Colorado woman grows up riding horses and racing cars
A saga that began with hot rods and rodeos, muscle cars and sleek Arabian horses, has gone big — real big. Can you say enormous?
An uncommon combination of interests defined Heather Erickson’s childhood. The Greeley, Colo., native not only grew up with horses, she actually rode them in-utero. Her mother owned Arabians, which she continued riding throughout her pregnancy. Two weeks after baby girl Heather was born, Mom was back in the saddle again.
Erickson’s father, on the other hand, preferred his horsepower under a muscle car’s hood. To support his family, he worked two jobs, the second repairing cars at appropriately-named Moonlight Auto.
On weekends, young Heather would rodeo one day and drag race at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison the next. She showed Arabians from age 14 until marrying 16 years ago.
Her usual mount was “Breeze,” a versatile, nimble bay gelding. The pair competed in Greeley Saddle Club classes that included halter, showmanship in-hand, Western pleasure, Western showmanship, reining, and a variety of gymkhana events.
In 2003, Heather and Benjamin Erickson tied the knot, bringing yet more diversity into the union. The new hubby had grown up in Williamston, Mich., playing hockey and golf, with no equestrian background whatsoever.
“I coerced him into marrying a horse girl; he didn’t have a choice.” Heather quipped.
But he definitely did have a choice about riding. His bride had changed from her Arabian to a Quarter Horse that quickly became a lesson mount for Ben; who is a large man, Erickson noted. Then one day he simply told her, “I feel like I’m killing your horse. I need a bigger one!”
Bigger indeed. The couple began looking at draft horses and draft crosses, primarily through local rescue groups. Erickson took Ben to events to see what riding discipline (such as Western, English, dressage) he preferred.
While spectating at the first year of Big Thunder in Loveland, Colo., in the early 2000s, Ben announced he wanted to try driving rather than riding. So hang up the saddle and locate some harness.
At this point, the Ericksons were still diligently horse shopping. Then they discovered Shiloh Acres Horse Rescue (SAHR) in Ault, Colo., and the search was over.
Soon four SAHR big guys, including Zeus and Apollo, left for their new home with the Ericksons, igniting in the couple a passion for gentle giants in particular and horse rescue in general; and Ben had his bigger horse (plus three).
Heather, as did her father, was already working a full-time job. Her initial firm is called Moonlight Welding (where she primarily welds ag attachments for farm/ranch equipment and does custom fabricating). So when she and Ben decided to add commercial horse driving to their business concerns in 2008, Moonlight Carriage Company was founded.
Popularity encouraged the size of their working herd to accommodate the demand for horse-drawn weddings, engagements, anniversaries, birthdays, Quincineras, Bar Mitzvahs, and family reunions (which are “wicked fun,” said Heather). To complement their bridal color scheme for weddings, happy couples can choose the color of the horse.
Additionally, customers enjoy Moonlight’s seasonal activities, such as trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling in wagons used to view holiday lights in Nunn.
Moonlight currently averages approximately 75 events annually, employing teams and singles. Transporting animals (which are frequently alternated so everybody gets a break), the Ericksons travel to southern Wyoming, western Nebraska and, in Colorado, from home base in Nunn to as far afield as Vail, Carbondale and Pueblo.
Heather mentioned that, curiously, people unfamiliar with equines identify every draft horse as a Budweiser-type.
“At every single job we do with draft horses everyone says, ‘I really like your Clydesdale.’” she said. “They assume every draft is a Clyde,” (That’s even if it’s a Belgian, Percheron, crossbred, etc.)
Sort of like every facial tissue is a Kleenex.
There have been some monumental changes at Moonlight Carriage Co. since its inception 11 years ago. Apollo, one of the original four adopted rescues, sadly died from a bout of colic. His beloved partner, Zeus, is still living but had failed to bond with any horse the Ericksons tried to pair him up with.
Friends from down the road eventually purchased a Belgian gelding in Tennessee. When “Bill” arrived, everyone noticed his striking similarity to Zeus in color and size. And something amazing happened.
Zeus took notice, too. He excitedly ran the fence line between the two properties. Zeus and Bill touched noses; they walked step-for-step all the way up and down the enclosure. Bill’s owners saw the incredible connection and felt they had to honor this astonishing attachment. So… they bought Zeus! Now they pleasure drive and ride with him and Bill, the ‘what-were-the-odds?’ BFFs.
Is it possible the two geldings knew each other from a previous era? Maybe in a former owner’s field somewhere? Perhaps they were even raised by the same breeder? Horses have incredible memories and are routinely bought, sold and hauled all over the country. No one knows nor can find out but all’s well that ends well.
Although not a 501(c)3 non-profit, the Ericksons continually rescue horses to keep or rehome, with all funding coming directly out of their personal pockets. Sources include abused/neglected equines, low-end auctions, kill pens and private owners.
In September 2019, a huge 18-hands tall Belgian languished in the Stroud Oklahoma Kill Pen, destined for slaughter if no one stepped forward to pay his “bail” within a short time. The emaciated gelding was at least 500 pounds underweight and in otherwise poor shape as well, Heather said.
“He came across my Facebook feed three or four times so I felt it was Karma or fate that I get him out of there,” she said.
Providentially, transport was available to Colorado the next morning so everything clicked as if meant to be. “Otis,” as the Ericksons named him, is already happily packing on the pounds. (Always incredible when a skeletal horse transforms into a healthy beauty simply by being fed.) Sweet, gentle Otis has gained 200 pounds in just a month.
What’s on his menu? The Ericksons feed free-choice grass hay 24/7, plus 6 pounds of Nutrena senior grain twice daily, plus 1 pound of Calf Manna and ½ cup soybean meal twice per day. Big horse with a big problem, big appetite for a big reward.
No one knows anything whatsoever about the genial Belgian gelding’s background. Nothing. Not his geographic origins, bloodlines, training, former owners, health history, what he was used for, if he drove single or with a partner. Nothing. It’s as if he didn’t exist prior to being forsaken in that kill pen.
However, when rehabbed, sound and fit, once-destined for doom Otis will hopefully become a Moonlight ambassador horse to aid in awareness of slaughter bound horses and rescue.
A saga that began with a little girl’s diverse childhood interests has grown up into a married woman’s dual businesses and a zeal for restoring rejected creatures. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.