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Dawson teen earns barrel racing world championship
Barrel racing pic 1
Lily Verhoven spends about five hours a day riding and working with her horses at Sky Acres Farm. - photo by Amy French

Thirteen-year-old Lily Verhoven of Dawson County has been riding horses for 10 years and the young veteran just earned a world championship in barrel racing.

“You ride around three barrels as fast as you can,” she explained from atop one of her five horses last week. “Fastest time wins.”

At the Georgia National Fair Grounds in Perry, Georgia on July 29, Verhoven raced around the barrels on Larkin Sassafrass “Sassy” in 15.462 seconds to take the youth 2D world championship.

Her competition in that race included 650 youth from all over the world, including riders from France, Italy and Australia.

“She competes against adult pro trainers. She competes against youth. She competes against all ages. The one she won the world championship with was the youth division,” said mom Laurie.

Barrel racing pic 2
Lily Verhoven
“It used to be like, ‘I won’t be able to do this’,” Verhoven said about the stiff competition.

She now knows she can.

Getting used to her main mount Sassy also took some time for the young rider.

“I didn’t want to get on the main horse I have now. I was scared of her. Every time I would go to the barrel she would have attitude…I had to get used to that. It took me about a year to bond with her,” Verhoven said. “We both love it now. We both trust each other so much. We would do anything for each other.”

Her championship belt buckle gleams in the sunlight as she saddles up and prepares to take a ride from the barn to the outdoor ring, through the pavilion at Sky Acres Farm on an unusually cool August afternoon.

Sky Acres is a family name from Lily’s dad’s family Jay Verhoven and was established in Wisconsin in 1954. 

Jay and Laurie have four kids and moved out to the property that adjoins the farm in Dawson County just over a year ago.

The farm may be better known to Dawson County residents as the now defunct kangaroo farm.

Verhoven competes nearly every weekend all around the southeast in barrel racing events while her 19-year-old brother Grayson travels the rodeo circuit to compete in team roping.

Grayson is a 2016 graduate of Dawson County High School.

The other siblings, Jackson and Hudson, are also Dawson County students. Though they enjoy riding, they are both more involved with school sports.

The Dawson County teen home schools and lives with her family off Bailey Waters Rd. 

The weekend of Aug. 26, she competed in South Carolina and placed in the 1D division with her fastest time of 14.566.

She also won the youth 1D division in February of this year for the No Bulls World Barrel Racing League in Clemson.

“We go about every weekend. We have been all over the southeast. We will be going out to Texas and out west this coming year. Right now I wanted to hit the southeast and conquer that and then branch out,” Laurie said. “Texas is where the heavy hitters are. She wants to eventually go pro, so in order to do that I have got to get her acclimated to all those people.”

Verhoven’s goal is to become a professional.

“I want to go to the NFR (National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas),” she said. “I also want to be a pro trainer to train horses to barrel race.”

She is clearly already able to work well with the animals she loves. 

Verhoven took her horse into the ring and walked through the barrel course, pausing at each to continue to acclimate the animal who is still in the learning stages. 

She has already broken a wild Mustang on her own.

The family went to Mississippi to pick up the animal that had never been touched by human hands. It was corralled into their trailer and hauled back to Georgia for Verhoven to train as part of a competition.

Ninety days later, Blaze of Glory would lay down for her with just a tap of its belly. She was 11 at the time and finished in the top 10 of the competition.

“She broke it and now she can ride it and now I use it for my lesson program,” Laurie said. “She wouldn’t let me do anything. That helped her grow to the next level of horsemanship.”

The former school teacher and mom teaches lessons at Sky Acres.

Verhoven has won over $13,000 this year alone and, along with her brother, has sponsors for their competition efforts.

She has also won over 21 belt buckles, feed, jeans, a saddle, boots and more.

“Grayson team ropes so he is now heading up with a production company to bring in cows,” Laurie said. “So we will be putting on a team roping event Saturday. That is kind of getting his name out. We get sponsors for the farm, Sky Acres, and then we also get sponsors for each of them.”

The Verhovens have recently acquired the necessary permits to host events at the property. 

The family plans to host larger scale events open to residents.

“That’s what we want to give back to the community. We got it passed now that we can have events. It is something that is enjoyable for us and to be able to help Dawsonville experience it. It has taken us a year,” Laurie said.

Verhoven plans to continue her home schooling and spend time with her horses. That amounts to several hours a day.

“Three or four horses a day, about five hours [a day],” she said. “Sometimes I just mess around.”

For more information about Sky Acres Farm, go online to the Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/Sky-Acres-Farm-235949579765991/.