By Reagan Ratcliff
Photos by Sam Thomas
Emma Jo Eversole lay on the ground, finding her breath and the courage to rise after falling from the running horse’s back once again. Determined to work at Dolly Parton’s Stampede as a trick rider, Eversole pushed herself up and rose again.
Eversole started off as a performer at the Stampede, but she wanted to become a trick rider. She had experience and training with horses. She wasn’t afraid of the dangers associated with this job.
Dolly Parton’s Stampede is in Pigeon Forge and is one of the most popular dinner shows in the area. The show encompasses a western theme with a friendly competition. Guests are served a warm country dinner in an indoor arena-style building. The show has horse-riding stunts, special effects, dancing, competitive games and music by Parton.
“I used to love going to Dolly Parton’s Stampede as a kid. Every performer and horse I saw made my eyes sparkle with joy,” Eversole says. “My whole family would go enjoy the dinner show at least once a year, and I would dress up as if I was in the show myself.”
With 10-years experience as a competitive dancer and cheerleader, Eversole applied for Dolly Parton’s Stampede. She also was experienced riding horses, having competed in more than 30 horse shows.
Eversole began working at the stampede in 2019 while she was a sophomore at UT Knoxville. She was hired part time as a dancer/performer, which meant learning the choreography for up to 10 acts.
“I loved being a dancer for the Stampede, but as I watched the trick riders perform during the show, I knew I wanted to end up trick riding,” Eversole says. “I knew that it would take a lot of work for me to move to that position, but I was ready to put the work in.”
Every day after Eversole finished her college classes, she drove to her trainer’s house an hour away from Knoxville. After each session with the retired Dolly Parton’s Stampede trick rider, Eversole would return to her college apartment with bruises and scrapes from countless falls. After each fall, she continued to get back on.
“When I would fall off during training, I would remind myself that I could not get scared and quit,” Eversole says. “I had worked too hard for that, so I’d get right back on every time.”
As she was practicing to become a trick rider, it was very hard because she had never performed tricks on a horse and used different body muscles to lean off of the horse. She would constantly remind herself to trust her body, experience and the horse.
Finally feeling ready, Eversole tried out to become a trick rider for the show. During her tryout, she had to demonstrate her skills by doing a full run-through of the trick-riding act with lights and sound in full costume.
In 2020, she was promoted to a trick rider.
“I was nervous when I got approved to trick ride in the show because that was the first time I had trick rode with spotlights and loud music,” Eversole says. “Doing it with music for the first time was difficult because you have to worry about timing. It is each trick rider’s job to prove they can hit every trick in sync with the music.”
From standing on the horses’ backs to hanging from the side of the saddle, sometimes only inches from the ground while the horse is running full speed around the arena, Eversole trusted her training and her horse to keep her safe.
She took her college classes in the morning toward her degree in history and went to work in the afternoon. She graduated from UT Knoxville in 2021.
“I have always had a passion for horses and the art of horse riding, but I never imagined that I would turn this passion into a career,” Eversole says. “I find it so strange and interesting that everything in my life has prepared me for the job I have now.”
As a trick rider, Eversole’s career entails putting on makeup that gleams under the stage spotlight, dressing up in sequined outfits and saddling a show horse. However, trick riding is not all glam and beauty.
“I come home every day from work and rehearsal with arena sand all in my hair and clothes,” Eversole says. “I still find bruises all over my body from the impact of the horse and saddle while learning new tricks, but I don’t fall anymore.”