Red Barn Reinvigorated

Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle / Photo by Katy RaddatzThe name is deceptively simple, quaint even, but the rustic structure affectionately known on Stanford University’s campus as the Red Barn is actually a cutting-edge equestrian facility, thanks to a recent university and donor-led renovation.

On Saturday, the Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center hosts a daylong celebration of its heritage of horsemanship as part of the annual Stanford Farm Day. This year’s theme is “The Legacy Continues,” an apt slogan given the efforts of Vanessa Bartsch, general manager of the Red Barn and coach of the equestrian team, and her many collaborators’ decade-old dream of refurbishing the center.

The Red Barn has been the home of university’s equestrian team since it was founded in the mid-1980s. The team specializes in hunt-seat and stock-seat equitation (otherwise known as “English” and “Western” styles of riding, respectively). It currently has 50 riders (47 of whom are women) and 18 horses.

“Most people don’t know that we’re out there. We’re hidden from the road, which we like, but we’re sort of this hidden gem on campus,” says Bartsch, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in music in 1999 and worked at MTV and the San Francisco Opera before returning to her alma mater last year and turning her passion for horses into a profession.

Bartsch’s interest in the equine was fostered during childhood by membership in her local 4-H club.

“I just started working in barns to pay for my lessons and training beginning at age 7,” she says. Although she competed when she was younger, she now prefers teaching.

“I enjoy teaching and coaching — the competition side hasn’t really called to me,” she says, and then adds, “I have between 15 and 18 horses on any given day — those are my kids.”

Bartsch was likewise intent on preserving the legacy of the barn.

“It’s absolutely about the history and heritage — especially in this area where the cost of living keeps going up and space is still such a concern. Just having barns in the area is just such a part of the heritage and so important,” she says. “That red barn has been there longer than any building on campus.”

Prior to founding the university, equestrian entrepreneur Leland Stanford erected the barn in 1879 as the hub of his horse-breeding enterprise, Palo Alto Stock Farm. Famously, Stanford bank-rolled photographer Eadweard Muybridge to produce stop-action photographs of a horse in motion that proved that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground while running. The experiment became lauded not only as an advance in equestrian knowledge but as seminal in the development of motion pictures. The structure was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Bartsch, joined by volunteers Jana Cain (who works in the finance department of an East Bay nonprofit) and Gwyn Gordon (a horse trainer at Woodside’s Cardinal Farms and former coach of the equestrian team), lobbied the university to have the facility upgraded.

“For the past decade we’ve tried to convince the university that it is a worthwhile enterprise,” says Bartsch, who adds that part of the goal was “to nurture the heritage of the university and support the student athletes that are here in the way that every other facility we have is first class.”

Bartsch found support from Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland and Senior Associate Athletics Director Ray Purpur, who encouraged the women to write a business proposal. Ten months and “countless hours” later, the proposal was complete. Moreover, it was suggested the equestrian center evolve into a nonprofit organization able to receive grants and donations.

Philanthropist and Stanford alumnus John Arrillaga spearheaded the donor efforts that raised the $4.5 million necessary to renovate the barn.

“We are absolutely thrilled to able to renovate Leland Stanford’s original facility and to make it available to the students of Stanford University,” says Purpur. “Our priority is students, and we’re going to try to get as many students in as possible — then the faculty and staff and then otherwise in the community.”

Bartsch, too, is excited about the improvements the center has undergone.

“The entire school barn had to be picked up and have a new foundation poured underneath it — there was never a cement foundation underneath. The subterranean beam composition was down to just inches,” she recalls. “The cost of doing things like that when you’re not a nonprofit, when you can’t fundraise — I don’t how a private enterprise would have been able to do what we’re doing.”

Construction began in September 2004 and was completed last weekend. The renovated barn now boasts 36 custom stalls made of sustainably farmed Ipe hardwood. It also has yoked windows, therapeutic stall mats and rubber floors that provide low-impact traction for the horses.

A new show arena was built facing the barn replete with a spectator’s lawn bedecked with palm trees. The covered schooling and dressage arenas all received makeovers and now feature a new drainage system, among other amenities like a new horse walker and longing pens.

“They joke that the only way not to lose money with horses is to start with it,” Bartsch says with a laugh.

Hence Saturday’s fundraiser, which will aid in raising the remaining $800,000 necessary to help make the center self-sustaining. Event attendees can watch riding demonstrations highlighting local amateurs and professionals, including the Los Altos Hunt and the Woodside Vaulters, as well as members of the Stanford Equestrian Team. There will also be pony rides, a petting zoo and face painting for children. The evening program features the 2005 Stanford Farm Day Invitational, a team show-jumping competition composed of some of the Peninsula’s top junior, amateur and professional riders. The competition will be followed by a dinner and live auction with trips to Europe and opportunities for personal equestrian experiences.

“What’s funny is when people first come and have a tour, they look at this red barn and say ‘Wow, I can’t believe that they were this innovative over a hundred years ago.’ We have this huge, high ceiling and these big doors — it’s very drafty, breezy and beautiful. Now we have these modern consultants that come in and take readings about the air and dirt and such, and here were just these folks back a hundred-and-something years ago who sat down and were able to do a beautiful barn just out of know-how and having spent years with the horses.”

Meanwhile, Bartsch and the staff at the Red Barn are imbuing the next generation of equestrians with their hard-earned horse sense.

“We have some of the best riders in the country,” she says of the student athletes, whom she suggests come to Stanford, at least in part, for the program. Bartsch sometimes travels to equestrian events to speak to prospective students about her program.

“I think their parents are delighted. They say ‘Please just go and get a good education, please go to a good school, please study.’ But the girls are saying ‘But I really want to ride.’ Finally, these parents are coming up to me saying ‘Thank you so much, we’ve been trying to convince our daughter to keep a 4.0 and go to a great school, but Harvard and Princeton don’t really have equestrian teams.’ Here at Stanford, not only do we have an equestrian team, but now we also have one of the nicest collegiate facilities in the country.”

On the hoof The Red Barn Festival’s day session is 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. $10, $5 for Stanford students with SUID and free for children under 5. The evening program is 5-10 p.m., seating is limited and tickets can be purchased in advance $75, $750 per table. For tickets, visit; (650) 327-2990.

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