A steady stream of off-road pickup trucks and horse trailers begins in earnest about 10:30 a.m. each Sunday.
The music on the public address system at The Farm fluctuates from gospel to country as congregation members wearing jeans and plaid shirts saunter in to the pole barn off Lithia-Pinecrest Road.
Former rodeo cowboy Skipper Calder and his devoted band of volunteers have already been at it for a while, setting up chairs, brewing coffee and hanging boards from stall doors filled with name tags for the regulars.
Nearby, a horse named Zeek awaits his job as Calder’s sidekick.
It’s cowboy church with the Cowboy-Up Ministry Team. And for those who attend, there’s no better way to spend a Sunday morning, interweaving horse training with scripture and the sweet aroma of sawdust.
Tim Ketchum, a cowboy from Bartow, traveled to Lithia for church with his wife, Susan, his sons, Dalton, 12 and Dan, 14 and that unpredictable horse, Zeek.
“I’ve always been into cowboy church ministries from bull riding,” Ketchum said. “I heard about Skipper at a rodeo a couple months ago and we’ve been coming since.”
“It’s cool to get to see the horses when he talks about God and stuff,” Dalton added.
Linda Arlington got baptized in the church. “I live in Wimauma and first found out about Skipper when he was still in Zolfo Springs, doing trail rides and barbecues, but I couldn’t go every week.” Hardee County’s a bit of a drive -- about 50 miles each way.
Then she heard, Calder had moved his ministry to Lithia.
“It’s relaxing,” Arlington said. “I bring my dog and my horse and after service, I go riding. I can be me and worship, too.”
Larry Hyatt, a horse man all his life, had been looking for a church in the Lithia area.
“I’m not crazy about the fire and brimstone style,” he said. “… I never thought about associating horse training with preaching of the Bible. But, horses have patience, endurance and loyalty. You can apply all that to your spiritual needs.”
Calder doesn’t have formal training as a preacher, but that’s the case with most of his endeavors.
“I’m a true cowboy,” Calder said. “I never went to school to be a preacher. I won my buckle, I won my saddle and had 38 broken bones. God called me to put him and horses together.”
That works for TK Beath, of Seffner, who found the Cowboy-Up Minstry through Horse and Tack Magazine. Cowboy church is held on property owned by the magazine’s publishers, Mike and Denise Holmes.
“I’ve always been a God-believing person and Skipper adds so much by mixing horse training and learning about God,” Beath said. She said she finds his approach refreshing.
Calder imbues an easy style, spontaneous and casual, as he handles Zeek. The horse is afraid of the clippers used to cut his hair and his worm medicine. Trust is key to a healthy relationship, Calder tells his congregation as he strokes the horse’s mane with the clippers in his hand, turning them on and off.
Communication is also key, he tells the crowd. Cowboy hats nod, as he lets Zeek know he is a kind person, but also the horse’s master.
“I want to teach people to have a better understanding of their animals, people and God,” Calder said.
“Depending on the horse and the sermon, sometimes I mix the sermon through the horse training,” as he did recently. “Sometimes, I stop about 15 minutes and do a short sermon. Sometimes, I know two months ahead what I’ll say. Sometimes, I don’t know when I get there.
“It's horse training. Some of it is very dull, like watching paint dry and some of it is very exciting if it looks like I'm gonna get bucked off,” Calder said with a laugh. “So much of our life is us dealing with problems and I relate to God as being our trainer. The Holy Spirit teaches us and reminds us, just like a horse trainer.
“Horses all have the same problems. They see themselves as the leader,” Calder said. “When they see me as the leader, their whole attitude will change. When we see God as the leader and we're the follower, that all changes.”
Calder, 60, said he tries to keep the sermons simple, but he doesn’t “water them down.” And he makes time for the children. Debbie Lewis, of Keysville, and Deb Butler, who lives near Arcadia, head up the children’s ministry, shuffling the youngsters to the front of the pole barn for Biblical words of wisdom, then escorting them back to their seats with paper and crayons.
During the service, Calder’s wife, Kathy Calder, motivates the congregation by adding Scripture to the training lesson. She dedicated her life to Jesus when she was 16 and likes the idea of offering Christianity in this laid-back environment.
“Some people feel confined in traditional churches or condemned or judged,” Kathy Calder said. There’s none of that at cowboy church, she said. “It’s open-air and non-threatening.”
Much of the preaching is about strong, loving relationships.
“We want people to stay married and we give them tools and information that make for a great marriage,” Skipper Calder said. His first marriage ended in divorce. But, he and Kathy have been married for 18 years and with God’s help, he said, they are getting it right.
“We push the book of love and respect and the five love languages,” he said. “Its how to make people you love feel loved.”