September 2015 - Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center

October 17 Stock Farm Soiree marks much to celebrate for hub of Northern California equestrian activity.

by Kim F. Miller

Vanessa Bartsch sets herself a high bar. As the head coach of the Stanford Equestrian team and executive director of the Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center, she holds the intentions and innovations of none other than university founder Leland Stanford as her guiding light.

Vanessa Bartsch

Young international rider Saer Coulter schools a horse in front of Stanford’s famous Red Barn.

“This all started as his stock farm because he believed he could breed the best trotting horses,” she explains. “He was all about innovation and the push for progress and we need to remain that way.”

That helps explain why the Stanford Red Barn has grown into a thriving hub of wide-ranging equestrian activity in Northern California, a fact that will be duly celebrated October 17 with the Stock Farm Soiree.

The program’s claims to fame are many. The historic Red Barn, built 130 years ago, is host to an Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team that has gone to the national finals nine of the last 10 years. That includes a fourth place team finish, among 415, last season for the hunt seat squad.

It’s the base for 55 middle and high school age riders who comprise two Interscholastic Equestrian Association teams, the Red Barn and Woodside teams. A new alumni riding program provides recent to long-ago graduates affordable access to saddle time and horsey social circles, and doubles as a great way to keep Stanford’s accomplished string of horses well schooled and fit in the off season.

Sophomore Abby Bertelson, the incoming Hunt Seat Captain, with Claire Margolis.

Leadership programs using equine-assisted therapy principals serve community members from Silicon Valley executives to troubled teens. And PE riding classes continue to provide entrée to the horse world.

The Red Barn is also home to three private trainers and privately boarded horses, including about 15 owned by students. Those pros, hunter/jumper trainers Cindy Brooks and Buddy and Vanessa Brown and dressage trainer Rachel Williamson, lend their expertise as occasional team clinicians, as do top flight visitors including Elvenstar founder Jim Hagman. In recent years, student boarders have included top international young riders Lucy Davis, Nayel Nassar and Saer Coulter. Lucy competed for the IHSA team last year, and they’ve all been very much a part of the program – schooling a horse or rider here and there and providing tons of enthusiasm.

Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir, taking the first ride in Stanford’s covered arena, the Neukom Arena. He is flanked by Junior team rider Allyahh Noel, right, and Senior Maria Filsinger.
More Than Envisioned

Ambitious and forward-thinking as she is, Vanessa admits it’s all more, and wonderfully so, than what she envisioned 10 years ago. That’s when she, Gwyn Gordon and Jana Cain pitched the University on taking over management of the Red Barn and its activities. They proposed that the program run on a non-profit basis and at no cost to the University.

“It was hard to envision Stanford actually saying ‘yes,’” recalls Vanessa, a 1999 Stanford graduate and former team rider. The stable’s management had been leased to an outside entity up until then and Vanessa “had been writing the same letter every year for 10 years.”

The no-cost aspect of the proposal had obvious appeal and when the outsourced management’s lease was up, administrators okayed the endeavor. The proposal was modest on purpose. Stanford owned five horses at the time, and the women envisioned eventually having 10.

Stanford team. Photo: by D. Marhefka

Today the school owns 33 horses, all donated, and their quality is as striking as the quantity. Close to 20 of those are horses stepping down from the upper rungs of the hunter/jumper and dressage show circuits, with the promise of great care, a permanent home and the love of adoring riders.

Sophomore Caroline Soane riding former Grand Prix jumper, Cozmoz, who was donated by hunter/jumper trainer Tara Couch.

The “wow factor” that strikes students when they first sit one of these steeds is one of Vanessa’s favorite manifestations of Stanford Equestrian’s success. “For kids like me who grew up working hard just to keep a horse in their backyard, it’s great to see them have an experience with horses of this caliber.” Recently, a young rider saddled up Kandinsky, aka “Ronny,” a former equitation mount of Saer Coulter’s, donated by the Lobel family. “She was smiling ear to ear,” Vanessa recalls. “She said “This is the nicest horse I’ve ever touched!’”

New Opportunities For All

Vanessa is understandably proud of what the Red Barn has become in the last decade, but she’s not one to rest on her laurels. Looking forward, the main mission is to use the accumulated equestrian resources to “to do something others can’t,” she says.

Stanford’s Western riders. Photo: D. Marhefka

Philosophically, that niche exists in merging horsemanship and teamwork. Speaking of the horse world at large, Vanessa notes that competition will always be important to the industry’s structure, but it should not be at the expense of a focus on teamwork. That, she clarifies, is the teamwork between horse and rider and within a team of riders, regardless of disparities in experience, abilities and goals.

The Hunt Seat team was fourth at 2015 IHSA National Finals and the squad has made an appearance at the Finals nine of the last 10 years.

Reviving an alumni riding program fits that mission and has been an instant success since its debut earlier this year. “Actually that was part of our original business plan,” Vanessa relays. “We had a few alumni taking part the first few years, but it somehow fell by the wayside.”

This time out, the program has quickly drawn 20-plus riders. For recent graduates, modest costs to keep riding are a big bonus and the flexibility is great for everybody. It’s a symbiotic relationship, points out Vanessa. The alumni warm up team horses at IHSA competitions and keep them fit when students are on summer break or off competing at other schools.  It’s been especially gratifying for Vanessa as a coach. “You put so much time and effort into teaching them, it’s great to be able to keep them in the program.”

Cheryl House helped form the Stanford IHSA team in 1986, and is now grateful for a way to incorporate riding into her adult working life. The quality of riding and horses has improved so much since she was a student that Cheryl doubts she or the school’s two original team horses would have made the cut.

Today, she’s thrilled to ride some of the school’s “amazing” horses, get coaching from talented graduate students and, socially, to be interacting with fellow alumni and current students alike. Plus, alumni have the privilege of saying “no thanks” when Vanessa forgets who she’s teaching and demands lengthy no-stirrup sessions.

The Equestrian Team’s Neukom Arena

“Riding is normally such a huge time commitment,” Cheryl notes. “For those working full time, this is an hour where you can’t think about anything else except riding – or things won’t go too well. It’s a great stress releaser and a great way to stay in touch with everyone.”

Alumna Cheryl House, who formed the Stanford IHSA team in 1986, and Candi.

Building up an endowment fund for the Red Barn is the newest mission. Currently, regular repairs and capital improvements to the historic facility are covered through fundraising.

Overseeing an extensive Red Barn renovation was one of Vanessa’s first big assignments 10 years ago. The iconic structures were beautifully designed well before things like stable ventilation and natural lighting were documented in barn design books, but they were badly in need of structural and cosmetic upgrades to ensure safety and function for the next 130 years.

Today, maintaining the Red Barn is a task Vanessa likens to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. “The moment you finish painting it, it’s time to start again.”

Fundraising also covers much of the gap between fees and actual costs for team participation and helps support various programs. The Equestrian Center has attracted many critical and remarkably generous donations over the years, and Vanessa is confident that the next step of an endowment will ensure meaningful equestrian opportunities for many generations to come.

Also new this year is another high school team that will run parallel with the two IEA teams. It will be part of a brand new league, the Athletic Equestrian League, which uses a very objective method of scoring riding effectiveness and incorporates written and practical demonstrations of horsemanship knowledge as part of the overall score for riders and teams. Vanessa likes those components and welcomes a way to accommodate more young riders as they’ve been having to turn away hopefuls for the Red Barn and Woodside teams. Also, the AEL starts at fourth grade, versus the IEA, which includes middle school and high school age riders.

Vanessa, right, with Claire Margolis, as the recent graduate was awarded the 2015 Stanford Club Sports Athlete of the Year AwardIHSA Juggernaut

Stanford’s IHSA teams continue great regional and national results and to be a big draw for student athletes. For the 2014/2015 season, about 80 students came out for the team, including 28 returnees. As an IHSA team, Stanford cannot “recruit” riders like a school with a National Collegiate Equestrian Association team can, but “we do track the most competitive riders and invite them to a pre-season try out.” Last season, they invited about 15 riders to do that, and other hopefuls for approximately 40 roster spots responded to an open call.

Last fall, Stanford’s admission department had a five percent acceptance rate that was the most selective in the country. Equestrian team hopefuls must first leap a very high academic bar, which adds to the challenge of securing top riders.

Vanessa has a strong influence in selecting the best candidates to fill needed positions at each level of competition, but the teams are student run and officers are on their own in filling the remaining slots. They’re not always looking for the rider most likely to win a ribbon. A candidate with outstanding horse care skills and less interest in competing could be the perfect fit, Vanessa notes.

She’s optimistic about this season’s prospects even though several stars graduated this past spring. “We have so much depth in our younger ranks, I’m excited about where we are starting.”

One of those aged-out stars is Claire Margolis, recipient of last season’s Gwyn Gordon Legacy award. In addition to having terrific grades (she was Academic All American all four years) and serving as a team officer, Claire competed in 16 classes at National Finals over her four years of eligibility. The previous record was six classes, Vanessa notes. “Her record is just insane!”

Sticking around as a graduate student and alumni rider this year, Claire has equal enthusiasm for Vanessa and describes her as “single handedly responsible” for all that the Stanford Equestrian program has become.

“She is a brilliant person and her big dreams for the barn have come true because she is so friendly and has such an ability to make connections between people.” A million dollar donation from the Neukom Family that funded the construction of Stanford’s first covered arena is one relatively recent example.

True to form, Vanessa didn’t stop with the arena’s construction. She parlayed the ring’s opening into a public relations event, including inviting Stanford’s athletic director, Bernard Muir to be the first to ride in it. “The team convinced Bernard, who is well over six-feet tall, to take his first ride on the team’s Clydesdale, Beau, during the opening,“ Vanessa recalls.

Moves like that have created a high profile for Stanford Equestrian in the community at large and on campus. Vanessa’s strong relationships with the NCAA coaches at school and her social media savvy are among several reasons that IHSA riders enjoy prominent status as “real” athletes.

A music major with a political science minor at Stanford, Vanessa didn’t study for her current position, and her first jobs at MTV and the San Francisco Opera weren’t very relevant. Yet, she seems to have landed right where she was meant to be, for the good of many. Vanessa “is a great coach and a great role model,” Claire says.

And the IHSA team experience has been “invaluable,” Claire concludes. “It’s been my biggest joy at Stanford. It’s allowed me to continue my passion for horses and riding, make amazing friendships and to handle responsibilities, commitments and leadership roles. It’s really been amazing!”