Jimmy was interviewed by Emily Covington in 1999. Our questions, and his answers, are presented below.
Background: Jimmy Wofford is one of today's foremost trainers in the sport of eventing. His accomplishments as a competitive rider are truly impressive. Between 1968 and 1980, he represented the United States in three Olympic Games and two World Championships. From these outings, he won one gold, two silver and three bronze medals. In addition, he has won five National Three-Day Event Championships. Since his retirement from competitive riding in 1984, Jimmy Wofford has coached many national and internationally successful students in the sport of eventing. He has held leadership positions in equestrian sport organizations such as American Horse Shows Association, the United States Equestrian Team and United States Combined Training Association. He is based at his farm in Upperville, VA where he continues to coach up-and-coming eventing talent.
Photo courtesy of USET
Equerry: You came to horses through your family, most notably your father, whose involvement and achievements are extensive. Do you recall when you first started riding?
Jimmy Wofford: I don't remember not riding. I literally was led out at age two or three. One of my earliest memories is of my father leading me across the military reservation at Fort Riley. I had a little 14.2 hand pony named Tiny Blair. My father had a longe line and he led us around. I've been riding ever since.
Equerry: Would you say your father was one of your early mentors?
Jimmy Wofford: All of my and my brother's first lessons were given by my father. He had gone through the advanced instructor's course at Fort Riley. He had been on the Army Horse Show Team and he had been on the U.S. Army Olympic team in 1932, so we got a good basic start.
Equerry: What a start that was for you. Your own career in horses is diverse and filled with achievements. Do you have a particular highlight or defining moment?
Jimmy Wofford: Certainly one's first Olympics is a big deal and one's first individual medal. I medalled at the World Championships in 1970 and that was a big deal for me. That one was especially memorable because I did that basically unsupported by anyone. I went to England alone, I trained alone, I prepared my horses alone. There was no USET (United States Equestrian Team) presence at the World Championships. It was an effort that I am personally quite proud of because I received help from no one except for my mother, who funded the operation.
Equerry: It's hard to imagine there not being the USET presence that we now know!
Jimmy Wofford: We did not have four horses in this country to send at that time..
Equerry: With the all coaching and teaching that you do now, how do you evaluate new students? What sorts of things do you look for?
Jimmy Wofford: I look for their technical basics; what tools they have, what physical skills they have. For my in-barn program here, the horses that come are either (1) currently in training for a three day event or (2) they are members of the Area 2 Young Riders program at any level. Generally, I don't take in novice to training level riders anymore but I do have some because I am very interested in the Young Riders program. I am coaching the Area 2 Team right now. I have always been a big believer in that program.
Equerry: How would you evaluate a new horse?
Jimmy Wofford: I want to see if he is brave and if he can jump. We can teach them the rest. Nick Larkin is quoted in the USCTA magazine as saying that he thinks you can teach a horse to be brave. I think he is almost right. If the horse has the basic quality, you can encourage it, but if it's not there, you can't put it there. You can't make these horses do these things.
Equerry: Do you prefer certain breeds?
Jimmy Wofford: I prefer the Thoroughbred.
Equerry: Do you have a preference for one gender over another; geldings, mares?
Jimmy Wofford: No. We don't see quite as many mares and we see very, very few stallions. Each has their strengths and their weaknesses. There are more geldings than anything else so in the statistical breakdown of the various genders, that is what we tend to see the most. But, if someone were to call and say 'I have a Thoroughbred mare,' I don't immediately say no. They vary enormously. Bally Cor (for example), was a slightly choppy-strided Thoroughbred mare and look what she did.
Equerry: Do you have a personal favorite or a special horse that stands out in your mind?
Jimmy Wofford: Of the horses that I rode, certainly Carawich stands out .
Equerry: What made him special to you?
Jimmy Wofford: The whole story, from the first time that I saw him to the last time I rode him was just a wonderful experience for me. I was standing in the courtyard at Badminton in April of 1977. This great, big brown horse walked by being led by his groom and the horse just stopped. I was standing the second person in, among the crowd. There was an enormous wall of people there. I was standing next to Lars Sederholm. Suddenly, the horse stopped and turned his head and neck and looked right at me. I don't anthropomorphize animals much, I think they are animals and humans are humans. But, the hair really did stand up on the back of my neck. I felt as if the horse had noticed me and had stopped to look at me. He paused for several seconds while the groom just stood and waited for him. You could almost hear Carawich say 'Hmm!' Then, without the groom telling him to, he just walked on. He had the most wonderfully flowing, gliding, smooth, positive walk.
I turned to Lars Sederholm, in some agitation, and I said, 'Who is that horse?' He was looking some place else so he turned back to look. He laughed and he said 'Oh, that's Carawich.' He said, 'He's a wonderful horse but you'll never buy him. The owner will never sell him.'
Well, that fall, I called Lars Sederholm looking for a horse for a student of mine. I described the student and what type of horse I thought he would ride well, what the price range was and so on. Lars said 'Yes, I can think of several. By the time you come over we'll have three or four to look at.' Then he said, 'Jimmy, by the way, I have just this moment hung up with the owner of Carawich. The rider is pregnant and they've decided to sell the horse.' I said, 'Well, we're coming over to look at these other horses and in the mean time, take Carawich off the market because he's sold.' Untried.
The first time I took a leg up and got on him, it was just like putting on a glove. From 1978 to 1984 he never did anything that surprised me or that I was not ready for. He never misread a jump. He always knew what he was doing when he got to the jump. So, he is my personal favorite, as you can probably tell.
Equerry: You have been successfully involved in a diverse group of horse sports; eventing, point to point, show jumping, dressage...
Jimmy Wofford: I would say my successes were in the eventing world. But I was keen at those other sports.
Equerry: Few horsemen and women experience this variety of horse sports to the extent that you have, however.
Jimmy Wofford: If you look at a lot of the upper level riders you will find that to be true. Mark Todd is a world class show jumper (in addition to eventing). He rode in the Olympics in show jumping in Seoul, as well as winning the gold medal again with Charisma (in eventing). Blythe Tait was a World Cup show jumper. Kevin Freeman, who rode on three Olympic teams for us, was also second in the Maryland Hunt Cup. I was there one year at Branchville when he jumped an enormous fence, around 6'3". The upper level riders have usually done other things with their riding. Mike Plumb has been third in Hunt Cup. He has also won the AHSA Dressage Medal.
Equerry: Can you offer any insight into how all the various horse sports can work together?
Jimmy Wofford: If you can experience the other riding disciplines, for example, if you are hunter/jumper rider for a while, then eventing's show jumping phase is basically simple. Our show jumping phase does not ask horses to do that terribly much in terms of what horses can be asked to do. I don't think our show jumping phase should be overly challenging because of the marathon aspect of the second day. But the problems are pretty simple in overall terms. Most hunter/jumper riders have the skills to deal with those technical problems. They do things very easily that many eventing riders who have no outside experience think are complicated. It is just a question of exposure.
It always amuses me when my young eventing riders complain that their horses pull. They have never ridden a race horse so they have no idea of what really and truly a race horse feels like when he's pulling. If a rider will say someone was going too fast then their idea of too fast was likely that this someone was going 570 meters a minute instead of 520. Well, the top speed of a race horse is about 1200 meters a minute! So, it is not even close. It is not even half the speed the horse is capable of going. The (young rider's) perception of speed is flawed so racing, for example, gives an idea for a different feel in the horse.
Equerry: Do you recommend a fitness program for your students?
Jimmy Wofford: I am becoming more and more dictatorial about that as I go along because the (Baby) Boomers were bad about it and the Generation Xers are terrible. A lot of kids come here, for example, and they can't do five push ups or they can't do eight chin ups. Then, they want to go out on a 1000 pound horse and go charging around 12 to 15 miles of cross country and think that they are going to ride well. I make the riders here in the barn go to the Middleburg Fitness Center three to four days a week. They have work-out programs that they go through.
Equerry: Do you use certain mental tools such as goal setting or visualization?
Jimmy Wofford: I do a little bit of visualization with my students. For example, I may say 'When you come around the corner, make sure that you see this part of the cross country jump' or 'When you make this turn in the show jumping, you should be looking at this top rail.' I expect my students to come here and concentrate on what they are doing. It's not a mental game exactly. It's a physical game; you keep one leg on each side, you keep the horse balanced and away you go to the jump. People are different and I change my teaching techniques slightly but I don't want to play head games with them. I just want them to come out and ride.
Equerry: Is there a particularly important concept or idea that you think is often overlooked by riders today?
Jimmy Wofford: I think the one thing that is overlooked in eventing these days is that people tend to focus solely on doing eventing. They don't go to horse shows or they don't go to dressage shows or they don't gallop two year olds or they don't ride in point- to- point. They just do the sport of eventing. Well, if you study with a high level dressage trainer, you are going to have an edge when you come back to the eventing world. If you ride a lot of green hunters for a hunter/jumper professional, your timing is definitely going to improve and that is going to help your show jumping. I think that people tend to think of themselves as Eventers. It would be more beneficial for them to think of themselves as good horsemen who are training a horse to event.
Equerry: Thank you very much, Jimmy Wofford.
Emily Covington was employed at Hilltop Farm, Inc. in Colora, MD from 1992 through 1997. Starting as a working student, she later served as assistant stable manager, and rode young horses, including her own. She has produced a variety of photography and artwork for the farms publications. She now lives in Redlands, CA where she continues to ride and does various freelance work for Hilltop.
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