Down on the Farm


The Equestrian Heritage of Stanford University’s Big Red Barn
PHOTOS BY YanYang Li
Stanford University in Silicon Valley, California, is considered one of the best universities in America—if not the best. It is an international institution with students from all 50 U.S. states and 91 other countries. It is also an athletics powerhouse, boasting 900 current student-athletes and a history of 128 national titles and 22 consecutive Learfield Sports Directors’ Cups (awarded to the top intercollegiate athletics program in the nation).

Last year was Standford’s 125th anniversary. In 1884, when railroad magnate and former California Governor Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane Lathrop Stanford, lost their only child, Leland Jr., to typhoid, they decided to build a university as the most fitting memorial and deeded to it a large fortune that included 8,180 acres of Palo Alto rangeland.

Before Stanford became a world-class university, it was a horse farm that produced champion racehorses. Two dozen buildings, 50 paddocks, and 8 racetracks were on the trotting farm. At its height, the farm employed 150 workers and boarded 600 horses.

Two buildings from the farm survive today. The Victorian red barn, built between 1878 and 1880, served as the training stable for the stock farm. The “ reproof” brick stable Leland Stanford ordered as a replacement for a stable destroyed by re in 1888 now houses he equestrian-team clubhouse and other equestrian-center facilities. The farm was also the site of Eadweard Muybridge’s famed photographs of horses in motion. (See Equestrian Living, February/March 2016.) Governor Stanford hired Muybridge, then a well-known landscape photographer, to prove Stanford’s theory that a trotter, at its fastest gait, momen- tarily has all four feet off the ground. Muybridge con rmed Stanford’s idea by working with railroad engineers in 1877 to develop a technique to take a sequence of images that froze a trotter’s actual movement. A plaque commemorates the role Muybridge and Stanford played in the early development of motion pictures.

The Stanford equestrian team, led by head coach Vanessa Bartsch, has between 35 and 45 active members riding hunt- seat equitation, dressage, and Western horsemanship. Tryouts for the team occur at the beginning of each academic year. The team looks for both accomplished riders with strong show experience and beginners dedicated to learning more about the sport. The team owns 30 horses, and members are expected to ride two to ve times a week, attend team meetings, and complete three hours of cross-training.

For more than 30 years, Stanford has competed in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA). In order to create a level playing field based on riding skills rather than the quality of the horse, IHSA competitions are based on catch riding, where riders draw a horse provided by the host school. According to the rules of IHSA, the riders choose a horse’s ID number from a hat. Riders can’t have any contact with the horse until they enter the arena, which ensures that everyone has to ride an unfamiliar horse. Competitors accu- mulate points in their respective classes both for their individual standing and for the team. Stanford competes in IHSA Zone 8, Region 1. Others in this region are University of California at Berkeley; University of California at Davis; University of California at Santa Cruz; Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; College of the Sequoias; Santa Clara University; Sierra College; Sonoma State University; and University of Nevada at Reno.

The Stanford team was a successful experience for Lucy Davis, who graduated in 2015. She collected Stanford’s 18th overall medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, bringing home silver as a member of the U.S. show-jumping team with Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden, and Mclain Ward. Davis majored in architecture at Stanford while also riding professionally since her freshman year. She rode horses at school every morning before classes.

The 125-year-old equestrian heritage remains strong at Stanford. In fact, the university is still affectionately called “the farm.”