When longtime Cal Poly supporters Peter and Mary Beth Oppenheimer donated $20 million to Cal Poly in 2014 — the largest cash gift in the university’s history at the time — they delivered a message of wanting give back to the school that help put them on paths to professional success.
Their pledge to pay it forward has taken shape in a major way over the past six months, with construction on the first phase of the Oppenheimer Family Equine Center on the north end of Cal Poly’s campus inching its way toward a targeted completion date of February 2018.
The previous equine facilities were demolished over the summer, and construction of a nearly 60,000-square-foot covered riding arena, foaling barn, stallion barn and an extension of the existing hay barn are well underway.
It’s part of a larger vision to overhaul facilities and improve teaching units for the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences.
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“While you can learn some in a classroom and some with the textbook,” Peter Oppenheimer said, “it’s really out here in the units (where) students have the opportunity to learn how to breed a horse, foal out a horse, train the horse and sell the horse.
“It’s a complete program.”
Oppenheimer graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in agricultural business management in 1985. His wife graduated from Cal Poly the following year with a degree in home economics with a concentration in interior design.
Oppenheimer went on to become senior vice president and chief financial officer of Apple, where he helped grow revenue from $8 billion to $171 billion in the span of a decade.
The couple has remained deeply committed to Cal Poly for the past three decades, and the robust new equine facility may be the most accurate reflection of their generosity.
“Mary Beth and I very much wanted to modernize the facilities,” Oppenheimer said. “We are so fortunate to have one of the best equine and veterinarian faculty programs in the country — bar none.”
Before Phase 2 of construction begins — which will include a second riding pavilion, an animal health center and an agriculture event center — rebuilding the horticulture unit will be a top priority, Oppenheimer said. The Plant Sciences Complex will be composed of a learning center to support various crops, soil health, organic growing and managed environment production.
Jaymie Noland, head of the animal science department, said there are currently about 850 students studying animal science. They will directly benefit from the revamped equine center, as will Cal Poly’s equestrian, dressage, polo and rodeo teams. The school also is working to form a three-day eventing team, described as an equestrian triathlon that includes dressage, cross-county and show jumping.
Noland said students in the equine program are getting hands-on learning experience with advanced reproductive technologies such as embryo transfer and intracytoplasmic sperm injection, skills many graduates take into the veterinary field or human fertility industry.
“We have been breeding and halter breaking and training and selling our horses for many, many years now,” Noland said. “So, the students are involved in every aspect of that. In fact, we have one state employee that manages this unit, and all the rest of the labor is (done by) students.”
During construction, animals normally housed in the barns are being kept off campus in surrounding Cal Poly pastures.
When something goes awry, Noland said, students are the first line of defense to protect and care for the animals.
“We couldn’t really maintain this animal count without their help,” Noland said. “They’re vital to the program.”
One of those students is Alice Von Staden, a junior from Connecticut majoring in animal science with a minor in equine science.
Von Staden said she kept her horse on campus as a freshman in 2015, but because of the winter rain, she wasn’t able to ride consistently.
“I probably will consider bringing her back here now that we have the covered arena,” Von Staden said. “And I think the layout of everything is going to make the working process easier, too.”
Because students are responsible for the vast majority of labor within the equine program, they are compensated hourly with some of that money helping to pay for on-campus housing.
Kristina Evanko, a sophomore from Palm Springs who also is majoring in animal science with a minor in equine science, has taken many of the riding classes available and said the new pavilion is “going to be amazing.”
“It’s hard to have 15 or 16 horses going around in a really small arena,” Evanko said, “and really focus on doing things correctly while trying to not run into your classmates.”
The equine center could also benefit the San Luis Obispo community, providing a more fan-friendly experience for the annual horse sale and other equestrian events.
Noland said in the past the equine program hasn’t been very active in inviting the public to those events because of rain and lack of seating.
“Now we’ll have a place for people to come and watch,” Noland said. “This will be great, I think, for the community.”