In 1998, there was a revolution within a small club equestrian team. The Yale Equestrian Team, a group with historically low numbers and minimal regional impact, suddenly doubled in size.
The team also made a revolutionary choice: It decided to leave Yale's on-campus barn, the aging Yale Polo and Equestrian Center, and begin practicing at an off-campus facility.
It was an historic season for the team. Without a coach or a home show, the team steadily climbed the rankings to finish third in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association's Zone 3, Region 1 and win its first-ever High Point Team award at the year's final show. It took home a championship and two reserve championships at the Regional Finals. And it began the team's focused crusade to see its place in the university elevated and the Yale center restored to its former glory.
The team's work is far from complete, but it continues to rally for an improved facility worthy of the animals it houses and the programs it was built to serve.
The Yale team, like the great majority of teams in the IHSA, is a club team that receives minimal university funding to support its efforts. But unlike many schools with club teams, Yale houses a large equestrian facility on its campus. Unfortunately, the facility's decay over the decades has rendered the structure unsuitable for the team's use, so its 25 members carpool to off-campus barns each week for practices.
During one of those car rides in 1998, Leah Sartorius, then a freshman novice rider on the team, decided to take an active role in seeking resources for the team.
"We would talk the whole time, often dreaming about what it would be like if we didn't have to drive so far or scramble for lesson time and money--If we had a real facility and a real coach and a university that invested something in this sport," she said. "Eventually I thought: Why keep dreaming? Let's do something."
With Sartorius at the helm, the team submitted a petition for varsity status in 2000 that was lauded by the IHSA board as the "model" proposal. At the urging of administrators, it also produced a comprehensive 35-page proposal for the renovation of the neglected and dilapidated on-campus center.
Though the barn proposal was initially undertaken as a postscript to the varsity petition, it quickly became clear that the barn renovation would be the major goal of the team, for humanitarian as well as practical reasons.
"I really see the renovation as something that needs to come first," said Phoebe Heffron, the current captain of the team. "I don't see varsity status without the barn."
Currently, an independent barn manager must balance the budget of the nearly 90-year-old facility, forcing her to neglect long-term maintenance projects and to sell several horses each year to make ends meet. About 50 horses continue to live in the barn, standing on concrete-floored stalls with low partitions, broken windows, and jagged holes in the cinder-block walls.
A recent architectural assessment of the center suggests that the building fails several significant code standards and has structural integrity problems. The evaluation placed the cost of renovation at over $5 million, just to make the building structurally sound and code-compliant. Interior and horse-related improvements would cost more.
Since seeing the price tag on the facility, the administration has taken no action to improve the structure or the quality of life for the horses who live there. An earmarked 1998 alumni pledge of $1 million has gone unaccepted and administrators say there are no plans to renovate the facility in the near future.
"The university doesn't seem to have made a final decision there," said Larry Matthews, an associate director of athletics.
Though the equestrian team continues to practice at outside facilities, it has not given up its quest to work for a safer and more useful equestrian center. It worked with the Yale Polo Teams last year to orchestrate a letter-writing campaign aimed to bring the needs of the center to the attention of Yale's president. It also took the president and athletics director on a walking tour of the barn to help demonstrate how the problems with the center affect the lives of its occupants.
"To them it just seems like a really expensive procedure for animals, but that's not how we see it," said Heffron. "We're really trying to show them the extent to which it is a humanitarian issue."
USRiding.com/IHSA.com Intern,Margot Sanger-Katz, once a Yale freshman in 1998, and later the Yale Equestrian Team's captain, is now serving as its volunteer coach while she completes her Master's degree at the Columbia School of Journalism.