On the saddle: Stanford Equestrian shines without the spotlight

On the saddle: Stanford Equestrian shines without the spotlight

It’s a Friday in early March, near the end of a long season for Stanford’s equestrian team, and the Red Barn teems with activity. The noon sun beams down on Vanessa Bartsch ’99 as she exits a cherry-red structure which pre-dates the University. Holding a Tupperware container of homemade cookies, she announces that they were made from a new, candy bar-infused recipe. Several team members respond with excitement, though not surprise.  

Bartsch’s title is director and head coach, but her role extends beyond preparing student riders of widely varied experience levels and skill sets for a competitive season that begins in the fall and doesn’t end until spring. She is one of four full-time coaches responsible for about 35 student riders and as many horses. 

After she distributes the cookies, Bartsch stands in the middle of a shaded equestrian arena as one horse after another traverses a zigzagging sequence of jumps, each guided by a graceful rider atop its gleaming back. The coach offers corrections and encouragement in equal doses. She holds an iPhone in one hand to record video and a salad in the other.

“I haven’t eaten lunch in like four days. This is a revelation,” she says, joking.

As one group files out of the arena, another six riders are ready to enter. Bartsch schedules her practices based on the students’ style of riding, experience level and course schedule. 

The athletes range from seasoned youth champions to first-time competitors. The Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), the organization under which the team competes, is divided into classifications based on experience level. Riders from each skill level, split into divisions, contribute just as much to a winning team score. 

At Stanford, equestrian is a club sport, which means no athletic scholarships and none of the money-driven pressures and commercial influences that have made NCAA Division I sports less and less distinguishable from professional leagues. 

Still, Bartsch’s team cares about winning, and they have done their fair share of it in her 20 years as head coach. Inside the barn, the walls of her homey office are cluttered with trophies, medals and framed photos of former athletes. Among them are 2015 graduate Lucy Davis, who won a silver medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Despite its inability to recruit or offer scholarships like other colleges, under Bartsch’s leadership, the team has remained competitive against other IHSA schools. Stanford won third place overall at Nationals every year from 2017 to 2019, though it hasn’t finished in the top 10 since then. However, The team is particularly dominant on the West Coast. Stanford hosts the IHSA’s West Coast Zone competition and has won the competition for 17 years straight.

But coaching wasn’t Bartsch’s initial plan. Despite coming to the Farm as a student rider, she graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s in music, working for a year at MTV, then at the San Francisco Opera. In 2004, Stanford retook direct control of the barn’s operations. Assistant Athletics Director Sherry Posthumus asked Bartsch to help propose a redirection of the barn for student use. The University approved, and alumni donor John Arrillaga ’60 provided funding to renovate the aging barns and expand and modernize its arenas. 

“We were having trouble hiring someone to come and run the program. So I said I’d come back for three months, and it’s been 20 years since we reopened,” Bartsch said. 

The Victorian Red Barn is the oldest structure on campus, dating to the late 19th century and campus’ pre-University days as Leland Stanford’s expansive trotting-horse-raising facility. Today, the team shares two barns with a total of 67 stalls and six arenas. 

While Bartsch is helping to restore Stanford’s legacy of equestrian excellence, she is also fighting to shed the sport’s history of exclusion.

Bartsch estimates that around half of the team are BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color). Some, like her, come from rural backgrounds in which riding was a way of life; others are indulging a longtime love of horses for the first time. 

Madeleine Kingsland ’24 is one of several Native American athletes on the team. “The barn has always been a place for me where I don’t have to worry about P-Sets being due, or the next test or what I should be doing,” she said. “It’s kind of just like a little two hour sanctuary time in my day.”

Each Stanford rider is also responsible for caring for the horses they ride, which isn’t the case at every barn. Ilaria Chen ’26 had never tacked up her own horse — preparing a horse for riding with equipment like a saddle — before coming to Stanford. Now, she both tacks up her own horse and, to work off her $500 team dues, regularly feeds the barn’s horses, too.

Bartsch said she prioritizes financial accessibility for riders. Team dues haven’t changed since she rode as a student, she said, and half of her riders are on financial aid. All of the team’s horses and most of its tack (supplies like saddles and brushes) are donated. The barn also brings in money by boarding horses and renting arena space to two riding academies. 

Though the $500 quarterly student dues are steep compared to other campus activities, the price is much lower than equivalent lesson time elsewhere, said the team’s co-president, Megan King.

Though Bartsch had endless praise for her athletes’ success, she insists that her focus is on providing a welcoming escape for students to connect with the people and animals around them. 

“I’ll find students who will bring their book and be sitting in a stall with the horse, lying down taking a nap, just because it’s where they feel calm and at peace,” she said.

Yet Chen is still surprised at Bartsch’s demeanor at Nationals, as the coach has opened up, telling the riders jokes and stories. Bartsch also cooked dinner for the team in their cabin every night, fostering a home-like atmosphere.

Coming into her first Nationals, her goal was a top-ten finish. 

As she steps into her track, she feels her horse’s frantic energy. Chen, who also performs on a hip-hop dance team on campus, has to channel her energy not just into her posture, but also into taming the horse’s wild energy. Through perseverance, she managed an excellent ride. 

Would she surpass her goal of not just a top ten finish, but a top five? Her coaches expected so after that ride. 

Chen finished eighth, receiving a bridle, a piece of tack she’ll share with the team. She is content. But her coaches are less so. 

“You were robbed!” she recalled the coaches saying, jokingly. Chen laughs at the memory.

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