Will Rogers (1879-1935)History of Horse Boarding at WRSHP

For most of the last 50 years, privately owned horses could be boarded at the stables and pastures of WRSHP.  Unfortunately, the demands of running a boarding stable sometimes conflicted with preserving the Park as a public memorial to Will Rogers.  Horse boarding—for the explicit purpose of establishing a regular polo program—began in 1952.  At first, there were 19 boarded horses, but by 1968 there were 85 horses.  By 1974 the limit had been raised to 100 horses, but 114 were actually living at the Park.  During Will Rogers’ lifetime, only 20 to 30 horses were on the ranch.  The growth in boarding accompanied increasing public complaints of exclusivity and monopoly, finally provoking an investigation by the State Auditor General in 1974.  The Auditor General found that the concessionaire had constructed new facilities without approval, and that the number of horses maintained in the park consistently exceeded the allowable maximum.  It also reported testimony that the public was effectively excluded from some parts of the unit. 

The Department adopted a Horse Management Plan in September, 1979.  The objective of the plan was to provide more access for the visiting public and complete interpretation of the grounds at the Park.  It contained the following policies:

  • Continue horse presence in the unit;
  • Continue polo games;
  • Limit horses stabled on the grounds to 32;
  • Restore Hart and Mitt Canyons [which had been cluttered with pipe corrals]; and
  • Maintenance of the Stable should be a Department responsibility.

This plan remained in effect as a Commission policy until superseded in 1992 by a General Plan for the Park.  The General Plan raised the maximum number of boarded horses from 32 to 45.  A series of concessionaires ran equestrian activities at the Park until 1997.  Initially, the Department received no fees from the concessionaires, who were expected to maintain the Polo Field in exchange for use of the facilities. 

Beginning in 1963, the Department began receiving payments as well as specifying maintenance obligations.  By 1967 Park managers were beginning to look to these contracts as a source of revenue.  Although the Department had separate contracts for polo, riding lessons, and trail riding, it decided to combine all equestrian operations into a single concession.  The idea was that a single equestrian operation would “be allowed to generate sufficient income to maintain all facilities and to coordinate all horse activities.”  The goal of generating income to maintain all Park facilities seems to have driven subsequent concession contracts.

By the early 1960s, complaints were mounting about the concessions.  Under the initial polo contract, there was a great deal of resentment at the so-called monopoly that the concessionaire enjoyed.  Once other equestrian activities were added to the concession contract, there were complaints that the number of horses exceeded the contract limit, and that the horses caused erosion problems. 

By the early 1980s, the Department received citizen complaints of irregularities in the polo operation, of failure to maintain the facilities, and of exclusion of non-boarder equestrians from the park.  At about this time, Will Rogers’ family began to express concerns over restricting public access to the Park and inadequate maintenance of the historic Stable.  Other public comments received on the draft General Plan expressed concern that the equestrian activities offered did not reflect those of the historic era, when Will Rogers played polo and enjoyed roping on his ranch.  To balance the concerns about the historic Stable and the need to generate revenue to maintain the Park, the General Plan allows only 10 horses to be boarded in the stable, while raising the total number in the park to 45.

In the early 1990s, the Will Rogers Cooperative Association ran the concession.  The Association’s goal was to use the funds generated by the equestrian operations to restore the historic facilities and support interpretive programs.  Perhaps exacerbated by the immediate need to remove boarded horses from the Stable during the restoration of that structure, their tenure was involved from the beginning in controversy with the boarders and the polo club. 

When the Cooperative Association’s four-year tenure ended in 1997, the Department attempted to change its approach to the situation.  It contracted with a manager to run the equestrian operations, while turning maintenance of the Stable over to Park staff.  When criticism continued, a second management contract was tried.  Finally, the Department established the equestrian operation as a lease in February, 2000.