Stanford equestrians at the Farm’s heart trot, vault, jump, play polo and more
Striding about campus in burnished brown riding breeches and stiff, dark boots that taper to a point, Sasha Najera ’13 looks every inch a horsewoman.
“I’ve been riding for as long as I can remember,” Najera said. “As a little kid, it’s always what I wanted to do, so finally my parents said, ‘O.K., we’ll give you lessons.’ It took 10 years of begging for a horse and they finally gave me one. For me [the sport meant] freedom, I guess!”
Before joining the Stanford equestrian team, Najera primarily rode dressage, a type of “horse ballet,” where the rider shows the horse’s agility and footwork, as well as doing vaulting, an activity involving gymnastics on horseback. Coming to Stanford, however, she joined the hunt seat team, which rides both on flat courses and ones with hurdle-like rails. After joining the team, she began to jump, something she had never tried before coming to Stanford.
“Learning how to jump is amazing. It’s just like flying, and I love it!” Najera said, her eyes sparkling.
Balancing the equestrian team and school is a challenge–the season stretches from October to May–but the coaches recognize the immense course load that many of the riders face. The team firmly believes in practicing around the schedules of its student riders, and coaches do their utmost to accommodate these student athletes.
“It’s really great because you can structure it just how you want, obviously we want everyone to be super enthusiastic,” Najera said warmly of the team. “And everyone’s great and helps out at shows. Everyone loves it and loves to be with everyone else.”
“I think with a full year‐long of competition, I can’t ask a student not to take an afternoon seminar because it’s only offered that quarter,” said Vanessa Bartsch, head coach of the Stanford equestrian team and executive director of the University’s equestrian programs. “We try to schedule when we can around them.”
The Stanford equestrian team is coeducational and consists of about 35 riders at different levels of experience. While the team is primarily women, Stanford also draws excellent male riders who cannot ride at other schools.
In collegiate equestrian competition, only women can compete at the varsity level, Bartsch said. “And it’s one of the few sports in the world where it’s co‐gender and there’s no age. So for us it doesn’t feel right to drop the men from the sport to [go varsity].”
The sport is unusual as well in that there are multiple levels of competition. For the Western and English riders, there are six levels, while for dressage only four. In order to compete, a team must show riders at all levels. Riders are scored within their categories, meaning beginners from the walk/trot category can contribute as much value to the team score as an advanced veteran from the jumping category.
“It counts equally, and that’s been really great, because we can learn from the people who are more talented, but also from the people who are just starting,” Najera said. “Our walk/trot riders win national championships, they’re really great riders.”
Najera brought her own horse, Lancaster, to Stanford, and is responsible for caring for him as well as performing other equestrian duties required by team membership.
While the Stanford grooms, the caretakers at the barn, feed and water him and clean his stall, Najera gives him vitamins and shots of de‐wormer to kill heartworms and rides him for his exercise. However, the energy she spends doing such tasks is ultimately well-rewarded.
“He challenges me a lot, and I don’t [perform] as well with him as I’ve done with some other horses, but he keeps me really sharp as a rider…and he’s just the best for emotional support,” Najera said. “Whenever school’s overwhelming, I can just go out there, sit on him bareback, we’ll go on a trail ride, and it just brings me back to my happy place. I trust him more than I trust any other horse.”
The Stanford equestrian team is not the only equine team on campus. The Stanford polo team competes nationally with other collegiate teams as a club sport. Played on “polo ponies,” riders use mallets to hit a ball into a goal at the ends of the field in a fast‐paced, dangerous game that can lead to broken bones.
“It’s kind of got the brutality of ice hockey with thousand‐pound animals, except there’s no ice, and you’re riding, not skating,” said Elizabeth Lake ‘13, another rider who began playing polo at the end of last year. “You can get pretty physical with it–we wear kneepads, we have helmets and the helmets have facemasks on them, in case you get bumped.”
Otherwise, polo is a relaxed, easy-going sport, and beginners who have spent their lives with their feet firmly grounded are welcomed whole‐heartedly to the team. The team relies on, and has been lucky to receive, generous donations of “polo ponies” to practice and compete on.
“One of my favorite parts about polo is that the ponies just love their job, they get so excited when they see the ball going,” Lake said. “When they’re right next door they’ll reach over and try to bite it, push it over–they get really into the game.”