After an offseason of financial uncertainty, the Yale polo team will return to the field when it hosts its first home match of the year on Friday, competing against the Skidmore men’s and women’s teams. The Buldlogs have struggled to field a team in the aftermath of the closing of the Yale Armory.
In September 2009 the University shut down the Armory leaving the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center (YPEC) without any facilities and causing many financial and logistical difficulties for the polo team. Today, the YPEC is amidst a two-year fundraising campaign and restructuring program to build new stables and a new polo arena.
“The stables were deemed unsafe and beyond repair,” said Barbara Chesler, Director of Capital Projects and Facilities within the Yale Athletics Department. She added that the current Armory would have to be demolished before anything could be rebuilt.
In a statement last year, Steve Conn, director of sports publicity at Yale, also cited the lack of funding for renovations as a cause for the Armory’s shutdown.
The Armory was home to the polo team’s approximately 50 horses, but because of the closing, that number now stands at 15. However, a permanent spot for those remaining horses has yet to be established. The YPEC Alumni Board struggled to find a location for the horses, which were initially moved to Cherry Hill, N.Y. immediately following the shut down. In October 2009 Program Director Liz Brayboy ‘84 secured temporary boarding for the horses at C&S Ranches, a western reigning and roping stable in nearby Bethany, Conn.
The current stabling situation is temporary and the YPEC plans to build its own off-campus facility to house both the polo and equestrian teams, as boarding the horses at their current locations is both expensive, and do not allow the team to host matches at the same site. They are looking to alumni and the polo and equestrian communities for funding.
Brayboy noted that the YPEC was not authorized to build its facilities on campus despite its funding of the project, citing the liability of horses as a potential reason for this decision.
The Armory’s closing also led many to believe that the polo team had been dissolved.
Katie Atkins, a post-doc student at the School of Medicine, a beginner on the team, said that she had difficulties finding the team’s website before arriving at Yale this fall.
The Yale Bulldogs Official Athletics website states that “The Yale equestrian center has been closed” and a search for “Yale Polo” on Facebook only yields a group titled “Save Yale Polo” which still states that YPEC is still petitioning the University to use the Armory.
Rebecca Smith ’13, the president of the polo team, said that many students at Yale are still under the mistaken impression that the team no longer exists.
The initial scramble last year did put the team’s survival into question and many players left as result. Many of those who stayed on graduated with the class of 2010, leaving few experienced players to lead this year’s team, which is now in a state of transition.
Both the men’s and women’s varsity polo teams have exactly three players, the minimum required for an indoor polo tournament. Because of its small numbers, the team is currently not able to field a junior varsity team, putting a heavy time commitment on the varsity players who are responsible for exercising the fifteen horses on a daily basis and assisting with training.
But the situation should look quite different when some of this year’s 24 beginners advance to junior varsity or varsity status.
The team maintains its finances in part from donations, and leasing out its horses, but also from semesterly dues and from lessons offered to high school students, both of which require a larger amount of students in order to raise any significant amount of funds. The size of this year’s beginning group will be a financial asset in paying off the team’s debt, from the higher costs of rent associated with the new temporary stables.
Smith said that with a 91-year history, the Yale polo team is the nation’s oldest collegiate polo team and would be too valuable to let dissolve. She said polo is unique in that it combines the often individual sport of riding with the communality of a team sport.
Many team members stress the positive impact of spending time with the horses and the change of pace it entails.
“Polo was a reprieve from daily college life for me,” Brayboy said of her time on the team during her undergraduate. “It was an escape from campus.”
While the Armory’s stables have been closed, its indoor arena was deemed safe and will house this Friday’s exhibition match.