The sun hasn’t crested the horizon yet, but boots are already kicking up dust around the horse stalls.
Clark County Rodeo Bible Camp participants hoist hay-filled wheelbarrows and haul hoses to replenish water before most folks have even hit the alarm clock snooze button.
“We get up, we feed them twice a day, in the morning and at night. We have to clean their stalls, we put them out to pasture,” camper Hana Wyles, 14, of Battle Ground says of horse duty. “It’s definitely a big part of your life and … that’s just the way you live.”
However, not all the campers are early risers. Camp founder Larry Cutler, bullhorn in hand, knows just how to wake them up. Cutler steps to an opening in the large canvas tent and pops a couple of short siren bursts.
“OK, get up! You got about three minutes to get up or the food’s going away,” he says.
The threat of missing breakfast is enough to get the teens to their feet.
The camp, which was started four years ago by retired rodeo veteran Cutler of Scio, Ore., and his friend Joe Thompson of Camas, has grown from about 10 teens to 103. It’s basically a Bible camp; rodeo is the draw, Cutler says.
“If we get 100 kids here, I found that maybe, just maybe, one or two will go on to become professional cowboys. But I guarantee you all 100 of them will meet God someday.”
The nondenominational camp has the backing of Clark County’s Cowboy Church, which was founded by Cutler and Thompson.
Cutler and his team handpick rodeo professionals as team leaders. They instruct the kids, who choose one of several rodeo events: barrel racing, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, shoot dogging, team roping, goat tying, break-away roping, pole bending, calf roping and horsemanship.
Campers pay $100 for the five-day August camp, but the fee is waived for families in financial need. Organizers depend on the community for support, including the use of the Vancouver Saddle Club 10505 N.E. 117th Ave., at no charge. The teens, three-quarters of whom are typically girls ages 13 to 19, sign up to participate in the camp. They have varying degrees of rodeo experience, and some have never been on a horse.
“They really, really, really work their tails off here. It’s amazing to see,” says Danny Alires, a professional cowboy who serves as a saddle-bronco riding instructor at the camp.
He says that he and Cutler share the same passion for helping children.
“My hope is that maybe we can detour some of the mistakes that we’ve made out of their life. My hope is that they leave here with the peace of Jesus Christ and knowledge of who he is. That’s truly the reasoning behind it all.”
Twice a day, the campers attend chapel in a program rooted in Christianity.
“They spend four days surrounded by God, everyone here. They can’t get away from it. We love them to death. I don’t care where they go, they’re being loved,” Cutler says. “They’re being told. They’re being hugged. They’re being taken care of. They find out that we care. They find out that we sincerely care.”
Dakota Quintero, 18, of Hoquiam found a passion for bull riding at the camp last year and jumped at the chance to return.
“It’s just really awesome that people can help younger kids achieve their goals and have fun. It’s just real, real amazing,” Quintero says.
Cody Zillyette, 17, of Montesano wants to return someday as a camp counselor.
“I got started because Dakota talked me into it this year, and it’s just been a blast,” he says. “The rush you get when you get on a bull. You just have no control over what it does, and you just gotta put it in God’s hands.”
“This camp has been a real eye-opener for being Christian and just doing the sport of rodeo. They’re really big on the church here, because that’s part of the cowboy way, I guess,” Quintero says.
“No matter what, the cowboys will always be there for each other.”
After intensive instruction, the aspiring cowboys and cowgirls put on two rodeos — complete with a grand entrance — on the final two days of the camp. After receiving their assignments, they get a first-hand look at the bulls and steers they’ll be riding, roping or wrestling.
“It’s not really fear that you feel; it’s the adrenaline, and that’s what you think is the fear, but it’s just the adrenaline that’s settin’ you up for what’s going to happen,” Quintero says.
Along with courage, humility also plays a big role.
“When you get bucked off a horse, that’s about the most humbling thing you can do,” Battle Ground’s Wyles says. “… But that’s the trust, and that’s the relationship part of it. You are trusting yourself on top of a 1,000-pound animal to run as fast as you can around barrels or go rope a steer. … It’s a very, like, ‘I respect you, and you respect me, and we won’t have any troubles.'”
Wyles says she plans to return to the camp and that the experience has changed her life.
“You totally get a new perspective on life and how everything works. The counselors are amazing.”
Courage isn’t reserved to the rodeo arena, and some of the kids open up with stories of drug use, abuse at home and thoughts of suicide.
“Every night after chapel, we would all come together. And we would talk about what happened at chapel and how we felt about it. And we would tell personal stories,” Wyles says. “I can’t even compare to some of the kids, what they’ve gone through. I thought my bad was bad, but it doesn’t even compare. Some of the kids have gone through so much.”
Camper Daniel Sage sits in a horse trough filled with water. With one hand on his chest and one wrapped around his back, Cutler gently dunks him beneath the surface.
“We do that every year,” Cutler says of the baptizing. “We get a lot of kids to step forward, and they want the Lord in their lives.”
“We’re not religious; we just have a personal relation with the Lord,” Cutler adds.
Watch a video here.