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Double Duty: For Watts men, it’s game on … times two



By Sadie Fowler

A typical work day for both Dale and Josh Watts of Summit, Mississippi is nothing but typical. In its most basic form, it’s long. Oftentimes, it requires a full-court press … but neither Dale or Josh would have it any other way. 

Most days start at the barn, where the father-son team partners up for training duties at the barn where the focus is preparing Tennessee Walking Horses for their many clients for a schedule that stays busy from the Fun Show in March through Tunica in November. 

Each day around noon, the barn doors close and Josh and Dale part ways, switching gears for the second half of their days. 

What’s unique about Josh and Dale Watts is that in addition to being dedicated to their full-time day jobs of training horses, about which both are deeply passionate, they are equally devoted to coaching high school basketball. Both careers are taken seriously — and it’s hard for anyone to imagine the amount of work ethic each man possesses as they go about their double-duty workloads each day. 

Most horse enthusiasts can imagine how hard a job it can be to train horses. Just imagine being a skilled and successful coach on top of it. 

The walking horse portion of the business is successful, and centered around family, traveling, competition and deep friendships. The coaching aspect mirrors the former; both men are highly successful coaches who’ve taken their teams, collectively, to at least a dozen state championships.

Family is always at the center, and their story includes interesting tangents woven throughout its entirety. For example, not only has Dale coached his entire adult life, but he once coached Josh to a state championship game where they merely lost by one point. Furthermore, Josh now coaches at that same school he once played for — in a role that came by total surprise. 

Yet again, another interesting tangent within the whole story involves Olivia, Josh’s wife, who serves as the glue holding a lot of it together behind the scene. She came into the picture many years ago, when she and Josh met and what followed was a special relationship she also developed with Dale, also connected to the ball court.

A LONG AND DEEP HISTORY

The Watts family has a long history that connects it to horses, eventually the walking horse. Dale grew up with horses as a boy and enjoyed any chance he had to show in a country or one-night show. 

In the early 1970s, Dale became involved with the Racking horse, back when it was quite viable in the deep South. Even in those early years, Dale had a good eye for any good horse and he recalls seeing Billy Gray show Delight’s Bumming Around in 1971 — a moment that perked his interest in the walking horse breed and one he never forgot. 

In addition to riding and showing horses, Dale also pursued an education and eventually married the love of his life. In 1975, Dale reached two milestones when he graduated the same year he married Lucy, with whom he fondly shared the responsibility of raising a family, including their two sons, Josh and Jonathan.

The early days are also marked by another milestone that came shortly after Dale married and graduated. In the spring of 1975 he took his first coaching job at Centreville Academy in Centreville, Mississippi, 85 miles away from home. Another interesting part of Dale’s long career came in 2013, when he took a job at Columbia Academy, which is the school he himself graduated from. He remains there today. 

Back to the early years, Dale stayed busy coaching, but on the side he also enjoyed training a couple horses.  Initially, for about seven or eight years, Dale enjoyed his part-time gig of horse trainer, where he leased space for little to nothing from John Perkins. 

When the time came, the Watts family began growing and soon enough Dale and Lucy bought a house on the outskirts of town and with that came the need for their own barn. With the help of a few good friends, he built one over the span of just a few weekends and the foundation was laid for what would become a lifetime of memories for Pioneer Stables. 

HISTORY ON THE COURT
 
Even with the barn and the expanding family, Dale continued is core job as a teacher and coach. After his first stint at the Centreville Academy, Dale landed a position at Parklane, where he taught and coached from 1972 to the early 1990s. For the sake of a timeline, Dale had another long career after the Parkdale position.

In 1994 he took a full-time coaching position at Brookhaven Academy, where he stayed until 2013.

Coincidently, this is where Josh went to school, played on his dad’s winning team, and met Olivia. It is also the place where Josh now coaches boys basketball — in state championship style as well. 

When Dale left Brookhaven, he went back to Columbia, the place where it all started for him as a young man with a dream. 

ADDING TO THE BARN

Back to the horses, the string of horses continued to expand over the years, and so did the barn. Little by little, they added onto the barn that had modest origins. Now, they have plenty of room and about 20 horses in training full-time. 

“The good news is, when a client gets frustrated and wants to try something different with their horse they can get a new trainer without actually leaving the barn,” Dale laughed. “We work well together and both have our strengths.”

While it all began for Dale with Racking horses, he was attracted to walking horses at first sight and so when one of his clients became interested in getting into the business, Dale was open to listening and switching up the game plan. 

The client Dale referred to as having gotten him started in the walking horse business is Brett Jones.

“In 1993, Dale won the Racking Horse World Grand Championship on Professional Image and it wasn’t long after that when our customer Brett Jones became interested in showing walking horses,” Olivia explained. 

Dale quickly realized that it took more than just a good client with a desire and a means to succeed in the walking horse business. 

Other big named horses to have made a mark in the Watts’ file of memories include Sunrise At The Ritz, Midnight At The Ritz and then Irrational Exuberance, which they bought from the Shermans. Dark Spirit’s Renegade was the first horse they had showed at the Celebration, and one of the family’s best memories was when Bret showed him and got eighth.

“Irrational Exuberance is the horse we won the elite class with later on,” Dale said. “That was our first good horse. That was around 2003 … We had three people working for Pioneer Stables then. Myself, Josh and my other son, John. The year we won with this horse was the same year Josh graduated from college and John from high school.”

As it turned out, Josh and Jonathan had their own fair share of interest and talent in the horse thing as well and have earned plenty of accolades to prove it. Dale points to Jonathan’s win on Say It Ain’t So, in the three year-old championship at the Celebration as being particularly special. 

Similarly, Josh made another big memory for the Watts team when he won the three-year-old preliminary on Uptight José and was reserve in the Three-Year-Old World Grand Championship. The following year, they won four-year-old preliminary class. 

Over the next decade, things continued to progress for the Watts father and his sons, but at a certain point Dale said there was enough added stress that came with uncertain times within the industry, coupled with three families being fed out of Pioneer Stables, that they were open to other options. John ended up taking a job for Brett Jones (their client) and there were other things on the horizon for Josh as well. 

FATEFUL CALL


Shortly after Dale left Brookhaven to take the job in Columbia, where he is now, a position came open at Brookhaven and Josh was asked to fill in “temporarily.” Initially, the school had hired someone else after Dale had left but in all reality, Dale’s shoes were very hard to fill and the new person didn’t work out. 

Remember, this is where Dale had led his team to seven state championships. He’d led the boys to one state championship, skipped a year, and then had six more wins in a row, not to mention having four state championships at Parklane. 

“Before Josh got the phone call about ‘filling in’ we had heard that the coach that replaced Dale had resigned,” Olivia explained. “I looked at Josh and said, ‘Well, that’s an impossible job to take. Who would be crazy enough to take it?’ Josh laughed and said, ‘Yes, I think it would be pretty rough … Less than a week later I found out I’m married to the one ‘crazy enough!’”

Timing is everything, and at this time things were not great in the walking horse industry, which enticed Josh to give the temporary gig a try. That was several years ago and now, each day when the barn chores are done, Dale heads one way and Josh the other — both in pursuit of their second round of responsibilities. 

Make no mistake, both training horses and coaching kids rank high on Dale and Josh’s list of priorities.  “Coaching kids is a lot like training horses,” Josh said. “Parents and owners are a lot alike. Every one of them thinks their kid or horse is the best.” 

When it’s time to show, Pioneer Stables, for the most part, comes to Tennessee as a result of the more competitive shows being there. They represent about 20 clients and have a solid string of horses that have a second home in Pioneer Stables’ satellite facility in Shelbyville, on a small, three-acre farm that’s just big enough to get the job done.

For Josh and Dale Watts, it’s an unusual scenario that works remarkably well. Most folks are lucky enough to find one career they love, much less two they love — at the same time. Top it off with having the chance to work with family … both men are winners no matter what the technical score.

“I love training horses,” Josh reflected. “There’s no doubt doing it in addition to coaching adds some stress, but I can’t imagine not doing it.”

Dale added, “I enjoy training horses. I don’t much enjoy showing them, but that’s when it comes in handy to know your strengths.” 

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Horses have long been in the blood of the Watts family, beginning with Dale and carrying over to his two sons, Josh and John. For Josh and Dale, basketball is right up there with a good horse show and this, too, stems from Dale’s life-long passion for coaching.

Dale started out as a coach many years ago and to this day, he still enjoys it. About 20 years ago, Josh even played on his father’s team and he played well. That year they lost the state championship by one point.

Fast forward several years and one day Josh found himself following in his father’s footstep once again. The school he once played at — the place Dale was long known as an icon as it relates to basketball — needed a temporary coach. 

Josh was asked to serve in that temporary position and several years later, he can’t imagine it any other way. As it turns out, it was a wise decision for Josh. In addition to sharing many winning moments in the show ring with his father and the team from Pioneer Stables, Josh and his dad have also celebrated many winning moments together on the court — that is unless they are playing against each other.

Thankfully, that doesn’t happen much these days as their schools are far enough apart from each other it’s not part of the normal schedule for either school, but needless to say, both Dale and Josh share a common bond of loving every aspect of coaching basketball. 

The records of both men speak for themselves, with Dale being an iconic figure in the Mississippi world of high school basketball and Josh making quite an impressive name for himself as well. In all, they’ve accumulated about a dozen state championships as coaches. 

Josh has racked up a few of his own, but the first state championship will forever serve as the most special.  “That one made me proud because at that moment I was no longer ‘Dale’s son,’” Josh said. 

As Josh and Dale sit down together to talk shop, they agree on far more than they don’t. Regarding coaching, both aim to have a positive influence on their athletes in a similar way they try to impact their riding students.

“I’ve always been driven by fundamentals and statistics, but to me, more than coaching, what I enjoy right now is molding kids into becoming fine men and women,” Dale said. “That’s more important than state championships.”

Josh agrees with his father, adding that another aspect of coaching that Josh enjoys, and something many people don’t realize about it, is the amount of details that go into coaching.

“My father is right when he speaks of his mission statement of wanting to develop kids,” Josh said. “To add to that, and in order to do that, there’s an incredible amount of detail that goes into coaching that people probably don’t realize. 

“Coaches have to constantly pay attention to every aspect of every kid on the team. For example, it might be recognizing that the most unathletic kid is great at defense. You just never know what you’re going to learn about a kid, but you have to be paying attention or you might miss it. That’s what I enjoy as much as anything.”

Dale agreed saying that each kid progressing differently and coaches have to be able to see that, know who to push and when to push them and in what direction.

Pointing out several parallels between horse training and basketball coaching, both Dale and Josh say there are more similarities than differences in the two. At the end of the day, though, what makes both duties work for both men is that they love what they do.

Whether it’s working together at the barn to get a horse right for a client or parting ways as they head to eac of their respective practices, Dale and Josh feel great passion in all they do.

“The day that I don’t want to go to practice is the day I’ll be done,” Dale said. “As coaches, we push these kids hard. That’s our job as coaches, but when I get a letter from so and so who is now a doctor thanking me for teaching them this or that … you can’t beat that.”

It’s a rewarding feeling that nothing can top — not even a blue ribbon. 

THE GLUE THAT HOLDS IT TOGETHER

The team that makes up Pioneer Stables is definitely a family affair and each family member plays its role to ensure the Watts family has collective success. But without Olivia Watts, there’s no telling what the dynamic might look like. Organized, cheerful and kind, Olivia will admit she lacks patience. Nonetheless, she is part of the glue that holds it all together, whether she’s sitting behind the bench at a ball game or in the box at a horse show.

Olivia has been a part of the Watts family for many years, having first started dating Josh when she was in high school. Shortly thereafter, she was asked to keep the stats for the basketball team during one of the years when Josh, a year older than her, played on it. 

“The girl who had been doing it needed help and since she figured I’d be there, here enters Olivia,” she laughed, admitting Josh was not thrilled with the idea.

She laughs as she tells the story of those early days, clearly recalling that Josh was not thrilled with the decision for her to keep the stats.

“We started dating in December, right in the middle of basketball season,” she laughed. “He was serious about basketball then. I remember when he told me he didn’t really talk much before a game, and I thought, ‘Well you’re going to talk to me!’ … I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thrilled about me being on the bench, but he really didn’t have anyone standing in line to sit on that bench either so I guess it worked out for him.”

Not long after they started dating, Olivia’s dad told her if she would learn how to ride, he’d buy her a horse.  “You tell that to a horse trainer’s son and you know how that ended,” she laughed. “Daddy had to buy a horse.” 

It’s clear looking back that the horse and basketball life was really theirs from the beginning. When Josh graduated high school, he went on to Southwest Mississippi Community College and played basketball for two years. Then, they both went to the University of Southern Mississippi where Josh majored in coaching and sports administration and Olivia was an elementary education major. 

Josh proposed in December of his senior year, in 2002, and they married the following July, in 2003. Josh went straight to work with his dad after graduation and Olivia finished school the following year and began teaching first grade. This past July marked their 16th wedding anniversary. 

Now, they have two sons; J.Parker is 10 and will be in the fifth grade at Brookhaven Academy this fall and Jackson, five, will start kindergarten at the same school, the place it all began.

“We were blessed with our two boys through adoption,” Olivia said. “God’s hand was in every aspect of those two becoming ours. We will forever be grateful that their birth mothers chose life. We got the call about J.Parker during the Celebration. I was on my way to Shelbyville. I called Josh and he was at a sale at Wiser Farm. We always joked about getting a call then, and that’s exactly how it happened. We found out about Jackson when we were at one of Dale’s basketball games, before Josh had started coaching. So even with our boys, it’s always been horses and basketball.”

Life is definitely busy for Josh and Olivia, with a typical day being perhaps more chaotic than the average family with young kids knows. During the school year a normal day begins with everyone leaving the house around 7 a.m.

“The boys ride to school with my mother-in-law, Lucy,” she said. “They both go to school where she teaches and Josh coaches. I’m a school librarian at another school in our county.”

Josh heads to the barn and rides until lunch then he goes to school for junior high boys basketball practice during seventh period and then coaches high school boys after school. 

After school, the boys usually go to the gym and if it’s not a long practice day they’ll come home with Josh and they’ll all be home by 4:30 p.m. or so. If it’s basketball season, there’s usually games Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.- 

“Then it’s every man for himself!” she said. “A typical day doesn’t exist then.”

Although Olivia is modest when she says she’s not organized and wings it most of the time, she certainly does a good job faking it. She admits she’s busy though and rarely has time for anything beyond her core duties as mom, coach’s wife and horse trainer’s wife. 

Whether she’s managing wardrobes, getting the riding suits ready before the shows and the clothes laid out before the game, Olivia does quite well in her role and the family is lucky to have her. 

“I’m pretty much flying by the seat of my pants on a daily basis,” she said. “As far as hobbies, I have none. Recharging is usually a mani or pedi or a quick getaway with friends.” 

Olivia has a great partner in Josh, whom she describes as being a great dad and a patient husband. She says he responds quite well to Olivia’s occasional “I’ll be back sometime” as she’s walking out the door for the rare pedicure. 

“But I’ve also learned when I can and can’t throw those ‘I’m gone’ phrases out there,” she said. “We work pretty well together.” Josh is a great dad, so he usually takes the “I’ll be back sometime” pretty well- but I’ve also learned when those “I’m gone!” can be thrown out there.

Olivia’s role definitely comes with many challenges, with the greatest one simply being time, or rather, lack of time.

“If I ever call him when he’s at the barn or at the gym, the question ‘Are you done?’ is always answered the same way,” Olivia said. “Josh will say, ‘I’m never done. I just stopped for today.’ Josh doesn’t halfway do training or coaching ever.”

When Olivia ever appears to be impatient Josh is quick to remind her that he will never with a world championship or a state championship the week before.  

Olivia says the most challenging thing for her regarding her husband’s two professions is really the same thing that makes her most proud of Josh.  

“I know when those wins come, he worked as hard as he could to make them happen,” she said. “I believe he’s a great trainer and a great coach. The Lord has blessed him immensely in both areas.”

Olivia attests that Josh is grateful to have wonderful customers that have entrusted Josh and Dale with some great horses. On the basketball side, she says Josh has some talented guys and enormous support from their parents.

“There are definitely more similarities than differences when it comes to being the coach’s wife vs. the trainer’s wife,” she said. “I’m a constant cheerleader. In both, at the end of the night we’re either winners or losers.”

While it’s obvious to anyone that Josh and Olivia have a relationship that works like a well-oiled machine, it would be remiss not to note the connection Olivia has with her father-in-law as well; one that goes way back to the early days of keeping stats. 

As she ponders how to best describe her relationship with Dale, Olivia pauses, laughs a little and they carries on with her assessment of the unique bond they share.

“My relationship with the big Dale Watts … This question makes me laugh,” she said. “Josh would say we’re both hard headed and strong-willed. But Dale and I probably both think we’re always right.”

Overall, they definitely get along quite well — as long as Josh isn’t coaching against him.

“Then he’s the enemy!” she laughed. “I may have told the boys, ‘We play Papaw today, so today we don’t like him! I know they know I’m joking.” 

Despite there never being a dull moment, Olivia appreciates the fact that the basketball and horse show schedules compliment each other. They start showing in March and Tunica is usually their last show in November. 

The week after Tunica, basketball season begins. If it’s a great season, basketball will end the last week in February. 

“We’re lucky If we have a few weekends at home, and if we do I’m usually trying to find something for us to do,” she said. “I guess you’d say I do enjoy the busy aspect of it all.”

After all, Olivia grew up in an environment that mimics the busy travel schedule she and Josh sustain now. Her father, who sadly passed away in April of 2018, enjoyed traveling more than anyone she’s ever known.

“Looking back, some of my greatest memories with him were traveling,” she said. “Most of our horse shows require a lot of traveling and our boys love it … I’d say we have the best customers in the business, past and present. They really have treated us like family. It’s that family feel that I enjoy the most about the horse industry as a whole. It’s like a little family reunion at every show.”

Olivia is most thankful for the time they’re afforded together as a family as a result of what they do, especially the horse business. Whether it’s traveling to shows, greeting customers at the barn or having a chance to stop by with the boys to tell her husband hello, it’s a family affair and one Olivia wholeheartedly appreciates. “I know I’m blessed,” she said.

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