Inside the barn on his 16-acre Double H Ranch in Kings Mountain, N.C., James Baxter Hobbs caresses the nose of Miss Elli, the 28-year-old thoroughbred he calls “the world’s best horse.”
With a twinkle in his eye, Hobbs confides, “Miss Elli is a lot like me. Her spirit is always willing, but every time she goes for ride, she gets a little lamer.”
At his age, Hobbs figures he’s earned the right to joke about his life and ailments. At 96, he just might be the oldest active riding instructor in the country.
Baxter Hobbs rode his first horse on his boyhood farm in 1910, at the dawn of the automobile age. Nine decades later, he continues to share his horse wisdom and experience with students old enough to be his great-grandchildren.
“I tell the young ones to treat the horses with respect,” Hobbs says. “They have feelings, too. Besides, they need to remember that a horse can be dangerous—a child may be 50 pounds but the horses weigh close to 1,000 pounds.”
Hobbs currently has 14 horses and 11 students who hail from both Carolinas and as far away as Georgia. They make day trips to Kings Mountain once a week for an hour-long riding session.
Like his horse sense, Hobbs’ resolve is strong. He survived two wives and his two sons, as well as a premature retirement in his 50s—the result of a temporary leg problem that put him in a wheelchair. Today, he drives a tractor around his ranch and lifts 50-pound bags of feed. His firm handshake and clear, steady voice make him appear decades younger than he is, but looks aren’t everything. “I like to ride almost every day, but sometimes I need a little help to get my leg over the saddle,” he grins. “I can’t jump on like I used to.”
Hobbs’ hometown is an ideal place for a riding school, with its rustic, peaceful setting and—for his students—central location. Kings Mountain, a hamlet of about 9,700 people, bears the name of the famous battle fought on Oct. 7, 1780, when America’s victory proved a turning point in the Southern campaign, ultimately leading to the British surrender at Yorktown.
In the barn behind his home, the bespectacled teacher is ready. Dressed in a baseball cap, blue jeans, and work boots, he sits in the middle of an open ring where his young students encircle him. He starts them off slowly.
“First, I give them some learning on the ground,” Hobbs says. “I teach them to respect the horses. Then I let them lead the horse around on a line to bring them closer to the horse. Then I put them on a horse and walk them around so they can get a sense of balance.”
His methods tend to stick with his students.
“I’ve never known anyone who has a way with horses like he does,” says Carolyn Seipel of Troutman, N.C. She took her first riding lesson from Hobbs in 1958 when she was in the second grade. “To this day, I’ll ask him to take a look at a horse before I buy it.”
Cindy Pullen, 52, of Riverdale, Ga., took her first lesson from Hobbs when she was 12 years old. She knows how respectful of horses her former instructor is, recalling the first time Hobbs retired and sold his training horses.
“He wouldn’t sell the horses to just anybody,” Pullen says. “Some families wanted certain horses for their children, but Mr. Hobbs knew that they were just too strong, spirited and independent for the child, so he sold them another horse. He was thinking of the horse’s welfare, as well as the children’s safety.”
Watching Hobbs move from stall to stall in the barn, whispering softly into the ears of his four-legged friends, it’s hard to imagine a place he would rather be. He says people often ask how he’s able to keep going so strong.
“The only thing I can say is this: First, you got to be made of good stuff. Second, you got to do the best you can with it.”