You probably have mixed feelings about school starting so soon. As a mom of three I know I do. But Anita Mathis has never been more ready. Not only does she return from summer break to lead a classroom full of first graders at Julia Lee Moore Elementary; but she’s also returning to lead the Faulkner County Saddle Club. You see, just as much as her students need her, so does the club. 

Mathis is on a mission to bring rodeo back to its heyday in Faulkner County. Participation has fallen to an all-time low; and the facilities are falling apart. Mathis says, “Research has proven that the more we can do to expose children to horses, the more we are doing to invoke a positive influence on society. I have had the opportunity to see these benefits first hand in my own daughter and in the youth I served at the Don Owens Arena.”

After serving as Saddle Club President nearly 10 years ago Mathis returns to the position with an eagerness to bring more kiddos into the sport. She loves being the ‘pit crew’ for her child riders. “I believe one of the best ways to build character is to pair a child with a horse. I am addicted to smiling kids. When the kids leave a lesson or a competition with a smile on their face, I am paid in full for a hard day’s work,” she says. 

However, the work is becoming much harder as the rodeo arena, behind the Don Owen Sports Complex, falls apart. Mathis, her husband, and other Saddle Club volunteers have been the only ones maintaining it for years. The restroom doors are falling off, the paint is chipped, stables are overgrown, and lighting doesn’t work. Mathis says fixing the electrical and the restrooms are the first priority; especially since the arena also serves as a lay-over place for people travelling through Arkansas headed to other state events with their horses. “We are very fortunate to have such a large arena. As with any facility there are always repairs and improvements to be made. Most of these are accomplished through many volunteer hours of our dedicated members. We have spent countless hours repairing barns, bathrooms, and lighting at the arena.”

Steve Ibbitson, the city’s Parks and Rec Director, says, “It needs improvements, without a doubt. It’s usable but it’s not putting our best foot forward.” The city does the mowing and pays the utility bills but the Saddle Club handles upkeep and repairs. Ibbitson said the city will look into helping fix the lighting but doesn’t have the budget or the staff to run the arena or make all the repairs. “I don’t see any issue with lending a hand; but we can’t run it,” he says. Meantime, he’d love to see the facility in better shape and more families involved in the sport. He says, “It would be fun for more citizens to participate in activities there or come watch.” Ibbitson stands ready to help the Saddle Club members apply for grants to make upgrades and improvements. “I will do whatever I can. It’d be such a positive impact in the city,” he says.  

Updating the arena would go beyond just helping the rodeo crowd; it could potentially launch an equine therapy program with Imagination Station & On-Track Therapy. Equine therapy is also referred to as ‘horse therapy’ or ‘hippotherapy.’ Jenny Jolley, certified occupational therapist and owner of Imagination Station & On-Track Therapy, says, “Equine assisted therapy is used to treat patients challenged with everything from cerebral palsy and autism, to simple strengthening as part of physical therapy. For Conway moms and dads: it means connecting the kid that would not ordinarily have access to the crazy cool benefits of horseback riding.”

Jolley and Mathis are working to co-write a grant that will address the necessary arena repairs while installing accessibility for riders with unique needs. Jolley says, “With the long-standing history of Conway’s arena and convenient location for local families, this seems like a win-win. It would be an incredible asset for the city of Conway to boast a special-needs riding program at their very own city arena!” 

Moving forward, Jolley and Mathis hope to petition the city council for support and are about to launch a crowd-funding campaign to support the new non-profit they’ve established. Jolley says, “I think we can bring visibility to Conway’s Saddle Club and opportunity to the thousands of families that have children with various therapy needs. We can’t think of a better addition to Conway’s multi-faceted city then celebrating its historic arena and elevating its special needs community by offering a unique partnership in the equine therapy program offered there.”

So as horse lover and teacher Anita Mathis gets up in front of a new crop of first graders this fall she also gets ready to stand in front of city officials. She says, “Educating our city planning and zoning commission that horses are important, not to just a small group of horse lovers, but to the economic, physical, emotional, and environmental well-being of the entire community. Our goal as a club is to ensure that the equine facilities brings out community together.” It couldn’t be a more exciting time for her to be back in the saddle and at the reins. Mathis says, “If we can make improvements, the facility will provide a place where the benefits of horses can be experienced by all and ensure that horses maintain a place in our local community.”

To get involved with the Saddle Club follow them on Facebook at Faulkner County Saddle Club. 

To follow the horse therapy program development follow Imagination Station & On-Track Therapy on Facebook.