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Learning the ropes

For about 50 kids, Spunk Sasser Arena in Lacoochee recently became a home away from home. Before breakfast, they were wet, dirty and bug-bitten; by nightfall, they were wetter, dirtier and ready for bed. And it didn't bother them one bit.

The Sasser family has two rodeo camps for kids 4 to 17 every summer on its ranch north of Dade City.

Boys and girls arrive from all over the state _ sometimes even out of state _ for the five-day camps, which cost $200. The entire family _ Harold "Fat Daddy," wife Jeanette, son Spunk, daughter Lisa Sasser Dewees and her daughter, Lara _ put on the camps.

Much of the teaching is done by Spunk, 37, who makes his living as a professional rodeo rider. He has won numerous buckles but is most proud of his 14 Southeastern Circuit Rodeo overall championships, more than anyone in history.

Dewees, 44, is a former competitive barrel racer, and Lara, 14, recently placed third in the nation at the Dixie Nationals competition.

Participants in the Sasser camps learn junior rodeo skills such as goat tying, breakaway roping, barrel and pole racing, steer wrestling and how to care of their animals. Some of the kids are novices, but most have some experience in junior rodeo competition.

On July 12, at the end of the camp, campers put on the Grand Finale, a rodeo for their parents. They show off their roping, riding and tying skills as parents and siblings watch from the tailgates of their pickups.

The camp concludes with a potluck dinner served on picnic tables under an old oak tree. After dinner, there is an awards ceremony. The camper with the best score at the first Grand Finale was Lee Miller, 17, of Arcadia; in last week's session, Dakota Lindboe, 12, of Lake City and Heather Brown, 15, of Dade City tied for best score.

The Sassers started their rodeo camp 11 years ago after taking some children to a similar camp in north Florida. It has become a family summertime tradition.

"Rodeo is our family's whole life," Dewees said. "We love taking two weeks out of our year to encourage the kids."

Dakota Lindboe, 12, of Lake City wrestles a calf to the ground under the guidance of Spunk Sasser. Dakota tied for best score July 12 in Grand Finale, the rodeo for campers' parents.

Cheyenne Holem, 7, of Melbourne flies toward the finish line July 12 during the barrel race at the Grand Finale. She braided her horse's mane to match her hair.

At right, Austin, 8, slow dances with Sammy Windsor, 9, of Brooksville at the barn dance. Below, Aaron Barber, 4, tries to hang out with his older brother Austin and other campers after the awards. The Barbers came to take Austin home to Lake City.