The Sky Is The Limit

Horses and hay are simply heaven for Jimmy and Sonia Smithers.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins

High above Jimmy Smithers’ boyhood home, countless contrails crisscrossed the sky. Living not far from O’Hare International Airport in suburban Chicago, young Jimmy saw planes overhead every day. At 6 years old, he dreamed about what it would be like to one day have his own pilot wings, to soar so seemingly silent past the cerulean-blue horizon.

But there was another childhood dream, too, one closer to the earth. During summers spent in Arkansas with his grandfather and uncles on the family’s farm, far away from the hustle and bustle of that City of Broad Shoulders, Jimmy found peace and solitude. The rural life, with its pastoral ways and slower pace, called to him.

Sonia Smithers

“When I was a kid, there were only two things I wanted to do when I grew up,” says Jimmy, who today resides in west-central Missouri near the city of Warrensburg with Sonia, his wife of 38 years. “One, I wanted to be a farmer, and, two, I wanted to be a pilot. Fortunately, I’ve actually kind of achieved both.”

Daring to Dream

Dreams are what the Smithers’ Wildwood Ranch is all about. Their 80 acres are dedicated to Jimmy’s dream of farming and Sonia’s dream of owning horses. Currently, 11 horses—ranging from paint quarter horses and a Missouri Fox Trotter to a Tennessee Walking Horse and an American mustang—occupy the pastures.

The couple’s journey to their rural Missouri oasis began as high school sweethearts in Phoenix, Arizona, where Jimmy’s family had moved when he was 16. They attended Arizona State University together, marrying during their junior year. After college, Jimmy decided to chase his dream of becoming a pilot and joined the Air Force in 1981. Sonia would follow and support him throughout his 21-year career, raising two children, Brandon and Brittney.

After completing flight school, Jimmy was assigned to a six-man B-52 Stratofortress crew. He flew that aircraft for seven years before being selected to join the B-2 Spirit program, which brought the Smithers family to Missouri and Whiteman Air Force Base, not far from their current home. Jimmy flew the B-2, also known as the “Stealth Bomber,” for the remainder of his military career, retiring in 2002 as a lieutenant colonel.

“I got in on the ground floor of the B-2 program, and it was interesting because we pretty much built all the operational regulations and tactics, and figured out how we wanted to employ the aircraft,” he says. “I had about 1,100 hours in the B-2, and just before I retired, I flew a combat sortie over Afghanistan.”

A Home for Horses

Though they had lived on base during most of Jimmy’s military tenure, the couple had decided that Missouri was where they wanted to remain. In 2000, they purchased what was then a 40-acre country estate complete with a stream, pond, woodlot and pasture. As Jimmy continued in aviation—now as a captain for FedEx, flying freight in North America—two of the couple’s childhood dreams began to intermingle on the farm.

Sonia was no stranger to military life. Her father, Richard Johnson, served in the Air Force for 20 years. The family lived from coast to coast, Maine to California, including Arizona where Sonia would eventually meet Jimmy. However, an 11-year-old Sonia would have her first equine experience while her father was stationed in Puerto Rico.

“I had my first horse, a Paso Fino, while we were in Puerto Rico,” Sonia recalls. “As a little girl, you love horses. That’s just the way it is. I absolutely fell in love, but we had to leave her behind, which was heartbreaking for me. I dreamed that maybe someday I would have another horse.”
With the move to the country, “someday” finally happened, and the couple purchased their first horse, Honta Yo, which Sonia says is Lakota and translates to “clear or lead the way.” While her joy with their new addition was to be expected, she says Jimmy’s reaction wasn’t.

“I never dreamed that Jimmy would ever fall in love with them like I did,” she says. “The whole time I’d known him, he never showed any interest in horses at all. But when he started interacting with them, he absolutely fell in love, and the sensitive side of him just came out.”
As Jimmy and Sonia added to their stable of horses, they actually built a stable, as well as other barns for storing hay and farm equipment. They also purchased a 40-acre hay field to ensure a steady forage supply.

Saddle Satisfaction

While some may raise horses for the show ring or to sire championship lines, Jimmy and Sonia say their horses are purely for their own personal recreation and relaxation. They enjoy riding with neighbors, who are also equine enthusiasts. They also like to get away on trail-riding adventures in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

“Our one strategic plan was just to not make it a job,” Jimmy says. “If we were going to show or breed, I’m the type of personality that, once we started, I would turn it into a full-time job. Right now, the thing we love most about our horses is the fact that it’s our escape. It’s my alter ego.
“When I come home from my busy jet-setting life, I can put my Carhartts on. My blood pressure drops. I walk out with my horses, and even though it’s hard work, it’s still a labor of love. I enjoy every bit of it.”

The couple have plans for more horses at Wildwood Ranch. In a few years, Jimmy intends to retire from FedEx, at which time he and Sonia would like to operate a horse-rescue facility. American mustangs are of particular interest to Sonia.

“We’re passionate about keeping wild horses roaming free out on the plains,” she explains. “But there are just so many of them, and they round them up and have to find homes. So, we would like to bring some here to live with us.”

Adds the pilot, “The sky’s the limit right now.”