On any given morning, JoAnn Dawson might be leading a trail ride or heading off to a movie set, taking her pony to a book signing or preparing breakfast for overnight guests.
“I don’t have a routine—every day is different,” says Dawson, taking a rare break on the porch of her 19th-century farmhouse.
Dawson and her husband, Ted, own Fairwinds Farm and Stables in Cecil County, Md., where they give riding lessons, run a horse camp, and operate a bed and breakfast. They also manage the trail rides and lessons at nearby Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, where half their 45 horses are stabled.
But somehow Dawson finds time to tap into her creative side: She is a professional actress and also author of the Lucky Foot Stable series of books for children.
She has appeared in many movies, including Marley and Me, Beloved, The Sixth Sense, and The Lovely Bones. She began acting while a student at the University of Delaware. She went on to community theater and met a Philadelphia-based casting director. Her first experience on a movie set was as a stand-in in Rocky V. Although she accepts roles only in films being shot locally, she did fly to Los Angeles for The Sixth Sense to be outfitted by the special effects crew for her role as a burn victim.
Dawson also works as a wrangler, supplying horses for movies. In Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved, which was filmed around Fair Hill and New Castle, Dawson supplied 10 horses and drove carriages in a number of scenes. She worked on the set every day for three months.
Winfrey was watching the filming one day and happened to be standing on the spot where Dawson was instructed to pull up her carriage. “My horse was literally breathing down Oprah’s neck,” Dawson laughs.
Working around stars like Brad Pitt and Demi Moore is an exciting change of pace, but Dawson admits, “I wouldn’t want to make a living out of it. I’d be a nervous wreck trying to get jobs!”
Dawson grew up on a dairy farm near Newark, Del. She learned to ride bareback at age six when her father brought home a pony. “He put me on the pony and told me to go and round up the cows,” she recalls.
Her most vivid childhood memories are of exploring the outdoors on her pony and helping out on the farm. “Back then you didn’t sit inside and watch TV all summer,” she says.
Dawson wanted to capture these experiences on paper, and wrote about her pony, Lady, and the adventures she shared with her best friend, Mary. She had a friend illustrate the story and in 2003 decided to self-publish the book.
Lady’s Big Surprise took off and won three awards. Preteen girls loved the horsey-themed book. Parents loved the characters—innocent, adventuresome 12-year-old girls not obsessed with their appearance or boys.
Dawson was influenced to write by seeing the effects of children who are tethered to their computers rather than playing outside. “It breaks my heart when I have to tell a six-year-old that he’s too heavy to get on my pony,” says Dawson, who has two sons of her own.
Dawson has since written three more books for the Lucky Foot Stable series. In 2006, the publisher Sourcebooks acquired the series. Her latest book, Mary & Jody in the Movies, was inspired by her film experiences.
Life at the Dawsons” farm is just as fast-paced as the book plots. After buying the 52-acre horse farm 10 years ago, the couple and their sons renovated the Victorian house and outbuildings. They now offer year-round riding lessons in a huge indoor ring and host bed-and-breakfast guests—many with horses in tow—almost every week. In the summer, they welcome horse-loving campers.
How do they manage all these enterprises? “We’re a good team and we like what we do—that makes all the difference,” says Dawson.