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A Girl and her Horse: How Lily and Larkins Sassafras became world champion barrel racers

Dawson County native Lily Verhoven competed in Barrel racing in the All American Youth in Mississippi, winning first place out of 951 competitors in go-round with a time of 14.091 seconds. 

Verhoven competed with her horse Larkins Sassafrass, who is coming back after a year off after a torn suspensory injury.  They won over $2000 as well as her picture in the Barrel horse news magazine.  She also won the Jr. Patriot qualifier, with that run, which will qualify her to go to Texas in February and compete in the Hooey Junior Patriot Rodeo.

Dawson County News editor talked with Verhoven on how she got involved with barrel racing and her future in the sport. 

JS: What got you into barrel racing in the first place? Is it a family thing? 

LV: “My dad owned horses when he was younger and barrel raced a little bit for fun. I started riding our horse Red when I was three years old. I started competing in English and western when I was six but was kinda slow for me so I started barrel racing two years later because my brothers were doing it. Once I tried it, I couldn’t stop. It was so much more fun for me and I think about it 24/7. It is not only my passion...I want to make it my career.”


You have been pretty good at this for a long time. Walk me through what it’s like to excel at barrel racing. What does it require from you?

- photo by Photo submitted

“It hasn't been easy. I have had setbacks as well as wins, but I have been blessed with everything that has happened and I learn from every situation. Without God, this journey would not have happened. He blessed our family with many horses I have learned from. Sassy was my Aunt's horse and we got her when she was 4. It has taken a long time to get the relationship we have now.  I did not like her at first and the bond now is indescribable. I do Mountain Ed virtually so I can take care of my horses and ride and exercise my horses every day. I also love riding horses for other people and also have a job taking care of other animals so I can spend all my money and time practicing and getting ready for shows.  Between the farrier, vets, and riding, it's not something I can do every now and then. I have to be all in to be able to compete like I want to. 


Put me as a fly on the wall when you found out you won. How’d you celebrate? What emotions were going through your head? 

“The feeling I got when Sassy took the lead was one of blessings. She has been through so much. She gives me more than I could give her in return. Sassy always knows when I need it the most, so after she took the lead at the first round, I was just amazed. Sassy wants these wins as much as I do. When we load up to go to a show she prances to the trailer. It wasn’t just about the win for me, but knowing that my horse is back after her setbacks she has had...we never know what will be her last run but I cherish each and every one and every second I get to spend with her.”


Tell me more about Larkins Sassafras. 

“She is 13 now.  She has cow horse/quarter horse bloodlines. She was trained as a reining horse but didn’t make the cut. We took her and she had such a heart to compete. We started slowly taking her to shows and she has taught us all so much. As we were starting to peak by setting the arena record at Paulsen Arena, along with many other wins,  we found out Sassy was going into kidney failure.  At this point, we thought we were going to lose her. We were told to call in our insurance as she wasn’t going to make it. But we also found out she’s a fighter.  After six months recovery and many tests, we were given the go ahead with caution to start slowly working Sassy again. This journey forward didn’t last long as she broke her splint bone in January 2019 and it had to be removed and tore her lower medial suspensory tendon. This injury takes time to heal and we knew time was the best thing for her. Sassy was put out to pasture to be a fat happy horse for over 1 year and 4 months. She would try and run the fence when we would take others to compete. She hated being left behind. Once the vet gave us the green light we started light training. She came out firing. She was placing at the top with top riders from all over the united states but when we went to All American youth in Mississippi we were just happy to be there competing with the toughest youth competition. She nor I had ever been to this arena so we were unsure of how it would turn out.”


- photo by Photo submitted
What is next for you? Is there collegiate barrel racing? Pro circuits? 

“I know I will always want to barrel race. It’s not just something I do now and then. It’s something I wake up thinking about, it is my every thought. I always want to get better and never want to stop learning. Barrel racing has its highs and lows but I am grateful for both and learn from every setback and enjoy every win. It’s not only about the money I win, the belt buckles, saddles, or even the world champion titles,  it's the friendships I have created and the horses I get to ride every day.  It is living the life God wants me to lead daily to the best of my ability and giving it my all. I want to be there to encourage others to do their best because this sport is very hard and competitive. I hope to be able to always ride and train performance horses, and one day breed my own top competitors like my Aunt did. I hope to graduate early and if I do I would like to travel all over competing even more than I do now.”