Erickson leaves no barrel unturned as she races toward a world event

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Sharp turn: Dana Erickson, of Westerlo, and her horse, Drifter, make a turn around a barrel on Tuesday in Erickson’s backyard. Erickson is currently the top barrel racer in her National Barrel Horse Association district; she’s qualified for Worlds in Georgia.

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Dana Erickson displays her shiny belt buckles, which she received in 2012 and 2013 for qualifying for the National Barrel Horse Association World Championships. Last Friday, Erickson, 21, placed 22nd out of 420-barrel racers at a competition in Syracuse.

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Hold up! While practicing on her barrel racing course on Tuesday at her Westerlo home, Dana Erickson controls her horse, Drifter, as Erickson’s dog, bottom left, runs into the horses’ path. 

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Expert rider: Dana Erickson, of Westerlo, spends much of her free time with her three horses; she’s a barrel racing champion. Here, Erickson rides Drifter at her home on Tuesday.

WESTERLO — Dana Erickson treats her three horses — Drifter, Dolly, and Destiny — with the same love and care as any other person or animal in her life.

However, when it’s time for barrel racing, the skilled rider will push her horses to the limit. Erickson has won plenty of competitions, qualified for World Championships, and spent time in Oklahoma to break and train horses.

“It’s a good feeling to know that you and your horse worked as a team to achieve something; it’s really cool,” Erickson, 21, said on Tuesday at her tucked-away home in Westerlo. “Every day, I’m thinking about barrel racing. If I’m not thinking of racing, I’m thinking about the horses, and, if I’m not thinking about the horses, I’m thinking about the barn.”

Horses and barrel racing are pretty much Erickson’s life, she says. She works at Helderberg Bluestone but her mind is always on her sport. People that care for and ride horses need to love the good and the bad, she said.

“Some people just like to ride, not brush it or feed it or water it,” said Erickson. “You have to do that every day; there’s no holidays. It’s kind of like people with their dogs; the horses’ needs come before mine. They’ll get a new blanket before I get a new shirt. They’re spoiled.”

Barrel racing is a rodeo event where horse and rider make turns around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. Some courses are small, and some are large, but Erickson once finished with a time of 12.8 seconds, which she says is relatively fast.

Many years ago, women were not allowed to participate in the male-dominated rodeo. Erickson said that the wives of rodeo riders who wanted to be involved invented barrel racing. The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association was developed in 1948 by a group of women in Texas.

“They ran barrel patterns with guys’ horses,” said Erickson.

During a rodeo event, only women can barrel race, but, during a regular competition, men can race, too. Erickson said she goes to one or two events every weekend from late spring until October, making lots of appearances at rodeos at Double M Ranch in Ballston Spa and Painted Pony in Lake Luzerne.

Erickson, who has already run 16 races so far this year, said that, even though there are still a lot more men than women in the rodeo, she never feels out of place.

“It started out as kind of this sexist thing, I think, but the women made it so they could participate,” said Erickson. “Now, women are allowed to do as much as they want.”

While training horses in Oklahoma in November 2012, Erickson met famous riders like Joyce Loomis-Kernek, who won the first barrel-racing world title in 1970. The National Barrel Horse Association puts on most of the races, and Erickson currently has the most points in her district.

Erickson started riding ponies at age 4 or 5, but didn’t get her own horse until age 10 or 12, she said. A family friend, Rachel Rapp, of Berne, and Rapp’s granddaughter, Renee, put the idea of barrel racing in Erickson’s head.

“I watched them do it, and thought it was cool, so I wanted to do it,” said Erickson, who speaks with passion. “I didn’t want to just show horses; there’s no adrenaline in that.”

Before Erickson got the hang of barrel racing — there’s a lot of trial and error, she says, and she’s been through at least six previous horses — a blood clot in her arm set her back at the age of 16. She used to have a horse named Pepper, who bucked her off “all the time,” she said, and, looking back on it now, she believes an accident with Pepper may have caused her blood clot.

During the mishap, Pepper bucked all the way back, straight up, Erickson said, and the horse fell backwards on her, the saddle cutting her leg badly. After being diagnosed with the blood clot in her arm, Erickson was told not to ride horses for up to eight months.

However, it was going to take a lot more than a diagnosis to keep Erickson off her horses.

“I was taking blood thinners, so I wasn’t allowed to even be around horses, really,” Erickson recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to shovel poop, or…if they kicked me or if I did too much, the blood clot could travel.”

If Erickson ever got hurt, she would bleed out, but she had told the doctor that she’d rather die doing something she loved, instead of sitting on the couch.

“It was summer, and I was off from school, so my mother was gone during the day,” Erickson said. “One day, she calls me up with good news, saying I can get off the blood thinners. I told her that I had been riding, running barrels when no one was home.”

From Erickson’s perspective, no one was going to stop her from riding unless they followed her around. Her connection to horses was too strong.

“I like animals; I connect with them,” Erickson said. “The ones that I have are very loyal, very good friends.”

Erickson’s biggest fear is a horse rearing back and injuring her; it’s happened twice. Horses, like any other animal, can only be domesticated so much.

“It’s very scary…it’s hard,” said Erickson. “Every time you get on, you’re on something that has its own mind; it can make its own decisions and change them like that. You have to be in tune with them.”

All three of Erickson’s horses can barrel race, but Drifter is further along than the others. She uses Drifter for the tough competitions.

“You have to be able to trust that horse that going 30 to 40 miles per hour, at a dead run, that they’ll slow down to turn that first barrel,” Erickson said. “Drifter is all heart. She would run on three legs if she had to. She loves it.”

Do the horses get excited before a barrel race?

“Oh, yeah,” said Erickson. “Drifter really gets amped up, like, she’s hyper and prancing around. She gets crazy before she goes in, but, it’s a good crazy.”

Just like any sport, the outcome of a barrel race depends on the rider’s approach.

“If you go in thinking something bad will happen, it probably will,” Erickson said. “But, if you take what you learn from it, then it’s easier to deal with.”

It has taken a lot of bad runs to get to the good runs, Erickson said. She’s learned a lot about patience over the years.

“Everyone wants to be the fastest, but it takes a lot to get there,” said Erickson. “It’s all I think about.”

Erickson is small, but her command looms large.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s not like riding a dirt bike or something; you’re riding a living thing.”