Beyond Coxe Cage, on the other side of Central Ave., 60 horses live year-round in what Yale’s Web site calls “the Athletic Department’s greatest secret.” That secret is the 84-year-old Yale Polo and Equestrian Center, an unobtrusive stucco complex set among the playing fields.
Decades of waning visibility of the polo program on campus, as well as decades of quiet economic self-sufficiency by the Center, have contributed to the so-called secret. But a recent campaign by the polo and equestrian teams for renovations of the Center seeks to shed light on a thriving, albeit little-known, University program.
A Quiet University Presence
In 1917, an armory and adjacent cavalry barn were constructed for Yale with a donation from Conger Goodyear of the Class of 1899. It housed the Yale ROTC’s artillery pieces and cavalry horses during World War I. The Yale Polo and Equestrian Center, as it is known today, comprises those structures.
“Yale Polo and the Center were run by the ROTC until World War II, after which the armory has been self-sufficient,” said Alexandra Redding ’02, a women’s polo team member who is researching the history of the program for her senior thesis.
The men’s team was formed in the 1920s and drilled there as a way to hone cavalry skills. Since then, it has garnered the most intercollegiate championships of any school in the United States. A women’s team was formed in 1972 and subsequently won the first two women’s college championships.
Today, the teams are club sports and are funded by the players themselves. Each advanced player pays $1,000 annually and beginners pay $500 annually to subsidize participation. The teams compete from October to April against other programs on the East Coast, with home matches at the Center.
The club equestrian team, substantially larger than the polo teams combined, also uses the Center, however in recent years the most advanced riders have chosen to go off-campus for their practices and home events.
As the Center’s military function ended in the years after World War II, it has expanded its offering of programs to the broader community. Today, a full complement of equestrian programs besides the Yale polo teams operate out of it.
The Yale Polo Club bears much of the financial burden of the Center’s operation. Made up of members of the general public, its 20-odd members contribute yearly dues as well as a modest fee for each seven-minute chukker played. Several members also board their own horses there.
Club members contribute to the livelihood of the Center in unconventional ways. Recently, one enthusiastic player donated a roomful of furniture for a clubroom on the second floor so that players could have a comfortable place to gather after matches. Another took time to patch holes in the old plaster walls of the room and then repaint them.
“I’d been playing at another polo arena and wasn’t completely satisfied with it,” said one club player. “Someone recommended Yale to me and I’ve been extremely happy with it since.”
Basic riding lessons are offered to members of the Yale-New Haven community. They are led by two part-time instructors and generally up to 30 students are signed up at any given time.
Since 1997, Anne Gallant’s “Leg Up” program has worked out of the Center with children who live in institutions, are wards of the state, or have been charged with juvenile offenses. The program pays Yale for the use of its horses and facilities through private grants.
Center manager Eileen Flint uses these sources of income to balance her precarious budget. In more than a decade of running Yale’s barn, she has succeeded in breaking even every year until 2001. She hopes to pay off the 2001 deficit this year.
“The budget is constantly changing,” she said. “If there’s a dry summer, like I’m expecting this year, the price of hay could go up and, expensive or not, we have to have hay for the horses.”
Other factors like constant maintenance and unexpected veterinary and ferrier work bills add to the volatility of the budget. The horses always come first and Flint, along with her handful of part-time employees, is passionate in her care for them.
“These horses are cared for better than most in the state of Connecticut,” she said.
In recent years Flint has been able to replace several original wooden doors with aluminum garage-style ones. She has also replaced the original overhead lighting in the Center’s indoor riding ring, among other projects. While the University does not directly fund maintenance of the Center, Flint has been required to work through Yale’s labor contract because the University owns the Center. The result, in the case of the lighting replacement, was a final price tag $9,000 in excess of her initial quote from an independent electrical contractor.
Despite such obstacles and a general hands-off approach by the University, Flint says the Center’s relationship with the school is a good one.
For example, before Yale began construction of a new artificial turf stadium, which impeded on land donated for polo use, University officials consulted Flint about the project. A new outdoor riding ring was constructed to replace one lost to the stadium.
The Call for Renovation
Still, the members of the equestrian and polo teams feel Yale should do more.
To that end, in April of 2000 they filed their “Proposal for the Reconstruction and Support of the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center” with the athletics department and the president’s office, along with a petition for varsity status.
“We really thought we had a chance for varsity status [in 2000],” equestrian team captain Margot Sanger-Katz ’02 said. “We submitted that proposal and at the time we saw the renovation of the barn as an appendix to that.”
The 25-page report details the decaying condition of the Center and proposes a broad plan of reconstruction. The plan calls for immediate changes, including an increase in the number of employees at the barn, a resurfacing of the indoor riding area, and repairs to the Center and outdoor paddock areas. Ideally though, the report says, the Center ought to be completely rebuilt.
Subsequent to filing the proposal, the Yale College Council passed a resolution resolving “that Yale University construct a new Yale Polo and Equestrian Center — with a commitment to the new facility given before the conclusion of the 1999-2000 school year,” as well as calling for a regularized and increased work schedule at the barn.
Little has happened.
The University commissioned Michael Horton and Associates, a Hamden engineering firm, to write a report on the needs of the Center. That report, filed in October of that year, suggests that an entire renovation of the existing Center would cost over $5 million. President Levin recently told team and school officials that the price tag might actually be 20 percent more due to the rising cost of labor.
The report also articulates the Center’s most pressing needs.
First, it does not comply with retroactive Americans with Disabilities Act stipulations.
“Pouring a concrete slab in the small area of dirt floor in the northwest corner of the [indoor ring] area will provide an accessible route to the riding area,” the report says.
It also says that other areas in the Center, including bathrooms, should be made handicap accessible.
Second, retroactive Connecticut Fire Safety Codes must be met.
“The ring area would be difficult to escape from in the event of a fire,” the report concludes. “The corral also requires egress improvements.”
The University did install sprinklers in the Center since the report, said assistant athletics director Larry Matthews, who oversees club sports and the Center.
But frustrated by a perceived lack of action on Yale’s part in the past year and a half, the equestrian and polo teams have recently taken a new tack. In January, they sent mailings to over 600 people detailing their case for a renovated Center.
“We fear that the project — and ultimately YPEC — will be entirely abandoned unless the University receives widespread support from people like you,” the mailing says.
It goes on to encourage recipients to sign the included letter to President Levin or to write one of their own.
At least so far, the campaign has elicited a new interest in the project from University administrators. Two weeks ago, Athletics Director Tom Beckett and Levin toured the Center with team leaders.
“We had a good walk through, and I got a good idea of the needs of the polo and equestrian teams,” Levin said.
In the meantime, the teams are reconnecting with their alumni base. They hope energized, interested alumni could trigger some real progress in the Center’s renovation.
“We have begun distributing a tri-annual newsletter, which our alumni have absolutely loved,” polo president Sara Crews ’02 said. “We also held our first Alumni Weekend this past November, in which we wined and dined with many of our alumni at Mory’s and then played some exciting Round Robin Chukkas. We also launched our first Annual Giving Campaign, which had a great success rate for a first-time mailing.”
The Bottom Line
While large, targeted alumni donations would change the funding landscape of the renovation project, a long list of athletics department capital projects looms.
“The Yale Bowl project, the Ingalls Rink expansion and renovation, Payne Whitney Gym’s locker room and pool renovation, as well as the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club renovation are all there on the list of things the department is doing or would like to do,” said Matthews, the assistant athletics director.
The history of a hands-off relationship with the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center, as well as the polo and equestrian teams’ status as club sports, are also potential hurdles that must be overcome for the renovation to move to the top of the list.
For Flint, the Center’s manager, any high hopes are tempered by these realities.
“Would I love it if the University said they wanted to come in and do some work to help us out? Of course. That would be terrific,” she said. “But they don’t have a track record of doing that here.”
She points out that the Center is thriving now, in its own quiet ways. Recently, it began to host a program for autistic children to interact with the horses. Private lessons and polo club memberships are as strong as ever.
She also just lured a top equestrian instructor from Trinity College in Hartford to give lessons full time, which she hopes might entice Yale’s equestrian team to come home to the Center. Whether the University decides to embrace some form of maintenance, she is confident the Center will continue to play its unique role in the community.
“Where else can you drive five minutes from a downtown area and not only find horses, but play polo?” she asked.