For most of the last 50 years, privately owned horses could be boarded at the stables and pastures of WRSHP.  However, 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, which increased to 85 by 1968.  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 expansion of 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 some members of the public were 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This Plan remained in effect as a State Park and Recreation Commission policy until superseded in 1992 by the General Plan for the Park.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 rental fees from the concessionaires.  Instead, concessionaires were expected to maintain the Polo Field in exchange for use of the facilities.  In 1963, the Department began receiving rental payments as well as specifying maintenance obligations.  By 1967, Park Managers were looking 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 under a single concession contract.  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 concession operation.  Under the initial polo concession contract, there was a great deal of public resentment at the so-called monopoly that the concessionaire enjoyed.  Once other equestrian activities were added to the 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, failure to maintain the facilities, and exclusion of non-boarder equestrians from the Park. 

At about this time, Will Rogers’ family began to express concerns over restricted 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, 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 from the beginning was involved in controversy with the boarders and the polo club. 

When the 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. 

The Controversy over Boarded Horses
In 2001, the controversy over boarding at the Park reached its peak:

           • In June 2001, an Issues Paper by Randy Young, local historian and president of the Association, presented
             detailed criticism of management of the Park;

           • The family of Will Rogers expressed concerns that the current operation of the Park violated the
              terms of the grant deed;

           • Several newspaper articles described concerns about management of the historic resources of the Park
             and the conflicts regarding private boarding of horses (Pacific Palisades Palisadian-Post, August 16 and
             August 30; Wall Street Journal, September 6);

           • In August 2001, the Director of the Department met with the Rogers family to discuss their concerns; and

           • The Department’s auditor reviewed the lessee’s compliance with the terms of the lease during the period from 
             February 1, 2000 through April 30, 2001.  The auditor found that the lessee failed to comply substantially 
             with the terms of the lease.  For example, the lessee failed to keep separate books and records for the 
             equestrian operation, and submitted invoices for payment of expenses without adequate documentation.  
             In addition, the auditor found that the Department failed to force compliance with the terms of the lease, and
             needed to establish ground-rules to cover areas where the lease was vague or silent, including allowing
             private grooms to work in the Park and allowing expenditures on equestrian-related projects that
             are inconsistent with the General Plan.

In 2001, Department staff reviewed the history of equestrian operations at the Park to determine whether equestrian operations as practiced  helped to further the Department’s mission.  In September 2001, the team issued a report of their findings and recommendations: Resources and Management Issues at Will Rogers State Historic Park.  The report recommended that Department prepare an Equestrian Management Plan. 

The findings of this report relevant to equestrian activities are summarized below.

          • Equestrian activities are valuable--and permissible under the GP--only to the extent that they 
            serve the interpretive mission.

          • No equestrian operation should be contracted at the unit absent a clear definition of how it will serve the
             Department’s interpretive goals. 

          • No equestrian operation should be contracted that includes inherent conflicts of interest
            with environmental regulatory processes or responsible management practices. 

          • Horse boarding per se is not an essential function at this unit. 
          • If boarding is continued, boarders should be made clearly and specifically aware that boarding is a privilege, and 
            that it includes obligations of courtesy to Park staff and the general public, and 
            consideration for the historical resources. 

          • If boarding is continued, the Department should consider giving preference to animals such as 
            polo ponies that actively contribute to the interpretive mission. 
          • Given equestrian activities at the unit, the Department has an obligation to provide 
            safe conditions for horses and riders.
          • Horse boarding should be removed from Sarah’s Point, as should storage facilities, including the Pole Barn.
          • The Department should investigate how many horses can be maintained in Bone Canyon without 
            environmental problems and visual impacts on the historic zone.

Equestrian Advisory Committee Report
The Department convened an Equestrian Advisory Committee, which met several times from February through August 2002.  The Committee submitted its report in December 2002 and recommended that the Department:

           1.   Develop an Equestrian Management Plan and allow the Committee to review the draft plan.

           2.   Submit quarterly written reports to the Committee about activities in the Park.

           3.   After the Equestrian Management Plan is adopted, the Department should submit written reports to the 
                Committee about the steps being taken to implement the Plan.  These reports should be submitted
                at 6 months and 1 year after adopting the Plan.