Every year on Sunday afternoon at the Kentucky Three-Day Event a new winner is crowned. The crowds peter out, the competitors pack up and eventing legend and Prac columnist Jim Wofford gets cracking on looking over thousands—and I mean thousands—of photos from cross-country day. And then, he settles on a select few photos for his annual Kentucky Three-Day Event rider critique in Practical Horseman.
This year, in honor of the Kentucky Three-Day Event, we are sharing some of our favorite Jim critiques through the years. As a bonus, we have included a critique from renowned team coach Jack Le Goff of Jim and his beloved Carawich from the 1978 World Championships, which would later become what is known as the Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Jim Wofford & Carawich at the Head of the Lake, 1978
Fence 17AB was a 4-foot-11 spread over water onto a bank, birch rails 2-foot-8 high and a drop of 5-foot-11 into the water. Head of the Lake took its toll. Eddy Stibbe and Autumn Haze of the Netherlands were eliminated here. Jane Holderness-Roddam of Great Britain accumulated 140 penalty points when Warrior had one refusal and two falls. Otto Ammerman and Volturno of Germany and Kuaranjo Saito and Polly Ladd of Japan had refusals. Canada's Martha Anne Shires and Belfast Road and the Netherlands' Alicie Waanders and Regal Abbot had falls.
This fence, a combination of Normandy bank and landing in water, was an unusual and very difficult technical problem. You had to ride with enough aggressiveness that after jumping up onto the bank, you had the momentum to clear the fence at the top. On the other hand, if you came through full speed and flew the fence your momentum might turn you over in the water.
If you horse was really aggressive you knew he’d pull himself right through but you had to guard against too much speed. If your horse was the kind that ikes to slow down and look you had to ride him strongly or he’d either stop at the fence on top or jump from such a short stride that he’d land vertically and peck in the water. Therefore the approach to this fence had to be ridden in a very precise bracket, aggressively but not too aggressively.
Once onto the bank there wasn’t much the rider could do but try to preserve the horse’s balance and maintain momentum. The distance was a bit short for a stride and a bit long for a bounce, considering the landing in water. You had to leave it to the horse. I saw some horses mess around, putting one leg here, one leg there but as long as the momentum was right they managed to roll safely over the fence.
Jimmy’s approach looks perfect. Carawich is balanced and Jimmy is where he should be, close to his saddle, but going with the horse, all the while keeping him together.
The jump up onto the bank is good and Jimmy lengthens the reins in frame three so that he can sit back over the fence without interfering with the horse’s mouth. He hasn’t thrown the reins away altogether, though he can still slow the horse if he has to.
Carawich makes it a bounce and takes off. It’s not a cheap jump. He’s going up quite powerfully. Usually green horses jump in the air. Most experienced horses, when they see water, want to touch the ground wuickly. They slide their stifles over the fence so that their hind legs will be there when they land. But this horse is really jumping.
If I were going to criticize—I would say that the horse is going into the air a little too much. In frames five and six he’s a little high with his head and neck. But it all happends so fast there is nothing Jimmy can do but maintain his contact and follow the horse’s movement.
As Carawich comes down into the water, Jimmy begins to take precautions, seat-wsie. You can see why he lengthened his reins before the take-off. In frame nine he has a good feel of the horse’s mouth but he isn’t interfering with the landing. If the horse were jumping loose his position would probably be the same.
What you try to do over these drop jumps is keep a leg on each side, not lose your stirrups nor your balance and stay as close to your horse as you can. It’s a long way down and a shock on landing. By sitting back Jimmy takes weight off his horse’s front legs and he’s in a better position to help at the landing if his horse stumbles.
In frame 10 the water looks deeper than it is because the horse’s pasterns, as he lands, are almost to the ground.You have to be quite supple in your lower back to absorb the impact. If you lock up you get kicked in the bottom. Jimmy’s position is just right. The horse is gree to organize himself and everything is perfectly fine.
But on a fence like this it’s always the next stride you have to worry about. That’s when the falls take place. As you come down into the saddle, the horse nearly stops, then gathers himself for a big stride, almost another jump. When he pushes off he catches you in your seat and throws you forward. That’s what happening in frame 11.
In leaving the water you speed depends on its depth. Jimmy trots out. In deep water you have to do a very slow trot or your horse is going to lose him balance. Water splashes all over and the horse can’t see what’s in front of him. But if the water is shallower you can afford to move a little faster.
Karen O'Connor & Theodore O'Connor at the Head of the Lake, 2007
Kim Severson & Tipperary Liadhnan, 2008
Andrew Nicholson, Boyd Martin, William Fox-Pitt & Allison Springer at the HSBC Water Park 5 ABCD, 2012
I have looked at 5,289 images from Rolex cross-country day. You might say I had the best seat in the house. I learned something different from each image, yet I was stuck by some powerful similarities as well.
For example, it was interesting to me how much alike these four riders look at the same moment over the same obstacle.
I can make the same general observations about each of them: body poised exactly in the middle of his or her horse, flat back, vertical stirrup leather, straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth, reins adjusted quickly and efficiently just four strides after a 5-foot-6 drop and eyes slightly to the left in preparation for the curved line to the final element. Another detail that caught my eye was three of the four demonstrate very correct automatic releases at the tops of the jumping arcs, which is facilitated because their lower legs are so solid and stable. Allison tends to float the reins to Arthur early in the course, because he jumps with a short neck until he relaxes into his work. But note that if she had a contact, she would look exactly like the other three.
Another interesting observation: These riders are able to stay so poised and balanced because their stirrup leathers are adjusted correctly for jumping at speed, which is to say they are riding shorter than their show-jumping length. You can tell this because if they were seated in the saddle, the angles behind their knees would be less than 90 degrees.
William Fox-Pitt & Parklane Hawk at the Wattle & Daub Cottage, 2012
Buck Davidson & Ballynoe Castle at the Head of the Lake, 2014
William Fox-Pitt & Bay My Hero, 2014
Colleen Rutledge & Shiraz at The Hollow, 2015
Michael Jung & fischerRocana FST, 2016
Michael Jung & fisherRocana FST at the Head of the Lake, 2017
Phillip Dutton & Mr. Medicott at the Mighty Moguls, 2017
Oliver Townsend & Cooley Masterclass at the Head of the Lake, 2018
Boyd Martin & Tsetserleg at the Head of the Lake, 2019