There is a building covered in cobwebs with cords and shingles dangling from the ceiling that stands in the midst of Yale’s highly trafficked intramural and intercollegiate fields. It is a building that would be inconspicuous to most athletes were it not for its pungent odor.
But this building has not yet been fully abandoned — it is the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center.
The Yale Barn, as it is commonly known, has been a source of controversy for riders in the past because of what many members of the community believe to be unsafe conditions. Although the equestrian team has appealed to Yale’s administration for funding to upgrade the facility and keep the horses healthy, the University is unable to provide the necessary financial support. Though the polo team nevertheless continues to use the Barn, the equestrian team now practices at Rivers Edge in Bethany, Conn. The team, despite its lack of on-campus facilities, is still winning shows and lobbying for funding.
“What’s so frustrating is that there is so much potential here,” Blair Epstein ’09 said. “It’s amazing to have a barn like this in an urban setting. It could be a point of pride.”
The Barn, constructed in 1914 as a WWI cavalry brigade, became home to Yale riders in the early 1980s after students and alumni crafted an agreement to bring back the polo and equestrian programs, Senior Associate Athletics Director Larry Matthews said. When they petitioned for a barn where the Bulldogs could practice, the University granted them permission to use the old building with the condition that the project would not cost Yale any money.
But a lack of funds in the last two decades contributed to the deterioration of the facility. Since 1999, the equestrian team no longer uses the center as its primary facility.
“The Barn is not only not safe for humans, but it’s not safe for the horses,” rider Pam Gelfond ’07 said.
Gelfond is a Production and Design Editor for the News.
Gelfond’s teammates expressed similar concerns. Donnell Gavin ’08 said the facility’s arena is not adequate because jumping requires a certain kind of dirt in the ring in order to prevent injury, which the Barn currently lacks. Epstein and captain Aelwen Wetherby ’07 said even the inside is not safe — the tack room is in a sad state, they said, and the stalls, hallways and rings are ridden with broken equipment panels and falling shingles.
“Horses are very accident-prone,” said Epstein, who believes these conditions contribute to injuries among the horses.
Riders are also concerned about what they said is an insufficient amount of shavings at the bottom of the horses’ stalls, which poses problems for the horses’ hooves.
“If those were research animals, the University would not keep them in that condition,” team president Liz Jordan ’06 said. “I can’t imagine that that’s acceptable. It’s an embarrassment to the school.”
Despite the center’s poor conditions, team members said the choice to leave in 1999 was not easy.
“It was a difficult decision,” former coach Margot Sanger-Katz ’02 said. “We knew the barn wouldn’t get better if we left and pulled out all our money, but … anyone who knows anything about horses could see it was in bad condition.”
In 2000, the team submitted a request for funds to the University. The report, titled “Proposal for the Reconstruction and Support of the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center,” highlighted the facility’s problems and provided suggestions for improvement. It included detailed descriptions of the Barn and compared it to barns at other schools.
The proposal offered three possible solutions. The first described the Bulldogs’ dream barn, while the second was a more realistic and detailed plan for rehabilitating what was already in existence. The final approach exhorted the repair of the most blatant problems such as heating and broken fixtures.
The document was reviewed by directors of the Athletics Department, Facilities employees and Yale President Richard Levin. The University then hired a group of engineers to investigate the Barn. When the panel estimated the complete rehabilitation of the facility would cost $7 million, the administration rejected the proposal. Sanger-Katz said Levin had sympathized with the team, but that the administration could not provide all the funds.
Back in 2000 the University had many projects to juggle, as it does today. In the realm of athletics alone, there are a host of imperatives including the renovation of the Yale Bowl, the construction of a new aquatic facility and the enlargement of the fitness center.
“There are so many needs,” Matthews said. “You have to have the wisdom of Solomon to sort them out.”
Sanger-Katz said there are other options to explore, including demolishing the facility.
“No one wants to shut it down, but it’s not a bad idea at this point,” Sanger-Katz said.
While the condition of the Barn and its horses are essential to the equestrian team, the riders also struggle to fund the daily activities of their team. Between equipment — such as helmets and jodhpurs — lessons, the cost of gas, and the expenses of competing, team members have to pay several hundred dollars every season just to participate. Much of this money is coming out of their pockets, though they do receive a couple hundred dollars from the Club Sports Department.
“The money we received this year was slightly less than what it costs to pay for one rider for one season,” Gavin said.
Matthews said club sports at Yale are funded modestly.
“It’s always necessary for participants on club teams to fundraise and tap into the alumni network,” he said. “Some even try to recruit corporate sponsors. And there is always a pay-out-of the-pocket aspect.”
Because the equestrian team came into existence in the 1980s, it does not have the same alumni resources as the polo team, which continues to practice in the Yale Barn. Jordan said her team is trying to build up such a network of graduates.
The YCC provided the Athletics Department with extra funds this year, which they in turn offered to the teams. Matthews said the equestrian team did not submit a request.
“We made a mistake, and in the future we will be applying for aid,” said Jordan, who stressed that funding for the team and funding for the Barn are two separate issues.
While experienced members of the team continue to the use the Barn to teach beginners, the majority of riding takes place at the off-campus facility in Bethany. The team started practicing at Rivers Edge about five years ago. Before, the team had a hard time securing any practice time at all, coach Phoebe Heffron ’04 said.
“A couple years ago we couldn’t do anything,” Heffron said. “Having one facility provides us with a home base. Now we have stability.”
In these past couple years, the equestrian team has overcome its lack of facilities. Last year, the Bulldogs won their region of the IHSA, and this year they have a group of promising freshmen who will continue the team’s legacy.
“They work hard, and they compete,” Matthews said. “We love them, and we are proud of them. They represent Yale.”
Still, the athletes continue in their quest to save the Barn and its horses.
“We may not have a lot of money, but we have a cohesive team,” rider Bri Sherer ’06 said. “As long as we keep that up, [the administration] will have to recognize us.”