Local horse enthusiasts came together Saturday to show off the spectacular gaits of fox trotters and Tennessee walking horses at Bolivar Saddle Club’s 53rd annual Gaited Horse Show.
The July 6 show, which featured riders in 21 classes, is one of Polk County’s longest-running events.
“We put on an annual show,” said Jim Strader, Bolivar Saddle Club’s president. “We’ve done it since the ’40s, but here since the ’60s at this ground.”
While much has remained the same over the years, one aspect of the show’s tradition has changed recently, he said.
“We used to have it on the Fourth of July all the time, but now we have it on Saturdays,” Strader said. “Because when it falls in the middle of the week, it’s hard for everybody to get to the show. But we’ve moved it to Saturday, and it’s turned out well.”
Strader said the event makes enough money for the club to keep running the lights and utilities for events. When extra income is received, the club donates to charity.
Referring to the show’s purpose, Strader said, “If you get down to the basics, it’s for the love of the horses. We love to watch a good horse travel."
Looking back in history
Rex Barham, who says he is the oldest living member of Bolivar Saddle Club at 95, led the event’s prayer and stood by to watch the show.
Spectators who weren’t familiar with the club’s history might have been unaware that Barham played an essential role in creating the club 56 years ago.
“I moved here in 1962,” Barham said. “I decided that Bolivar needed a saddle club. Brighton, Buffalo and Halfway had one. We just got together and decided to organize.”
Barham said the group organized and elected board members for the club around 1963. The first meeting took place at a skating rink on Main Avenue, which is gone now, and the meetings after that were moved to Roberts Sale Barn.
The club’s initial task was finding land and donations to build an arena.
The land seemed to fall perfectly into the saddle club’s hands through Barham’s familial connection. Barham said his wife’s aunt owned the property where the arena stands today.
To build the arena, Barham said he and other club members cut saw-logs at Barham’s farm and then hauled the logs to a sawmill owned by Frank Brashears — the father-in-law of Steve Skopec, who is the saddle club’s current vice president. The lumber that Brashears sawed was used to build the club’s arena and cookshack.
With land and lumber checked off the list, the next step was to purchase lights.
“I took a tablet and ran around the square to get donations to put in lights,” Barham said.
The donations he collected helped the saddle club purchase used light poles from Southwest Electric Cooperative.
“If it wasn’t for him, we might not have a saddle club,” Steve Skopec said, referring to Barham.
Glancing around the arena that Barham helped create, Skopec nostalgically added, “We used to meet out here on Tuesday nights, and we’d have twice as many people as there are here tonight. We used to have 2,000 people when we first started.”
Regarding the show’s decline in attendance, Barham said “the industry in general has changed.”
“Back when we started the saddle club, you couldn’t hardly pass a pasture that didn’t have horses in it. It’s just that difference,” he said.
Although times have changed, Barham seems to hold an optimistic spirit for the club’s longevity.
“I can’t tell you how long we’ll have it,” he said.
He believes the club’s main concern is “keeping the grounds here.”
“But I think it will stay awhile. And maybe it will get better in a few years. I hope so,” he said.
Although Barham didn’t ride in Bolivar’s July 6 show — “it takes too many people to get me on and off a horse,” he joked — he rode at Ava’s Fox Trot Celebration show last year and placed second out of 20 riders in the senior class.