Saddle Up

Northwestern sophomore competes on the college rodeo circuit


The Red Raiders’ solo rodeo competitor, Erin Van Horn found enough Western in Northwestern to choose the college over schools with established rodeo teams. In nearly every rodeo she’s entered, Erin has placed in the top 10.

Shortly before 8 most mornings, Erin Van Horn and her family are out the door and into the fresh air of their Nebraska ranch. First, they might repair some fence, or stretch wires across the river to keep straying cattle at home. Heifers are freeze-branded, horses are saddled up, and cattle are moved from one pasture to another.

A good day’s work behind them, the family then heads back toward the house so that by early evening, a roping and tying session can begin. Erin and her siblings practice their rodeo skills under Dad’s careful coaching until around 10:30 when they call it a day, settling into a homestead that has been in the family for four generations.

“Ranching and rodeo are such family-based operations,” says Van Horn, a sophomore who competes in college rodeo events under Northwestern’s name. “A lot of sports you could do by yourself, but rodeo, you’re not going to be as competitive. And if I didn’t have my sister and brothers to push me, and my mom and dad to help me, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable.”

As far back as the 1500s when the Spanish brought horses and cattle to what is now the American Southwest, ranchers held contests to showcase the skills they had developed to manage their herds. Work became play and the play complemented their work—with family at the core.

In competition, Van Horn specializes in breakaway roping and goat tying. In the first event, a calf is let out of a chute, and Van Horn spurs her horse into a chase to rope the calf as quickly as she can. In the second, a goat is staked at the end of a 10-foot rope in the middle of the arena. Flying full-speed, Van Horn dismounts, flanks the goat and ties three legs together.

“You’re going as fast as your horse can go,” Van Horn says. “It’s a rush. There’s nothing like it.”

Van Horn has been riding so long she can hardly recall her first time. Her father, who used to rodeo himself, taught her how to rope. She calls him before every college competition because as far back as her time in the National Little Britches Rodeo Association and other circuits, she’s never done it without him.

In nearly every rodeo she’s entered, Van Horn placed in the top 10, in a field that typically sees about 80 competitors.

“Win or lose, I try to have the same attitude and a smile on my face. I never want to get a big head or so low that I complain,” Van Horn says. “It’s important to have the same attitude in rodeo and in life.”

Van Horn blends the two, as did the early cowboys. A clinician at the Johnstown, Neb., Rodeo Bible Camp, she is aware that her successes grant her role-model status to the young girls she teaches. “Honestly, I would love if these little girls became great ropers and tyers,” she says. “But rodeo can teach you respect for others, animals and yourself. I try to live my life so that if any of those little girls saw me, I wouldn’t be embarrassed. I want to make sure I’m living my life correctly.”

To the uninitiated, tying a goat or roping a calf can seem rough, but Van Horn points to strict rules in place for the care of the animals. Moreover, rodeo honors the athleticism of the horse, she says, paying tribute to the beauty and agility of these grand animals.

“Rodeo shows respect for the great creation God has made. I love it,” she says, “but it’s so much more than riding your horse. It’s about glorifying God.”

During the school year, Van Horn works several jobs to help pay her competition entry fees. She trains diligently with her horses, which are stabled in Sioux Center. Choosing a college with a rodeo team would have provided advantages to Van Horn, but she’s since found enough Western in Northwestern to satisfy her.

“I was recruited by other colleges, but after coming to Northwestern I know I made the right choice,” she says. “The professors see me as a person, not just a competitor. They encourage me to reach my full potential in life.”

The word rodeo comes from the Spanish rodear, which means “to surround.” Van Horn is indeed surrounded—by family who support her, animals she respects, and a nurturing college community—all of whom have branded this cowgirl’s heart with lessons that will last beyond her time in the saddle. 

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