days in the Volunteer State where part of the trip included attendance at "the world’s biggest fish fry" in Paris, TN.
"I don’t take my own horse," she said, as customers began to arrive at the Tin Top Café her grandfather, Robert Missildine, has owned and operated for many years. "I ride what they provide and that’s fine with me."
She started out at the age of three on a pony named "Oreo" and gained experience as she grew older. It seemed a natural fit for an athletic girl who would also star on her high school’s basketball and track teams one day.
She began to compete in rodeos at the age of six and quickly won her share of ribbons for first place finishes, especially when it came to barrel racing and pole bending.
Dakota won her first belt buckle at the age of 11 at an event in Greenville and it wasn’t long before a room in her house began to fill with more awards signaling just how good she was and still is.
When her college years arrived, she continued to win in a variety of rodeo events, adding even more awards to what she had already won. She’s lost track of all the trophies, ribbons and belt buckles presented to her, but they easily total more than 100.
Achieving so much at such an early age was part of her dream because she knew hard work was her key to success and she had time to prepare for it.
Other little girls her age fell asleep at night after their mothers read fairy tales to them. Not Dakota. Her bedtime stories involved real rodeo people, not fictional characters.
"My mom would read old rodeo magazines to me," she said, referring to Pam Missildine, a divorced mother of three. "From that time on, I just had to compete and I’ve been both thrilled and honored by what I’ve been able to accomplish."
One of her first indelible memories from those bedtime story sessions was learning about Lisa Watson Lance who became one of America’s most acclaimed rodeo performers and, today, is a successful attorney in Oklahoma.
Lance continued as an inspiration for Dakota as she grew older and the impact she’s made has been evident to the woman she idolizes.
"Everyone I have talked with about Dakota has said they fell in love with her Southern charm on impact," Lance said. "She is genuinely nice and brings across a beauty that comes from within and just shines for all to see."
South Montgomery County Academy is a tiny school, but that enabled Dakota to be closer to her friends and classmates, including the other 12 in her senior class.
She was class president, served on the student government association and didn’t have to worry about identities when it came time to deliver her commencement address.
She didn’t need a list of the graduating seniors "because I’ve known them since kindergarten and had no problem with their names, including their middle names."
She didn’t have Troy University (TU) in mind at first because she felt it was too close to home, so she opted for the University of West Alabama (UWA) in Livingston.
The late Don Hines, who was one of Alabama’s top promoters of rodeos, helped launch teams at UWA and, later, at TU, became another inspiration for Dakota.
An academic with expertise in business and community development, Hines was also an athlete and experienced rodeo performer in his younger days.
Having Hines in her corner didn‘t hurt Dakota a bit and when she transferred to Troy after one year at UWA, she picked up right where she left off.
"I knew Don Hines before I went to college," she said. "It’s important for people to know how many lives he touched. He certainly became an important person in my life."
Some athletes have difficulty focusing on anything but their sport, but Dakota knows she won’t be a competitive rodeo rider all her life and that’s why she’s also concentrating on her broadcast journalism major at TU.
She is captain of the women’s rodeo team and takes part in breakaway roping, goat tying and barrel racing. She’s also been sports anchor for the Trojan Vision News, a member of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and has a sparkling grade point average.
Her first stop along the way to Miss Rodeo USA was in Athens where she captured the Miss Limestone Sheriff’s Rodeo title. That put her into the national competition in Oklahoma City where several other contestants sought the same crown.
Dakota took top honors in horsemanship, speech and appearance. Her "Golden Heart" platform showed her altruistic spirit.
"Golden Heart is a program I’ve developed to teach others about opening their heart and living by the Golden Rule — ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’" she said.
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely was thrilled by Dakota’s victory and said she is "a very classy young woman and we appreciate her serving as our ambassador this year."
"The success of Dakota will help to promote our pageant and will make our entire rodeo more beneficial toward raising funds for equipment and training needs of the sheriff’s office," Blakely said.
One of Dakota’s biggest supporters through the years has been Debra Davis, a magazine editor at Alabama Farmers Federation.
"There aren’t many young people as driven and focused as Dakota these days," Davis said. "I can remember watching her grow up and I always marveled at her competitiveness."
Davis said Dakota has shown a willingness to help others, even those she competes against at rodeo events.
"She was always a good sport and willing to lend a hand to those competing against her," Davis said. "She’s still that way. She’s a great ambassador for the sport of rodeo as well as an inspiration outside of that arena, too."
As a young girl, Dakota made sure she did her part in helping the family, including her two younger brothers — Dallas and Austin — and the Tin Top Café which became her second home.
"I remember working here when I was little," she said, as customers began to fill up the restaurant just south of Montgomery on U.S. 231. "I did about everything — from taking orders to cleaning tables. I can just about run the place if I’m needed."
Her grandfather beams when he thinks of Dakota and can’t wait for her to return from one of her long trips.
"We’re all very proud of Dakota," Robert Missildine said. "We’ve all watched her grow up here and she has done so well in everything she’s tried."
Life is a learning experience and Dakota’s idol believes the new Miss Rodeo USA is getting quite a lesson as she travels the country.
"Even though Dakota got the crown in January, it is pretty neat to watch as she is becoming Miss Rodeo USA more and more each day," Lance said. "She is really making this year hers."
Halfway through her reign, Dakota Missildine is learning each day just what Lance meant.
At the end of her special year, she will receive a $5,000 scholarship which will help pay for her master’s degree studies.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.