Rodeo riders in Lakeside and Ramona give themselves to Christ

The cowboy bible and prayer power-ups

"When I’m with bareback riders, we’re all in a small area getting ready to ride. So, quite regularly, I’ll lead a prayer."
  • "When I’m with bareback riders, we’re all in a small area getting ready to ride. So, quite regularly, I’ll lead a prayer."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Cowboy worshippers singing during service at Lakeside Rodeo.

Cowboy worshippers singing during service at Lakeside Rodeo.

During mid-April of last year, a large group of cowboys came into the Branded Oak restaurant on Maine Street in Lakeside. They had come from the rodeo grounds several blocks down the street, where tryouts for the 38th Annual Lakeside Rodeo were being held. Kelly Nashiyama, whose name belies her blond hair, was tending bar that day. She expected, when she saw the cowboys enter, if not the worst, then at least some rowdiness and a few orders of Jack Daniel’s with beer chasers.

What she got, instead, was a polite group of young men who, before they began to eat, held hands in a circle and prayed aloud. True, some of them ordered cocktails before lunch, but their tastes ran in the direction of “froufrou drinks, like piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris,” says Nashiyama. From place names such as Kansas City and Oklahoma on their belt buckles, she concluded that the drinkers wanted to experience a little California exotic.

The Reverend Bob Harris at Lakeside Rodeo: "My goal is to be an example of the rodeo cowboy who can live the Christian life."

The Reverend Bob Harris at Lakeside Rodeo: "My goal is to be an example of the rodeo cowboy who can live the Christian life."

The cowboys left Nashiyama not only a healthy tip on their way back to the arena but a shattered image of rodeo cowboys. On her last pass among the tables of diners before their departure, however, one of them convinced her that she had not been dreaming. He grabbed her butt, she says, as she was clearing away their dishes and silverware.

Lakeside Rodeo. 1855 to roughly 1885 was the heyday of the cowboy.

Lakeside Rodeo. 1855 to roughly 1885 was the heyday of the cowboy.

Legend and song have pictured rodeo cowboys as hard-driving, hard-drinking, woman-chasing free spirits. “And that’s true,” says the Reverend Bob Harris, a handsome 52-year-old former cowboy himself. “But I’m not trying to persuade these people to quit what they’re doing. That’s not my goal. My goal is to be an example of the rodeo cowboy who can live the Christian life. Then, when people ask me why I’m joyful or why I help, I tell them it’s because I’ve got the joy of the Lord in me. They say, ‘What’s that?’ And that gives me an opportunity to open the Scriptures up and share with them what it means to have the joy of the Lord.”

“I’ve got eight horses at the house,” he tells me, “and two of them on any given day will buck you off if they feel like it."

“I’ve got eight horses at the house,” he tells me, “and two of them on any given day will buck you off if they feel like it."

Harris reaches into a satchel at his side and pulls out several three- by four-inch paperback volumes that have the title The Way for Cowboys. He calls it the cowboy Bible and presents me one as a gift. Then he starts paging through another to show me its contents. As part of his “behind-the-chutes ministry,” he hands it out free to cowboys and displays it with other literature on a table at the back of his cowboy-church services. The ministry also includes praying with the cowboys behind the arena minutes before the rodeo starts. “Those are called prayer power-ups,” says Harris, who looks younger than his 52 years, despite showing a little post-athletic girth.

The Reverend Leon Hostetler: "God uses obstacles to break us, as a trainer breaks a horse."

The Reverend Leon Hostetler: "God uses obstacles to break us, as a trainer breaks a horse."

The bulk of the cowboy Bible is the New Testament, but it has Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament as well. “This is a good book for cowboys,” says Harris. “It puts things in simple terms. It has some cowboy poetry in it. It has some testimonies from different phases of cowboy life, the ranching cowboy, the country-music cowboy and cowgirl. Here’s Paul and Susie Luchsinger, but Susie is Susie McEntire, related to Reba McEntire.” And she does look like Reba.

Harris also shows me pictures in the cowboy Bible of rodeo scenes and cowboys, including world-champion bull rider Cody Custer, whose brother Jim Bob is participating in the Lakeside events. “There’s Jenna Beaver, Joe Beaver’s wife, and Joe Beaver was here last night. He’s an eight-time world champion, 17-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo. He’s a Christian brother.”

Harris consulted with the group who put The Way for Cowboys together. “We said we needed a specific Bible designed for the cowboy community,” he tells me.

The Reverend Harris founded and runs Good Company Rodeo Ministries, a one-man mission spreading the Christian gospel to the cowboy community throughout California rodeos. From a home base in Menifee, in Riverside County, he is like the old circuit-rider preachers of the 19th-century American frontier. In San Diego County, his charge includes the Lakeside Rodeo, the Ramona Roundup Rodeo, and the Poway Rodeo.

My first experience of Harris is through sound only. I have braved a light rain to come to the Friday-night opening of the Lakeside Rodeo in search of him. To launch the events, Harris is giving the invocation. He prays for our country, for the safety of the contestants, and for the safety of the “animal athletes.” When Harris is finished, the evening’s announcer, seated on his horse in the arena, and microphone in hand, pumps the crowd. “Are you ready to rodeo?” he shouts.

At the following afternoon’s performance, I first lay eyes on Harris from a position high in the bleachers. Calves are bolting into the arena to the pleasure of throngs of people anxious to see them roped by cowboys on galloping horses in hot pursuit. The rain is gone, and a bright spring sun beats down on a number of middle-aged men who, in Stetsons and colorful shirts, are helping to orchestrate the spectacle. I have seen a picture of Harris on his webpage (www.good companyrodeoministry. com), so I pick him out in the chutes at my end of the arena, opening and closing the barrier gate that confines the calves until their turns come. He shuffles back and forth in thick damp dirt that has been churned by the sharp hooves of the livestock animals. A smell of cattle dung wafts up from below.

The man I am watching and waiting to see served formerly on the staffs of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Pat Robertson’s Hour of Power television show, and the Anaheim Vineyard. He has also been pastor of the Lake Elsinore Community Church.

Besides attending the rodeo, a couple sitting next to me in the grandstands is engaged in another sport, mullet-sighting. Mullets are an out-of-style haircut, often described as “business in front, party in the back.” Worn mostly by men, they take this description from their short front and top hair and long flowing curls down the neck. According to Jim and Sherri next to me, mullets are still common on country-and-western music videos and among fans at NASCAR races and rodeos in some parts of the country. They have been frustrated this afternoon (mullets are scarce in San Diego County), but they promise to point it out to me if they spot one.

The excursus on mullets intrigues me, but I soon lose Jim and Sherri as I go looking for the Reverend Harris. At intermission, he comes out of the arena, and we meet underneath the announcer’s booth and the huge inflated Bud Light bottle that bobs in the breeze on top of it. When he goes to rodeos, Harris not only pursues his ministry but also works with support crews doing the logistics that allow the events to come off.

As I lean against the bleacher scaffolding, Harris asks: “Why do people live hard, drink hard, and chase women? What are they trying to prove? They’re trying to fill up the void.”

A young woman approaches and interrupts our conversation. She wants to thank Harris for helping her and her boyfriend to get back together. As a result, she says, they plan to marry in a few months. Harris is gracious in accepting her gratitude.

“People are trying to fill up what’s missing in their lives,” Harris goes on, “and, of course, what’s missing in most people’s lives is relationship. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a relationship person. I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and that’s what people are looking for, relationships. But they find them empty. The world doesn’t provide for us.”

Harris has only a few minutes before he must return to the arena to man the barrier gates. We meet again once the afternoon’s performance is done.

“One young fella told me last year,” says Harris, “ ‘I’ve been watching you for six years, and all you do is help people. What’s in it for you?’ I said, ‘Nothing. I’m not out here for me; I’m out here for you.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t even believe what you believe.’ I says, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe the same as I do. What I believe in is the truth, and it’ll all come to pass. I choose to be out here so that I can be an example in the spiritual upbringing. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s still true, and I’m still going to be here and I’m still going to help everybody that I can.’ ”

Harris has thought a lot about the “relevance” of the Christian gospel since the time, when he was working for Pat Robertson in the 1980s, that he went to a missions conference in Virginia Beach, Virginia. One of the workshops at that conference focused on “the fact that the American church had stopped being relevant to the community it was serving,” he says. Among churches, “The normal concept of becoming more relevant is, okay, we’re going to send a missionary to Africa or South America.” But a speaker at the conference claimed that African and Philippine Christians had started to send missionaries to the United States. Harris cites some statistics indicating that fewer and fewer Americans in recent years report believing in God.

“Of course, that has changed somewhat after 9/11,” he says. “But I’ve realized that you can take any avocation that you like — baseball, whatever — and you can bring Christ into it at any level and make a difference in people’s lives.” That’s what Harris and many other cowboy ministers are doing in the world of rodeo. Numerous rodeo ministries across America are listed on the Internet.

Says Harris, “If you read the Bible, what made Jesus so attractive to people was that He went out amongst them. He became part of them. People today find it hard to identify with the television evangelists. I’m not talking about Pat Robertson or Robert Schuller; those individuals have integrity beyond — a Billy Graham. But it’s hard for the everyday person to identify with the Sunday-morning preacher up there blowin’ and goin’ and preaching in the suits and all that, when we know that these guys drive around in limousines and the rest of us do other things.”

The world of rodeo seems, much of the time, to contrast with the dominant trends of our current culture. Rodeo promoters advertise their product as enhancing family values and a wholesome character. Harris agrees to my proposition that rodeo, to many people, is symbolic of a healthier lifestyle than what is available in most city and suburban life.

“Is that due to an association of rodeos with the farm and ranch?” I ask.

“The association is with a life gone by,” says Harris, who mentions a golden age that “lasted about 30 years, from 1855 to roughly 1885. That was the heyday of the cowboy. The cowboy is a derivative of the Spanish vaquero out of Texas, which had been Mexico. The cowboy is a traditional hero in America, made into one by people like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and, in recent years, by Tom Selleck and some of these other people who are actors as well as cowboys.

“Now, everybody looks at the rodeo cowboy as the center of the business. But the center of the business is the stock contractor. Without the stock contractor, without the guy who has the heart to breed and raise and train and spend the money to travel and set these things up, you don’t have rodeo. The stock contractor is the heart. He provides the structure for rodeo, and the rodeo cowboy is only a part of the whole thing.

“But it is good family fun, one of the few places where a family of four can go for less than $50 and have a hoot and a holler and enjoy a good show. And a rodeo is a show. It is a performance from start to finish.”

Noticing that a hotdog and popcorn each cost a dollar at the Lakeside events, I compare rodeo to going to a Charger or Padre game at Qualcomm Stadium.

“To see the Padres, a family of four spends $100 at a Sunday game. Rodeo is a great bargain. And a lot of people enjoy it,” says Harris. The price of admission at Lakeside is $5, and $10 for the Sunday

“But we haven’t talked much about Christianity yet,” Harris tells me. So I ask him where he would take the discussion.

“First of all, I’m nondenominational,” he says. “I have Catholics. I’ve had some Jewish guys come to my services. I’ve had Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whatever their faith is, they can come and hear the Word preached. My goal is that some individuals would hear the gospel, that it would touch some place in their hearts, and it would draw them into a relationship with Christ, which then draws them into a relationship with the Father, because it says in the Bible that no one can get to the Father except through the Son. And that’s my goal.”

One-on-one, Harris says he takes a person “through the basic Roman road, through the Scriptures in [the Epistle to the] Romans, that we’ve all sinned, we fall short of the glory, every knee shall bow, and so on. Then I ask them straight out, ‘Would you like to receive the Lord as your personal Savior?’ And some say yes and some say no, which I don’t take as an affront, because I’m only planting seeds.

“I take a nonjudgmental approach to cowboys and their families and their lifestyle, and that’s important, because, as my first pastor and my grandfather used to say, nobody’s going to care what you talk about until they know that you care about them. When you have a normal church situation, as nonjudgmental as they try to be, you have people inside the church that forgot where they came from. So I spend more time caring about the cowboy at the rodeo, always encouraging, always giving a positive approach to life, than I do about preaching the gospel. I do care about preaching the gospel, but maybe what I do speaks louder than what I say. That’s my approach, and the approach has been good for ten years. The ministry’s been fruitful, and many of these guys that I see here are guys that I remember when they were in high school and doing junior rodeo ten years ago.”

“What sorts of concerns,” I ask Harris, “do cowboys bring to you when they want some advice or counseling?”

“The same concerns that we all have,” he says. “What am I going to do tomorrow? What’s life all about? How come my relationships aren’t working out? How come I can’t stop drinking? How come I don’t feel good inside? How come I’m discouraged? I’ve lost my courage. There’s nothing new under the sun. Cowboys are people. They are a segment of the population that’s a little bit different.”

“When you pray with the cowboys before the rodeo starts, do you think some of them are scared?”

“I don’t know. Probably,” says Harris with a reluctance that suggests he doesn’t want to betray a trust.

But I pry. “Do they ever talk to you about fears they have?”

“We do in private, not in the prayer meetings. Being a cowboy’s a macho thing, so you may be scared, but you’re not going to admit it. But I can see it in their hands and their eyes. That’s why I stay behind them. Sometimes I’ll run my hand up on the shoulder of a cowboy and tell him he’s going to do all right or something like that.”

As we talk, a cowboy passing by calls out, “Hey, chap! Your lips chapped today, chaplain?” Harris calls him over and introduces him to me. Justin Andrade is a short, wiry bull rider with a black Stetson on his head. He has come to Lakeside from his home in Grover City, near San Luis Obispo. “See his buckle,” says Harris. “That means he won first place in Houston. Now there’s a rodeo for you.”

Recently, I looked up Andrade on ProRodeo.com to see how well he was doing in other places. An injury report linked to the site said that on June 24 he “sustained a concussion without loss of consciousness…when he was struck in the head by the bull’s horn.” I searched for him again this past January. The Jack Daniel’s World Standings on the same site indicated that Andrade did well in 2002. He made the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. But he got hurt in that event too, suffering “a herniated disc in his neck and spinal cord compression and bruising after landing on his head Dec. 6.”

Few rodeo people will deny that the sport is dangerous. “Last year,” says Harris, “I had three of the cowboys that I normally minister to get hurt. The most serious involved a fellow named Joe Rodriguez who got hurt at Poway, then spent a few days in the hospital and had an MRI. He fractured his neck, but, as cowboys do, when they wanted to put him in traction and perform some surgery right away, he said, ‘No, I’m not gonna to do that, I’m goin’ home.’ So he checked himself out of the hospital. I drove him to his truck, picked up his gear, and sent him on his way. He drove home to Texas with a fractured neck and had surgery down there. So, yes, from time to time the cowboys do get hurt, especially if they don’t know what they’re doing.”

That’s what Joe Oakes tells me too. “If you’ve grown up with it, like my whole family has, you get used to it.” Oakes is a bull rider from Bend, Oregon. I notice that, like most of the rodeo cowboys, his hair is cut like a Marine’s. And, not having seen one yet, I wonder whether I will see a mullet in Lakeside.

Love of the sport and the quest for fame and fortune drive cowboys to brave dangers that most of us would not. In addition, rodeo competitors travel thousands of miles a year to enter events far from their homes. Bob Harris and I look at the Lakeside Rodeo program and see that one contestant has come from North Dakota and another from Vancouver, British Columbia.

“All that must be hard on their relationships at home,” I remark.

“Very much so,” says Harris. “I was talking with a guy who’s been a Christian a long time and comes from a Christian family. Last year he and his wife were near divorce. I told him, ‘I know. I was going to call you up and ask what’s going on.’ And he said, ‘We figured it out. It was ridiculous. We were running here, running there.’ That’s what was wrong, they got it together and did some counseling — went through a couple of Christian programs — and they’re back together and strong.

“What happens is that sometimes these cowboys’ egos get in the way. Then, you’re traveling with the same people who are thinking the same way you do. And you say, ‘I’m not getting along with my girlfriend, I’m not getting along with my wife, I’m not getting along with my parents,’ and you ask the people around you, ‘What should I do about it?’ Well, what are they going to tell you? ‘Chuck it,’ they might say. But if there is somebody out there who’s got the wisdom of God flowing through them by the Holy Spirit and has got some experience, then that individual can say, ‘Hey, here are some alternatives. Maybe you need to back off the rodeo for a while. Maybe the two of you need to back off of traveling and spend some time getting reacquainted with one another.’ Of course, that’s the worst thing for a cowboy to hear. I mean, he’s making a run for the gold, and you say, ‘Take a month off.’

“But I explain to them, ‘You take a month off and get your relationship right this way,’ ” says Harris, who raises and lowers his arms in front of him, “ ‘and you get your relationship right this way,’ ” and he moves his arms horizontally, “ ‘then your mind is clear, your relationships are clear, and you go back on the road with assurance. And you can start winning.’ ”

On Sunday morning I attend cowboy church in a covered area behind the arena. I had already used it to stay out of the rain on Friday evening. Then, snack bars were open inside it and tables set out at which people could eat. We use the tables this morning for our pews.

Although, as a church member tells me, they have no cowboys in the congregation, Hosanna Christian Fellowship, on Maine Street between the Branded Oak and the rodeo grounds, puts on the Lakeside Rodeo cowboy church each year. As he is doing this morning, the church’s pastor, Leon Hostetler, delivers the sermon. Before he starts, a male vocalist with guitar sings “The Old Rugged Cross” and several other songs. Front right sits Bob Harris, who, to the music, leads many in the audience of about 50 in hoisting their arms in praise.

matinee.

The Reverend Hostetler preaches on 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, which contains the famous reference to St. Paul’s mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” We should not think it was only Paul’s problem, he tells us. God puts all manner of trouble and obstacles in our lives to bring us out of our self-preoccupation and back to Him. He uses them to break us, as a trainer breaks a horse, not of its strength but of its self-will.

After church, Hosanna Christian Fellowship treats everyone present to a breakfast of pancakes, ham, and fruit. I sit inside a pavilion and enjoy the blessing with Harris and several of his friends. The long sitting finally gets to Harris’s lower back, which he had injured in his performing days. He gets up holding it and searches for an Aleve.

I ask Harris to take me back to the idea of the void in people’s lives that he mentioned when we first talked. “I gather, in your view, that that’s behind some of the things cowboys get into that probably aren’t so good for them.”

“All right, let’s talk about it,” he says. “God created us and He gave us free will, and Adam and Eve sinned. A lot of times the religious community will condemn individuals for following their own human natural tendencies. The Bible says that we’re born with sin in us. And it’s natural for people to sin. The goal of preachers like me is to provide people with an alternative to that natural relinquishing of their senses. It requires discipline, it requires responsibility, and it requires making a decision to do something other than what that sin thing is.

“But for me, or for any preacher, to stand up and say that someone is bad for doing things is not right, because the Bible teaches us that we all sin, we all fall short, that even the righteousness of the church is that of filthy rags. It’s human nature for people to sin, but it’s also human nature for people to want to fill up the void. All right, you party, you drink, you go out and have multiple partners. All of that is to fill a void in your life, and that void is the natural thing that God set inside of us, our yearning for a relationship with Him, a spiritual relationship. We here in the West have lost the concept of spirituality, although I find it unique that, everywhere you go now, you’ve got American flags, you’ve got ‘God bless America,’ you’ve got all this stuff going on, the patriotism and everything. But it took a tragedy.

“But going back to what I was saying, we can either be dogmatic about our relationship with people, or we can have the mercy of God. It’s like this. Here’s Jesus on the cross. He’s crucified after being beaten up and whipped and lashed and stuck with a pig sticker, and yet He pushes Himself up on the cross and says to one of the thieves dying with Him, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise.’ So He had the mercy of God. But mercy is a hard concept for us.

“I started to talk about Western culture, not cowboy culture but Western [European] culture in general. And I find that people who are in the rodeo lifestyle, and who are around rodeo, understand life, death, and commitment. They deal with animals all the time. You know, most of your people who live in the city don’t deal much with loss, and then they don’t really deal with it. Most of your people who live in the country deal with loss quite often, a lost cow, a pig, a favorite pig that you’ve raised but you now have to slaughter for food. So they deal with the common things of life, and didn’t Christ tell us that it was the common things that were going to confound the wise?”

Ten years ago, Bob Harris officiated for the first time at his own cowboy-church service in Lake Elsinore, 70 miles northeast of San Diego. Coy Huffman, who together with another cowboy preacher held the first cowboy church ever at a national finals rodeo 25 years ago, had been doing the Sunday-morning service each year at the rodeo in Elsinore. But in 1992 he couldn’t make it. So he asked Harris, at the time a local minister and newspaper reporter in Elsinore, to substitute for him that Sunday morning.

The two ministers had met the year before when the Lake Elsinore Valley Sun-Tribune asked for volunteers from among its writers to cover the local rodeo. All the other reporters moaned and groaned at the thought of the assignment. “I was dealing with a lot of city reporters who were saying, ‘Why can’t I go to the wine festival? That way I can have some wine.’ ”

So Harris jumped at the opportunity himself. The result was an article about Coy Huffman and cowboy church that not only ran locally but also was picked up by the UPI wire service and that Harris sold, one more time, to a magazine.

Thus began a long friendship and occasional working relationship between Harris and Coy Huffman. When he did the cowboy-church service in 1992, says Harris, “I had three cowboys come up and give their lives to the Lord. And I found that rewarding. You don’t often get a chance to reap the seeds that somebody else has sown. And then I didn’t see these guys, but a year later they were still walking with the Lord, and I thought, This is powerful. So I called up Coy and said, ‘Do you think the world can handle another cowboy minister?’ And he said, ‘Sure, come along.’ ”

So Harris started attending rodeos part-time at first, then full-time, and finally set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1997. He says that the ministry “exploded” after that. “Mine is what is called a field ministry.

“Whenever Coy and I intersect at a rodeo, I give deference to Coy and let him do the preaching, but he always brings me in to do something, and I feel privileged to serve him, because he’s such an inspiration to all of us. He’s been a faithful individual in this ministry. There are no new apostles, but he is like an apostolic figure in the cowboy ministry.”

When Harris preaches, he tries to follow the example of Christ, who, as Harris reminds me, “always used parables or anecdotes about the life the people that He was preaching to lived every day. As a rodeo cowboy, I use stories about the life that rodeo cowboys live. Some of my sermons might start off with ‘Let’s spur out for God’ or ‘Let’s crack out for God.’ Or I might use the example of a saddle-bronc rider and what he has to do in relationship to the sermon.”

In May I go to Sunday cowboy church at the Ramona Roundup Rodeo. Bob Harris is preaching this morning. The congregation gathers behind the Fred Grand Arena in one of the animal-holding pens that has been converted into a hospitality center for rodeo performers and personnel. As the day wears on toward performance time, a guard will protect resting cowboys from the onslaught of fans. Inside, from a covered table, several women serve coffee and doughnuts before the service starts. I hear one of them explaining that refreshments are “for cowboys only.”

About 30 of us sit down in folding chairs on patchy grass and face the parking lot full of horse trailers behind the arena grounds. A rectangular table with an albatross of a sound system on it is the closest thing we have to an altar this morning. Though the day is overcast, the tree branches overhead allow heaven to shine on us. The walls of our sanctuary are chain-link fences, behind one of which, to our right, stands a young black-and-white goat peering into our midst.

Harris introduces Lefty More Than Allright, who identifies himself as a cowboy poet and says he is writing a book called Godly Wisdom and Cowboy Proverbs. A sample of the proverbs? “If it’s raining on your parade, go have a picnic. There won’t be any ants.” “A warm heart will help cold feet.” “If you walk in fear, you can’t run in faith.” “One man’s lamb is another man’s beef.” “City streets can’t take you away like country roads.” “Starting your day off with coffee won’t keep you going like starting your day with prayer.”

With a high-pitched twang, Lefty sings into a microphone about faith, the morning’s topic, which, he reminds us, Jesus compared to a mustard seed. “Those things are little,” he says. The song says that a little faith will take you a long way. “It ain’t a great big theological deal. We make it bigger than it is.”

Noting before his sermon that Lefty got up this morning at five to come down from Burbank, Harris says, “He’s not a movie star, but he’s one excellent poet.”

Harris preaches this morning on the story of Jesus’ feeding 5000 people with five loaves and five fishes. Calling God “the specialist in helping us with our impossible situations,” Harris exhorts us not to worry so much about things that “impossibility becomes our barrier gate.” He cites the time that he came to a rodeo without enough money to drive home and left having given money to cowboys who couldn’t get to their next destination. “God provides,” says Harris.

Before we disperse, I spot my first mullet, a thick, bushy one. The wearer, a somber man in his 30s, has been hanging at the back of our little congregation throughout the service. After it finishes, however, I turn and see him in a close tête-à-tête with Harris near the fence. Harris has placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and is looking him gently but squarely in the eye. The moment seems far too private for me to snoop.

While we have been worshipping under the dome of heaven, two Christian cowboys who live in Ramona, Matt Deskovick and Chad Waldhauser, attended church at their spiritual home, Calvary Chapel, across town. Deskovick is a steer wrestler and Waldhauser a bronc rider. Both of them have competed in the California Finals Rodeo. But they have come to rodeo along different paths.

Several weeks later, Deskovick agrees to meet me after church at the junior high school, where the Calvary Chapel congregation meets on Sunday mornings. During the service, a singer with guitar leads the flock in songs whose words are flashed on a screen behind him by computer. Then a man, who strikes me as a lay leader, tells the congregation that, although Pastor Rob is not wearing his cowboy boots this morning, they should not worry. He is fine.

Laughs abound, the lay leader makes a few announcements, and the 200 or more worshippers sing again. At last, Pastor Rob Hubbard is ready to speak. A handsome man dressed casually, he is preaching on chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation. With a smooth delivery, he lays out the structure of the chapter with its woman riding the beast of seven heads and ten horns. We are in the end times, he says, and the Antichrist is among us in the form of the Catholic Church, not its individual members, mind you, some of whom are holy, but its “system,” aligned as it is with today’s world system. And then come admonitions. Pastor Hubbard exhorts us to jump off the beast, before it bucks us and destroys us, like it destroys the woman in the chapter. It may hurt when we do it, but God is a loving God and will care for us. We must give up pornography if we are sneaking looks at it out of sight of our wives at night. We must give up adultery if we have fallen into the temptation of straying from our marriage vows. We must give up fornication if we have succumbed to sex in a relationship before marriage. We must forsake alcohol, the great destroyer of lives. And, lest we should fall into financial ruin, we must stop gambling at Barona, not far away, or anywhere else for that matter. Pastor Hubbard hints that he knows whereof he speaks from experience with one or another of the vices he has excoriated. Yet his passionate warnings seem all the more to convict every member of the congregation, which sits in one of those palpable silences that a powerful preacher can bring on.

When I find Deskovick in the parking lot after church, he is on a cell phone to his former girlfriend. “Get down here for the 11 o’clock service,” he tells her. “The sermon is a good one this morning.”

Matt Deskovick, who is 29, was born in New Jersey, moved to Ramona when he was 13, and has lived here ever since. He has competed in rodeo for about seven years. While in high school, he wrestled and played football. Tall, with a shock of blond hair on the top of his head, he is still built like a football player.

“Then I went to a rodeo in my senior year,” says Deskovick, “saw the steer wrestling, and thought, that’s something I need to do.”

I ask Deskovick, who earns his living primarily as a general contractor, what it was about rodeo that he liked so much.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It makes you want to go do it. But it took another four years until I found somebody who could take me under his wing and teach me, because I didn’t know anything about it. Fred Hyatt did, and here I am.” Hyatt is a former football star from El Capitan High School in Lakeside. He still competes in steer wrestling and sells insurance in El Cajon.

“I heard your pastor mention something about the religion of self-effort this morning,” I say. “Does competition in rodeo ever threaten to become the highest priority in your life, even higher than your Christian faith? In football, Vince Lombardi of the old Green Bay Packers used to say that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

“I don’t think so,” says Deskovick. “I started wrestling in third grade, and competition is extremely natural. Anything, if you allow it to happen, can overpower you and become your demon. I don’t drink, but some people do and allow it to abuse them. The same with women and with cars. Sure, competition can definitely control you, if you want it to. I go to Vegas once or twice a year and have a good time, and I don’t think that’s a bad deal. But if I was at Barona every weekend, we’d have issues.”

Several weeks later, Deskovick agrees to meet me after church at the junior high school, where the Calvary Chapel congregation meets on Sunday mornings. During the service, a singer with guitar leads the flock in songs whose words are flashed on a screen behind him by computer. Then a man, who strikes me as a lay leader, tells the congregation that, although Pastor Rob is not wearing his cowboy boots this morning, they should not worry. He is fine.

Laughs abound, the lay leader makes a few announcements, and the 200 or more worshippers sing again. At last, Pastor Rob Hubbard is ready to speak. A handsome man dressed casually, he is preaching on chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation. With a smooth delivery, he lays out the structure of the chapter with its woman riding the beast of seven heads and ten horns. We are in the end times, he says, and the Antichrist is among us in the form of the Catholic Church, not its individual members, mind you, some of whom are holy, but its “system,” aligned as it is with today’s world system. And then come admonitions. Pastor Hubbard exhorts us to jump off the beast, before it bucks us and destroys us, like it destroys the woman in the chapter. It may hurt when we do it, but God is a loving God and will care for us. We must give up pornography if we are sneaking looks at it out of sight of our wives at night. We must give up adultery if we have fallen into the temptation of straying from our marriage vows. We must give up fornication if we have succumbed to sex in a relationship before marriage. We must forsake alcohol, the great destroyer of lives. And, lest we should fall into financial ruin, we must stop gambling at Barona, not far away, or anywhere else for that matter. Pastor Hubbard hints that he knows whereof he speaks from experience with one or another of the vices he has excoriated. Yet his passionate warnings seem all the more to convict every member of the congregation, which sits in one of those palpable silences that a powerful preacher can bring on.

When I find Deskovick in the parking lot after church, he is on a cell phone to his former girlfriend. “Get down here for the 11 o’clock service,” he tells her. “The sermon is a good one this morning.”

Matt Deskovick, who is 29, was born in New Jersey, moved to Ramona when he was 13, and has lived here ever since. He has competed in rodeo for about seven years. While in high school, he wrestled and played football. Tall, with a shock of blond hair on the top of his head, he is still built like a football player.

“Then I went to a rodeo in my senior year,” says Deskovick, “saw the steer wrestling, and thought, that’s something I need to do.”

I ask Deskovick, who earns his living primarily as a general contractor, what it was about rodeo that he liked so much.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It makes you want to go do it. But it took another four years until I found somebody who could take me under his wing and teach me, because I didn’t know anything about it. Fred Hyatt did, and here I am.” Hyatt is a former football star from El Capitan High School in Lakeside. He still competes in steer wrestling and sells insurance in El Cajon.

“I heard your pastor mention something about the religion of self-effort this morning,” I say. “Does competition in rodeo ever threaten to become the highest priority in your life, even higher than your Christian faith? In football, Vince Lombardi of the old Green Bay Packers used to say that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

“I don’t think so,” says Deskovick. “I started wrestling in third grade, and competition is extremely natural. Anything, if you allow it to happen, can overpower you and become your demon. I don’t drink, but some people do and allow it to abuse them. The same with women and with cars. Sure, competition can definitely control you, if you want it to. I go to Vegas once or twice a year and have a good time, and I don’t think that’s a bad deal. But if I was at Barona every weekend, we’d have issues.”

Several weeks later, I mention to Chad Waldhauser, 38, that his minister, Rob Hubbard, is an excellent preacher. Waldhauser and I are speaking in the small office of his business, Chad’s Custom Canvas, in Ramona.

“He’s a good teacher more than anything,” he says. “What I like about Calvary Chapel is they teach, they don’t preach. They teach the Word. Sometimes, shoot, it’ll take us two or three Sundays to get through a chapter or two, if we’re lucky.”

I had noticed that Hubbard spoke several times, during the service I attended, about how we’re living in the end times.

“He’s adamant about that,” says Waldhauser, his trim but sturdy frame supporting a pleasant face with a big black mustache on it. Dark hair, cut short, is graying below his cowboy hat.

I ask him whether he believes it too. “I don’t know yet,” he says. “Things are happening. That’s a given. But will we see the end? I’m not a hundred percent convinced. Maybe our kids will. I’m not so sure that we will.”

Chad Waldhauser grew up on a 50,000-acre cattle ranch near Red Lodge, Montana. “It wasn’t ours,” he says, “but I worked on it from the time I was about 7 until I was 18.” When I ask whether that’s what got him involved in rodeo, he says, “I like to tell people that that’s like asking a kid who grew up in Del Mar why he surfs.”

Waldhauser is married and has two small children, a seven-week-old boy and a three-year-old girl. A third child, from a former marriage, lives with her mother in Reno.

Whatever openness to religion one finds among rodeo cowboys may result from the ranching ethos that many of them come from, says Waldhauser. On the ranch, Sunday is a day of rest, and many ranchers attend church on that day.

“That’s something you grow up with,” he says. “Farmers and ranchers see life-and-death situations firsthand every day, with your cattle and your crops and the whole nine yards. And most of them are believers, so they understand that these things are happening because they’re under the hand of God. I’m hoping that the faith is not going from the rodeo guys to the rancher guys as much as in the other direction, that the cowboys are finally showing, in public and in the rodeo arena, what they grew up with. Before, you were a rough, tough cowboy and you didn’t show your softer side, for lack of better words. They’re now saying, ‘Yeah, I did grow up with these beliefs. And now that being a cowboy is not so hard-nosed and hard-knocks anymore, I’m not afraid to show it in public.’ ”

“So in an earlier generation,” I say, “they held Christian beliefs, but they didn’t talk about them because they were more macho then.”

“Exactly. Nothing bothered you and you lived for yourself. But at home, Mama grabbed you by the ear and dragged you to church on Sunday. That was it.”

Another trend, says Waldhauser, is that “rodeo athletes now are starting to be a little more colorful, where it used to be that you came and you rode and you shut your mouth and you left. Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, there’s attention out there to get, and I want to grab some.’

“So they’ll be a little more flamboyant, and, of course, you’ve got both ends of it.” Here Waldhauser brings up the case of Sid Steiner, a bulldogger who made the finals last year and who, he says, “is a young gun with long hair. He wears his hair in cornrows at the rodeo.” I wonder whether Steiner is trying to get creative with a mullet. A glance at some pictures of him on the Web confirms the possibility.

Steiner, Waldhauser continues, “likes to wear wild shirts that aren’t even Western shirts but look like silk. Shoot, he wore one last year that had a fur collar on it. He bulldogged every night in leather pants. He’s flamboyant and outgoing. He’s got earrings in both ears and a piercing on one side of his chest, and he’s got a big old hog and likes to ride around without his shirt on and show his tattoos. Now, what his belief is, I don’t know. But a few other guys are going that direction. They pump the crowd a little more than cowboys used to.

“Once you see that attention — and people can deny it all they want — you want to draw it to you to some degree. Every person is going to be slightly different. The Christian guys are drawing attention to their belief.”

“Couldn’t there be a confusion for a Christian,” I ask, “between calling attention to his belief and calling attention to his own person?”

“There can be,” says Waldhauser. “But in a lot of the interviews on television, the cowboys give thanks. The interviewer will say, ‘What do you think got you here?’ And they’ll say, ‘The first thing that got me here was my faith.’ And people will notice that. When you don’t say it, they’ll notice it also.”

Waldhauser likes the Christian hymn “The Old Rugged Cross,” which the vocalist at cowboy church in Lakeside had sung. “But I’m not good at remembering verses,” he says, “though I have several that are marked in my Bible that I’ll look at regularly. One of the little things I kept out of the devotional called Our Daily Bread is cute. It says something like, ‘Dear Lord, I thank You that I haven’t fornicated, I haven’t coveted, I haven’t sworn or said bad words, that I haven’t sinned today. But in a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed and I’m going to need all the help I can get.’ ” We both laugh. “I like to glance at that one, because it reminds you that everybody — I don’t care who you are — everybody stumbles in some fashion or another. You’re constantly checking yourself.”

Serious rodeo contestants like Deskovick and Waldhauser travel thousands of miles each year to stay competitive. But for Waldhauser, the lure of out-of-town rodeos declines as his small children grow.

“It used to be that I didn’t miss anything,” he says. “I used to do 60-plus rodeos a year. In the California Finals Rodeo, I was one of the higher-end guys. One or two other guys and I were hitting 45 to 50 rodeos a year in that circuit, not counting outside rodeos.”

“That’s every weekend,” I say.

“Especially during the summer. And sometimes you hit two or three rodeos in a weekend. But the older my daughter gets, the more I want to be around her. I come from an old ‘guy’ school; when they’re little, there’s not much for me to do with them until they start interacting with me. She’s into riding now and she’s a big daddy’s girl, so she wants to go with me. But she’s not quite old enough where she can keep an eye on herself for long. Another year, though, and she’ll be able to go with me.”

Waldhauser’s wife Mindy has stopped traveling with him unless a rodeo is nearby because taking care of their children at the same time makes it too difficult. And having gone with him for years, he says, she got burned out.

Matt Deskovick has cut down a hectic travel pace of his own due to the loss of his best horse. He’s done as many as 52 rodeos in a year. A normal year, he says, takes him to about 40 rodeos, and “from the middle of March until November, I’m gone every weekend.”

“I go to a lot of the big shows,” he says, “because they pay good. And this year was going to be my first year to go back to the winter rodeos and go hard all year and take a run at the finals. But that horse got hurt, so I stayed home this year and I’m trying to get some new horses going.”

Deskovick does not have a girlfriend at this time. But, he says, “whoever I date figures out that I’m gone a lot. Most girls like their boys to be hanging out and pampering them. I’m driving 2000 miles a weekend.”

“Does it seem that the guys who are married and travel that much have difficult relationships at home?”

“It all depends on the girl. You get yourself a good one, and they know what it’s all about, and there’s no argument about it. That’s what they grow to learn. If you have the right girl, I don’t think there’s a problem. Plenty of boys don’t have the right girl, for sure. But that’s with anything.”

I ask Deskovick about the “buckle bunnies” that one hears hang around rodeos.

“That, dang sure, is nothing like rock stars and their little groupies. A few girls run around, but you usually know who they are, because they’re at all the rodeos, and you see them getting with different guys. Seldom have I dated a girl that thought I was cool because of my doing rodeo. They all like it and they find it interesting, but I wouldn’t classify any one of them as a buckle bunny. I mean, there are some, but they aren’t hard to stay away from.”

“How many cowboys themselves are big partiers?” I ask.

“The boys are not afraid to play, I’ll tell you that. I don’t drink; I never have. And I’m not the big partying type, because I take the rodeo a little more seriously than some of the guys do. But I’ve seen a bunch of it. I’ve gone out to bars to hang out and be social. A lot of rodeo is a big social thing.”

I mention to Chad Waldhauser that one cowboy I met said that the rodeo crowd is one huge family.

“Oh, a giant family,” says Waldhauser, “because you’ll run across the same people in numerous places, and a lot of the time, you’re all going in the same direction. And you help each other, even though rodeo is individual too. You and I may be competing against each other, but I’ll do whatever I can to help you, if that means letting you use my gear in case yours got lost on an airplane on the way there or helping you get set on your horse or telling you what your horse is going to do.” Waldhauser is thinking here of his own event, bareback-bronc riding. “So you see it in rough stock, but people notice it even more in timed events. You’ll have two or three guys using the same horse.”

I remark that Matt Deskovick told me something similar. When asked whether he takes his own horse to the rodeos out of town, Deskovick said, “Not always. You can get on something. Like I went to Reno last week and I got on somebody else’s horse, which you dang sure can, especially in steer wrestling. Most guys don’t own a horse. The way it works out is that, if you win something, you pay them 25 percent of whatever you won. If you don’t win anything, you don’t give them anything.”

Waldhauser elaborates on the spirit of cooperation. “For instance,” he says, “Matt will be up, and one of the other bulldoggers will push his steer out to make sure they clear good. It helps to get him a better run. And Matt will turn right around and he’ll get behind the next steer for the same guy and push it out. In the timed events, one of the things you can’t do is break the barrier. It costs you a penalty when you do that. Everybody’s standing there and, as soon as you clear and they know that the barrier’s gone, they’re hollering at you, ‘Go on, go on,’ because that means you cleared the barrier and you didn’t get a penalty, and, as long as you’re quick, you’re going to win some money. Everybody wants to see everybody do good.”

I wonder whether, when he goes on the road, Waldhauser finds the cowboy-church services helpful.

“Yeah, when I can attend them. They’re done at eight or nine on Sunday morning, and you’re either traveling to the rodeo or you’re going from one rodeo to another at that time. Not too often are you there overnight or that you show up that early in the morning. But I always go to them when I can find them.”

“Do all the rodeos have them now?”

“Most of them do, because we have several ministers out. There’s Bob Harris, there’s Coy Huffman, and two or three others that usually try to do something somewhere.”

Not having met him, I ask Waldhauser about Coy Huffman.

“He’s a great guy. I’m trying to think how to describe Coy. For lack of better words, he’s like the television crocodile guy is with animals. Coy’s that way with God and Jesus. He’s strong in his faith, and he’s a friendly, personable guy, and positive. He has a big love for Christ. You see it every day.”

Deskovick and I discuss how much success preachers like Harris and Huffman have had in recent years. In the little cowboy Bible, The Way for Cowboys, a cowboy pastor named Grant Adkisson makes the following claim: “God has done so much in the rodeo world drawing cowboys to the Lord. It’s not unusual now for half of the year’s world champions to be Christians. Many of them have come to know the Lord through the cowboy-church services.”

“Quite a few are out there,” says Deskovick, who thinks that how many depends on whether one is speaking of rough-stock cowboys, who tend to be the rowdier ones, or timed-event cowboys. “That makes a big difference. All the timed-event guys hang around one another, and all the roughies hang around one another. The timed-event guys are more family-oriented, for the most part. You’ll see a lot of them hauling their wives and kids around. When it comes to the rough-stock, you might see a wife once in a while, and maybe a kid, but not too often, because four of the guys can jump in a little Volkswagen and run off to the rodeo, whereas we have to take a truck and trailer and haul hay and make a big ordeal out of it. That, actually, makes it more convenient to bring family than it is for the rough-stock guys. For them, it’s easier to run around in a little bitty car.”

Waldhauser, though, who is one of them, says that many rough-stock riders are Christian too. I ask him, then, whether he ever witnesses to his faith among the other cowboys at rodeo.

“Cowboys, in that respect, are closed. When it comes to rodeo stuff, we’re a big happy family, but when it comes to personal things and personal hardships, people don’t share too much. One thing I do is that I’ll ask for a prayer before competition. I don’t do it with the team-ropers much, because they’re usually scattered out on horses and getting tack and stuff, but when I’m with bareback riders, we’re all in a small area getting ready to ride. So, quite regularly, I’ll lead a prayer. Normally, quite a few of the guys will come over. A few won’t, but a good majority of them will come over and they’ll have a prayer with you.

“Also, whenever I’m done riding bareback horses — I get my hand out, and the pickup man comes in and grabs hold of me and sets me down — one of the first things I do is say ‘Thank you,’ like that,” he says and holds his hands to the sky. “That’s right in front of the crowd. And they’ll notice it. A lot of our top guys will do it too,” says Waldhauser, who singles out one cowboy from Texas. “Good run, bad run, it doesn’t matter; he gets up and says thanks.

“So with the coverage of television, people are seeing the faith that a lot of our contestants have. And it trickles down to the other contestants. These other guys you’re not seeing at the beer booth after the rodeo anymore. And a lot of them are starting to take their families with them, whereas they used to go by themselves a little more.”

Waldhauser thinks that, in his rodeo life, the gospel helps him most of all to remain true to himself. He doesn’t drink, and when he’s done performing, either locally or away, he takes the first opportunity to go home. If he has to stay overnight out of town, he sometimes accompanies his cowboy buddies to the rodeo dance or the bars, where he might eat and play pool. But at one recent rodeo in Northern California, he and several of his friends, after eating late in a pizza pub, “simply went back to the rodeo grounds and sat out and let the mosquitoes chew on us for a while.”

The touchiest subject about rodeo today is its uses of livestock. Bob Harris had told me that he didn’t talk about animal rights, going on, however, to let his position be known.

“I noticed,” I had said, “in your invocations before the rodeos, that you pray for the animals.”

“Absolutely,” he said. “Because they’re athletes. These animals are professional athletes. They’re bred and trained to do what they do.”

“And they get hurt sometimes.”

“Yep, we lose an animal once in a while too. But why would somebody worry about losing an animal when they’re committing 1.5 million abortions a year. What has more value?”

Harris had told me that, if I was interested in rodeo animals, I should look at the statement about animal welfare on the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s webpage. That statement claims that, contrary to animals having rights, we humans have the right to use them responsibly for our own interests. This position seems to agree with biblical ideas on the relation of humans to animals, especially those in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verses 26 and 28. There, among other things, God enjoins us to “subdue” the earth and permits humans to “have dominion” over all animals, explicitly including cattle.

I try to approach the subject of animals with the Ramona cowboys through the relationship that rodeo performers have with their horses. Matt Deskovick helps me out. “My good horse got hurt the day before Christmas,” he says, “and I had to put him down a few months ago.”

Remembering my own loss of several dogs, I think that I see sadness fill his eyes as he says this. But he presses beyond it.

“I grew up on a little farm, so I learned early that animals are here for a purpose. When I had to put my first sheep down and my first horse and dog, you figure out that they’re just animals.”

“But it hurts for a while,” I say.

“Sure. I rodeoed on my last horse four or five years. Now that he’s gone, to replace him is so hard to do. The attitude and temperament he had, plus the ability to go out and compete against everybody and do a good job, where I could stay competitive. You know, that’s hard to find in horses.”

“What kind of temperament did he have?”

“I could let kids come up and pet him, and I could put them on his back and ride them around. He was a really, really good horse. I have one right now that I don’t even let people come pet, because he’s not that kind of horse. And I’ve got another horse that I’m starting but that I can’t let anybody ride. You can dang sure go up and pet him and be his friend. He’s not going to hurt you or step on you, but I can’t put anybody on his back, whereas my other horse, I could send anybody on his back and let them go for a ride. They could ride around the arena. But this horse I don’t even let people on him that I think can ride, because he’s on edge all the time, lots of energy and young. I spoiled my last one, because he was so broke and such a nice horse, and now I’m starting with all these new ones.”

I ask Deskovick how good a horse must be for steer wrestling.

“A horse is dang sure 50 percent, if not 75 percent, of it. If your horse ain’t going to get you there, it will be tough to win anything.”

Chad Waldhauser is quite willing to discuss the ethical treatment of livestock, an issue that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has made a sore spot among rodeo aficionados. As a bareback-bronc rider, he starts with the bucking of horses and bulls.

“I’ve got eight horses at the house,” he tells me, “and two of them on any given day will buck you off if they feel like it, and they’re dead-broke saddle horses. But if they feel good and they want to buck, they’ll buck. Bucking is something that livestock animals do.”

Still, for more consistent performance by the bulls and horses in rough-stock events, rodeos continue to cinch their flanks with straps. The effect is to make the animals buck more than they might otherwise. But the flank straps have to be lined with fleece to prevent excessive irritation. The rule is only one of many regulations that the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association uses to govern all rodeo tactics for stimulating and controlling animal behavior.

I learn from Waldhauser how multifaceted the issue of the treatment of rodeo animals is. The subject merits a separate exposition. Among critics, the severest maintain that nothing rodeo does with animals is legitimate, since animals have the right to live their own lives free of any use by human beings. Rodeo responses to less radical specific criticisms, according to Waldhauser, fall into four general contentions. First, the professional association regulations in place are sufficient to protect the animals. Second, cowboys don’t want to harm the animals by breaking those rules, not the least because they will be penalized in the scoring of their events for doing so. Third, to the stock contractors who supply animals to the rodeos, the incentive is to protect the animals, who are their livelihood.

And fourth, the public is not educated about horse and cattle anatomy enough to know what injures the animals and what does not. Certain events, such as calf roping and steer wrestling, for instance, give a false impression that the twisting and jerking of the cattle’s necks damages the animals. But they have sufficient musculature and flexibility to protect them. Anyone can go out, says Waldhauser, “and watch a calf turn around and lick a fly off the middle of his back. He can bend that far.”

It is not possible to get the animals’ own views, of course, but I ask Waldhauser, “Do you think that rodeo animals enjoy the sport too, perhaps the way dogs enjoy your playing with them, even when the play is rough?”

“You betcha,” says Waldhauser. “Horses will buck you off and then prance around that arena and lift their heads up, like, ‘Hey, look at me.’ Some bulls are good at it too. A couple of bulls won’t leave the arena until they make a lap. If you pressure one of them, he’ll go to the other end of the arena just to mess with you. But if you leave him alone after he bucks the guy off, he makes one full lap and goes out. And he’ll do it every single time.

“Some ranch horses are spoiled and end up being bucking horses, and that’s because they learned to buck and they enjoy bucking and they don’t want to quit. They don’t make good ranch horses.”

“Could a horse working on a ranch where they do a lot of roping,” I ask, “have harder work to do than a bucking horse?”

“I would think so. My poor roping horse gets the beejeebees worked out of him. If he was a bucking horse, he’d only have to buck once a weekend.”

As a complement to raising their children with Christian values, Chad and Mindy Waldhauser are exposing them as early as possible to ranch animals. The boy is still too young, but last summer Waldhauser took his little girl, Amy, to a children’s rodeo program put on by Mountain Valley Ranch, a mile and a half north of Ramona on Highway 78.

The Mountain Valley Ranch Summer Buckle Series, which ran from July 12 to August 23, is a program modeled in part on the professional rodeo format, but with much more emphasis on plain fun. Its goals are to give children a healthy outlet for their summer energies and to help them develop good values. The program refers to its own activities as “junior rodeo,” but many of the children it serves are younger than those participating in state junior-rodeo programs. The youngest children attending the program are three, the age of Waldhauser’s daughter. Depending on their age, the kids participate in such events as “mutton busting,” “goat tying,” and “calf tying.” On my own visit to one evening’s program, I watch “dummy roping,” a “broomstick horse race,” and a “cloverleaf barrel race.”

“We play by our own rules,” says Selena Roberts, executive director of Mountain Valley Ranch. Roberts is a small woman of 36 who wears a visor as she oversees, on-site, the frenetic pace of the Summer Buckle Series. “We’re flexible with the kids, because we feel we need to be. We are not sanctioned or endorsed by the junior-rodeo state associations.”

The summer series “promotes whole-family participation, which is important,” says Roberts. Mountain Valley Ranch used to include in its program more intergenerational activities. But complaints from neighbors about noise and bright lights late at night caused Roberts to eliminate some of them in order to end the program earlier than she would like.

“We do have one team event still, mostly for dads and sons or daughters, the ribbon roping. When Dad gets the calf roped, kids have to run out and pull the ribbon off the calf’s tail and run back to the fence. That’s a lot of fun for them, because Dad and daughter or Dad and son compete. And we’ve even had some moms rope with their kids.”

“What is it about animals that’s good for kids?” I ask Roberts.

“Unconditional love,” she says. “That’s a big part of it. I think that animals don’t get mad. They’re a little more sensitive. The greatest thing you can do for an animal is show it affection, and it will give it back to you tenfold. The animals rely on you wholeheartedly for their care. You’re responsible for the welfare of this animal, and we promote that during our junior-rodeo activities. Care and concern. You take care with what you’re doing, and the rewards come back. And you can see it in the kids. They love what they’re doing, but they take a lot of care.

“What’s fun about this junior-rodeo series is that a lot of the kids that come to participate have never even had a chance to pet a baby goat. And all of a sudden they’re in the pen with one and they’re hands-on and they’re participating in these great events. And they’re so cute to watch. I can’t stand it.”

One evening, at the Summer Buckle Series, I watch Waldhauser pulling his daughter, on horseback, through the turns of the cloverleaf barrel race. Amy is atop her father’s Spot, a former bucking horse. Afterward, I talk with Waldhauser, who is holding Amy in the crook of his right arm and who calls the program “awesome.”

He thinks that children become more “caring” through their interactions with animals. But, to Waldhauser, much more is involved. “I don’t mean to be one-sided about it,” he says, “but it seems evident that kids who grow up in an animal-filled environment — and I don’t just mean a dog — in general, seem to be well-rounded. When they’re exposed to animals, they learn, early, life and death. That makes them more realistic. Things may not affect them the same way they would somebody that didn’t deal with injuries or death. Their compassion may still be as great, but the things don’t affect them emotionally, maybe, as hard as they do other people. Yeah, we are now talking about a person, let’s say, but still something that you’ve dealt with all the time.

“And, then, animals depend upon you. Chores go along with them, whether you like to do them or not. They need to be fed every morning; they need to be fed every night. And, when the kids get older and enjoy the animals — they want the horse or the cow or the sheep — they learn the responsibilities that go along with them. In my opinion, a lot of city kids don’t get that and, therefore, they have a lot less respect for things, including other people’s things.”

Children respect what they have had to earn, thinks Waldhauser, and a lot of city kids have things handed to them. If they are told they can’t have something, they will throw a tantrum and get it anyway.

Roberts brings up another value that “we encourage,” sportsmanship. “What’s great on that level is that, about two weeks into this program, you’re going to see these kids stepping in and helping each other. And the transition happens by itself, almost. During the first two weeks we’re interactive with the kids and showing them and helping them and giving them the positive criticism they need, but, soon, you watch the older kids take over a little bit. They start helping the little ones. And then the little ones that may be doing better in one event will all of a sudden be helping the other ones that are in their age group. These kids work together. And the beauty of it is, you know five-year-olds aren’t into competition. They’re not. They’re out there having the time of their life.

“But ultimately there’s a winner at the end of our series. What we do is, they earn awards nightly. They get a first- through sixth-place ribbon and, then, they accumulate points throughout the six-week series. At the end of the series we have a final, and the top five children in each event compete for the finals. This is where the rewards come into play.”

“At what point in the kids’ development do they start wanting to be ‘the winner’?” I ask.

“A lot of it depends on the history of the family. If Mom and Dad are involved on a competitive level, be it amateur or professional, the children get involved at an earlier age. If Dad’s a calf roper, then son’s out there messing around with dummy calves when he’s five or six. Same thing with the girls in barrel racing. But we see a desire to start achieving when they’re eight, ten years old.

“Do you see many tantrums because kids don’t win?”

“Sure, the sportsmanship comes in here. That’s something that we try to do for our kids during the summer series. Winning’s not everything. You’re going to lose sometimes. And sometimes, the more you lose, the more you learn. That’s important, I think, for these kids to understand. Of course, you’ve got to try hard to win, but the chips aren’t always going to fall the way you’d like them to.”

Mountain Valley Ranch took some of its events to the Ramona Roundup Rodeo this year. From the grandstands an hour before the rodeo started, I had watched children in little boots and Stetsons engaged in roping dummy calves. But I didn’t stay long enough to see the competition for best-dressed cowgirls and cowboys in different age categories.

“Our involvement in the rodeo was a test run,” says Roberts. “We brought a couple of our events that were simple to move in and out of the arena. The idea was to invite kids out of the stands. You know, come into the arena and play. Everybody jumped in. And it was the best crowd they’ve had on a Sunday in years. I think it was because of the kids.”

Besides the program for kids, Mountain Valley Ranch also holds weekly team-roping practices for people in the community. But although Roberts and others tell me that Ramona is “team-roping country,” San Diego County is not one of America’s oases for rodeo cowboys.

“There’s dang sure not a whole lot of us,” says Matt Deskovick. “In fact, my ex-girlfriend has no concept. And she rodeoed and went to a lot of rodeos and got a million practice sessions with me and learned a lot about it. But she didn’t realize how many guys have been in the circuit finals. The top 12 of California in an event go to the finals. She thought that everybody goes to the circuit finals. And I said, ‘No. Chad, Fred [Hyatt], me, and Troy [Dial] have gone.’ That’s San Diego County. Four of us have been to the circuit finals. I said, ‘That’s it.’ And it was a whole new concept for her because she assumed that all these guys that she knows that rope, they’ve all been to the finals. I go, ‘It’s not that easy.’ It was funny to see her, because I thought she had that figured out. But there’s only a few of us that go hard enough and do well enough to make it.”

Deskovick remembers kids that he went to school with at Ramona High that he thought, then, were cowboys. “But when I started doing rodeo, I realized how far from a cowboy they were. These were people that listened to Garth Brooks and had a cowboy hat and wanted to think that they were cowboys.”

“Cowboy wannabes,” I say.

“Exactly. You’ll find them also in rodeo, guys that can’t ride a bull or can’t ride broncs, but they enter up, because they want to tell everybody at the bar that they were at the rodeo last week. I used to have a little bit of a problem with them because of their whole attitude and how they want to run around and tell everybody who they are. You go down to the bar right now and you’ll see a bunch of guys that have shirts with logos on them trying to get the girls to think that they’re somebody. In fact, I was at In Cahoots [near Hazard Center] down there in San Diego. I got dragged out there a couple of weeks ago. I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes and my belt buckle. And I could guarantee that I’m the only one in that bar that ever rodeoed.

“And this girl — she and her girlfriend had been looking over and giggling before they went on their way — she comes up to me a few minutes later and says, ‘I wasn’t making fun of you. I thought it was funny how you had your belt buckle and your tennis shoes on.’ Little does she know, I’m the only one in there that actually has won money in rodeo and that owns a horse.”

“While all the other guys have the boots on.”

“Yeah, and they get dressed up and they’ve got the shirts. It’s funny. But maybe three or four years ago, I realized that all those guys down there at In Cahoots, they’re cowboys. They’re just a different kind of cowboy. And all the kids that want to go get on a bull and get bucked off at the rodeo so they can say they were at the rodeo, well, they’re cowboys. They’re a different kind.”

I ask, “Do they get on mechanical bulls?”

“No, I mean, you enter a rodeo, a steer wrestling or whatever, and find somebody to get on their horse and fall in the dirt and think you’re a cowboy now.

“Then they figure out that that’s nothing they want to do, but they’ll talk about it for years, how they used to rodeo back when. And like I said, I’ve learned that everybody is a cowboy. It may not be my kind of cowboy, but they’re cowboys in their own little way, whether it has anything to do with rodeo or working on a ranch.

“Down there at In Cahoots, you won’t find anybody that rodeos, and if you do, they’re nothing to speak of. They probably never won a dime.”

On a Thursday, country-and-western night, I pay a visit to In Cahoots myself. There on the dance floor, I notice a sea of cowboy hats — with several mullets flowing from under them.

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