In my humble opinion, Stanford University has one of the most beautiful college campuses I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to plenty (Duke University in North Carolina is one that rivals Stanford in this regard). There most certainly may be others perhaps even more beautiful, but I’ve yet to see them. Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, California boasts of some stunning architecture – a harmonious blend of the old and the new – dominated by the Hoover Tower in the middle of campus. In the western backdrop, the Santa Cruz Mountains rise majestically between the campus and the Pacific Ocean. Lush green and vivid red flora can be found all over campus, with the smell of cedar, pine and redwood permeating the air. The intoxicating energy of student activity during the week is replaced by an almost overpowering sense of tranquility on a beautiful Sunday morning, literally daring you not to relax. Can a place like this get any better?
I recently found out that the answer to that question – for me, at least – is yes. Debbie Caminiti, a friend of mine that runs the Bel Bacio Café in San José’s Little Italy (350 W. Julian if you’re ever in the city), told me I should visit “The Farm” on the outskirts of the campus. Being one of those supremely curious people who have to see everything, I took her up on that. This had to be one the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The old Palo Alto Stock Farm, now the Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center, sits on the southwest portion of the campus just off the Campus Drive Loop. This was the vision of Governor Leland Stanford who, in 1876, began acquiring land in the area, including an area for breeding and training trotting horses. For a cool history lesson, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge made the first moving picture here in 1878. He shot a series of still photographs of a running horse and placed them in sequence; when viewed as such, it appeared the horse was moving (the old post-it trick, remember?). Now the Stanford Red Barn offers classes and boarding for those students who can’t part with their horses. It also a fun time for a visitor to watch these athletes with their horses go through their paces.
I knew as I approached the Victorian Red Barn that I was going to like this. The farm smell for a born-and-raised city boy like me is still exotic, like a waiting adventure. I paused in front of the Barn for a moment and watched as a couple of students brought their horses onto the outdoor arena and trotted around the fence. After a few minutes of this, I went inside. I was a little hesitant at first, not knowing how much access I was going to have. I mean, the horses were right there in their stalls. Was I allowed past the entry area and to the stalls with the horses, up close and personal? Was this for staff and students only?
A very nice staffer alleviated my concerns almost immediately. She beckoned me into the barn, assuring me that I was welcome anywhere in the facility. Relieved, I wandered up and down the aisles between the stalls, peering into rooms the size of large closets that were stacked floor to ceiling with saddles, and generally trying my best not to be a nuisance. Horses occupied most of the stalls; some watched me closely as I passed by their stall, while others appeared completely oblivious to my presence. I’m not necessarily a horse guy, but being so close was a great experience.
I slipped out one of the side entrances and explored the outdoor paddock area. Here I was closer to the horses, but the narrow pathways between the paddocks made this city boy slightly uneasy. Someone who knows horses, on the other hand, would be in hog heaven out here. I’m sure they can be unpredictable (which is why I kept a comfortable distance), but you can really have a more personal experience with the horses out here.
After walking around here for a bit, I wandered back over to the large outdoor arena. This time I sat in the small bleacher area on the side opposite the Red Barn. There were more riders now taking their horses through the paces. Among them was an instructor managing the traffic, barking out directions and keeping the obstacles in good order. The riders themselves – all women at this moment – sat tall in their saddles as they circled the arena, occasionally diverting towards one of the wooden jumps set up inside the circuit. It was quite a scene for me, surprisingly relaxing with galloping horses and an occasional instruction the only sounds I heard.
However, the biggest thrill for me was yet to come. After hanging around the outdoor arena for quite some time, I ventured behind the Red Barn to see what was up. It wasn’t long before a came upon three guys hard at work shoeing horses. This was the stuff of the old westerns I grew up watching. The head guy, Steve, walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to take some pictures. He explained that they were about to shoe a horse. “You can stand here, or you can go into the next stall for a close-up, or you can get behind the stall”, he said as if he were directing a photo shoot. “There’s gonna be a lot of smoke! My name’s Steve, by the way.” With a friendly smile, Steve extended his hand. I think I had a goofy grin on my face as I shook his hand, not believing my good fortune.
I eagerly took up a position in the next stall. Steve secured the horse’s hoof between his legs and waited until I was ready. When he applied the red-hot shoe to the hoof, the smoke came thick and quick. I got a chance to fire off a few shots before the smoke completely obscured his hands.
And to top it all off, it turns out that Steve, the head guy in this operation, used lived on the northwest side of Chicago. He used to work about a mile away from where I lived after I left college. On the tract of land where he once worked in a stable now has a Red Lobster Restaurant that I used to frequent; my son practically grew up in it. Talk about a small world! Now that I’ve discovered and enjoyed the Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center (www.stanford.edu/group/set/barn/index.htm), I plan to go back again and again. It is possible for non-affiliated members of the community to partake in community or private lessons at the center. If I go often enough, I may even be tempted to take the reins myself. However unlikely that may be, the sheer relaxation in watching these talented riders take their horses through the paces is worth the trip. Check it out and enjoy what is truly an integral part of Stanford University’s history.
You can see the full range of photos I’ve taken here at the Jim Watkins Photography Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.522858457824498.1073741907.246777948765885&type=1).
Directions from the 101: Exit at University Avenue west towards Palo Alto. Continue past El Camino Real and onto the Stanford University campus to Campus Loop Drive. Turn right and follow Campus Loop to Electioneer Road. Turn right and continue until the road ends at Fremont Road. Turn left onto Fremont for a few yards and enter the parking lot to the right of the road.
Also, check out my website at: www.jimwatkinsphoto.com