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Dream Chaser: Coach, rodeo rider fulfills lifelong passion

Bekah grooms L.J., the horse Tomlinson uses with children because he is so gentle and calm.

Bekah grooms L.J., the horse Tomlinson uses with children because he is so gentle and calm.

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Tomlinson's son, Gabe, 17, helps coach. Here, he carefully leads 7-year-old Bekah Harris around the barrels on the obstacle course. Bekah is riding L.J., an abused horse that Tomlinson has rehabilitated.

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Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith - Emily Tomlinson, right, coaches Arrion Williams on a jump in the arena at Dream Chaser Farms. Williams is on the equestrian team at Georgia State University, and has been taking lessons from Tomlinson since age 9.

OXFORD -- Growing up, Emily Tomlinson wasn't the most popular kid in school. She found out quickly that not fitting a certain mold meant social ostracism.

Tomlinson found escape from her pain in horses. She started riding at age 7. Concerned for their daughter's safety, her parents would only let her ride with a family friend who was a nurse.

Tomlinson's hobby soon became life-consuming.

"I was horse crazy for some reason," she said.

At the time living in Gwinnett County, her family eventually moved to a large property where Tomlinson could keep her own horses. Her parents decided they'd use Tomlinson's passion for equines to teach her about responsibility. She was tasked with everything from basic care of the animals to building barns.

"I had to work really hard because I didn't come from a privileged background. My parents pushed me to work for everything I had," she said.

That work ethic paid off as Tomlinson entered the competitive world.

She competed with several open show circuits, the American Quarter Horse Association and Appaloosa Horse Club, with a showing and training career encompassing Western Pleasure, western trail riding, horsemanship, halter, showmanship, hunter seat equitation and jumping. At 18, she started competing in speed events including barrel racing, pole bending and arena race.

By the time she was a teenager, Tomlinson was training both people and horses. Within the last 16 years she has been a member of and competed with the American Cowboy Association, Southern Rodeo Association, Southern Pro Bullriders and National Barrel Horse Association.

In 2004, she was a Top 5 National Champion for the Appaloosa Horse Club, and a Top 10 National Champion in 2006. In 2002, she was named Western Trainer of the Year by Newton County Saddle Club.

"I was not a natural talent when I was young, but I had a drive and a passion for it beyond most girls my age," she said.

Still, the constant focus on winning left her unsatisfied. Tomlinson dreamed of having her own farm where she could train in a different way than she'd been taught. She wanted people to understand horses, learn how to relate to them and use horseback riding and competition as a way to build valuable life skills.

In 1998, she moved to an 11-acre property off Cook Road in Oxford, naming it Dream Chaser Farms. "I was chasing the dream to have my own place." Now that Tomlinson's dream has come true, she's helping others achieve theirs.

For the last few years, she's been a coach for the equestrian teams of both Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. She's led the teams, two of the smallest in the region, to the national qualifiers on several occasions.

Tomlinson calls her students "family." They train at her farm and often take up temporary residence there too, as many are on their own for the first time and missing the comforts of home.

Tomlinson likes the challenge of coaching, especially since it ties in with her goal of teaching horse and human relations. In the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, the teams are required to compete on whatever horses the host college provides, meaning they often meet their horses the day of the competition.

"You don't have all that training time. You have to be more of a horseman than a showman," and that's what Tomlinson emphasizes when training, whether it's with an equestrian team member or a student taking horseback riding lessons for the first time.

Tomlinson has become known for taking in so-called "problem" horses that no one else can handle and giving them a second start. She's tamed and trained horses that bite, kick and attack, and those that have been abused and neglected. Most of the time, it's not the horse that's the problem, Tomlinson said.

Her specialty is finding a horse's talent, whether it's Western or English style, rodeo, trail riding or chasing cows. Horses are like people: They each have a personality and particular strengths and weaknesses, she said.

"Most people and horses are misunderstood and you have to learn to not make a judgement call on either one until you get to know them," she said.

Tomlinson teaches her students how their emotions and behavior affect the animals.

"Horses pick up if you're high-strung or angry. They feel your feelings. You have to learn how to control your emotions to make them comfortable," she said. It's a skill that comes in handy for riders who have to jump on a horse they've just met at competition.

As for the "problem" horses she takes in,"We try to find a job for them in the program. We try to build the horse's confidence so they feel comfortable and then find them a new home."

But a couple of horses have found their way into Tomlinson's heart so that she can't let them go.

Buddy was neglected and abused when Tomlinson found him, his halter grown into his head. Now 17, Buddy is 8 inches shorter than his siblings due to early malnutrition, but he competes in rodeo and is used in steer wrestling and to track cows, and demonstrates a lot of patience with inexperienced riders and younger horses.

L.J. suffered terrible abuse until he came to Dream Chaser Farms, and Tomlinson was the only one he'd let ride him. Now he's the go-to horse for children, often going on trips to Atlanta to demonstrate horseback riding for city youths. He's used with beginning riders and buckers. He also loves to have his picture made.

"He's like a big dog," Tomlinson said.

Since age 18, Tomlinson has trained more than 200 horses, many that would have been put down without her intervention.

Tomlinson's talents don't stop with horses. She has an affinity for building confidence in people, too.

"When I was growing up, it was all about training, all about pushing, all about winning. It wasn't about the competition with yourself -- you wanting to be a better person," she said, adding that her style of coaching is about showing people how to "allow themselves to embrace their accomplishments, allow themselves to work toward goals."In 2009, Tomlinson joined the Atlanta Black Rodeo Association. She'd gotten to know the founder through the rodeo circuit. She now handles public relations for the organization.

"Most people think it's funny because I'm the only white one," she said.

The group travels to Atlanta to do demonstrations for city kids and brings some of them to Dream Chaser Farms to learn rodeo. Lessons about discipline and responsibility are a natural extension of that training.

Her own background, "made me realize how much of a need there is for kids that didn't come from large incomes but wanted to compete," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson is also the director of the International World of Rodeo, a local organization dedicated to bridging the gap between races and promoting better understanding of the historic and cultural importance of cowboys in American history. The group hosts an annual rodeo at Georgia International Horse Park featuring white, black, Native American and Hispanic cowboys and cowgirls.

"It's a way to drop the racism and labels off rodeo," Tomlinson said. "There are so many talented people from the city and from backgrounds that aren't (living on) ranches."

As if all those commitments aren't enough -- "I don't have time to sleep," Tomlinson joked -- she is also a competition judge and is on the ethics commission for the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. She still barrel races in open competitions and offers horseback riding lessons to the general public.

In 2008, she became one of only a handful of female pickup men in the rodeo. A pickup man is a skilled horseman and roper that removes riders from bucking horses, rescues them when they become entailed in rigging and removes the flank strap, which prompts the animal to buck, from horses to get them out of the arena.

Just don't call Tomlinson a pick-up woman, she'll tell you real quick. She is a pick up man, and she's worked hard to earn that title.

"I believe being determined and committed to what you want to do determines how far you actually go in life. Don't allow other people to hold you back. If you believe you're a leader, you will be a leader," she said.