A Look Back at Jim Wofford’s Annual Kentucky Three-Day Event Critique

In honor of the Kentucky Three-Day Event, we share some of our favorite critiques from cross-country day over the years

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.

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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

Martha Fuller
Martha Fuller
Martha Fuller
Photos 10 and 11-Martha Fuller/ Photo 12-Jim Leiby

Kim Severson & Tipperary Liadhnan, 2008

Kim Severson is smiling here because she knows Tipperary Liadhnan (Paddy) is jumping well. She is also thinking, I told you so, about my prediction that she would not get into the top 10 this year. (Shows what I know—she finished fifth). Kim is a three-time Rolex winner, and this photo of her jumping Fence 29B helps explains why: Her basics are so sound. I would like to see her heels a little deeper, her stirrup leather a little more vertical and her back a little flatter. However, it is hard to argue with success. Jim Leiby

Andrew Nicholson, Boyd Martin, William Fox-Pitt & Allison Springer at the HSBC Water Park 5 ABCD, 2012

New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson with Calico Joe (left) and American Boyd Martin with Remington XXV Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
William Fox-Pitt with Parklane Hawk (left) and Allison Springer with Arthur Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

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

The winner of the competition, Parklane Hawk is almost at the end of a four-mile cross-country course, but the looks as if he is just starting. Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt is right where he should be when galloping at high speed at this point in the course—slightly behind the motion. The best part of an excellent effort is the relaxation of William’s arms to follow Parker’s huge leap. He has opened his elbow angle while maintaining his hip angle. William rides so correctly these days that he makes it look simple. And it is simple; it is just not easy. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Buck Davidson & Ballynoe Castle at the Head of the Lake, 2014

1. Buck Davidson and Ballynoe Castle RM (Reggie) have an enviable record at Rolex, placing fourth in 2013 and third this year (2014). Every time the Kentucky Horse Park turns up the lights and lets the crowds in, Reggie and Buck take their game to another level. Their success here is based on their hard work and positive attitudes, but it begins with solid technique. Buck’s lower leg is exactly where I want to see it when jumping 18A, the iconic Rolex Head of the Lake. His stirrup leather is vertical, which makes it easy (if anything about jumping an obstacle with a 6-foot-6 drop into water is easy) for Buck to land in balance. Buck has slipped his reins the correct amount, which is to say that he has allowed Reggie the full use of his head and neck without losing contact. Even under extreme pressure, Buck has maintained a straight line from his elbow to Reggie’s mouth, his eyes are already focused on 18B and his upper body is aligned appropriately. Reggie is landing a bit close to the log, which will make the forward distance to 18B even more forward. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
2. As they take their first stride away from the drop, Buck looks as if he’s channeling lyrics from Jerry Reed’s country and western song—“a long way to go and a short time to get there.” He knows that Reggie can make the time around a big course, but he has to land galloping after every one of the cross-country jumps.Buck’s lower leg leaves Reggie in no doubt about his rider’s intentions, and Buck is poised over the withers to facilitate his sudden acceleration. He has lost his rein contact, but he will fix that in the next second. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
3. Buck is literally in the driver’s seat. His legs are at the girth, his shoulder is above his hip, he has a firm and sympathetic connection with Reggie’s mouth and his eyes are fixed on the top of the next element. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
4. The takeoff sport at 18B is a little long because Reggie took a steep angle behind the log at 18A. Buck knew this and made sure Reggie extended his stride and gained momentum to prepare for the narrow carved rainbow trout at 18B. If you have ever wondered why riders spend so much time practicing their dressage, here is your answer. When Buck said, “go forward,” Reggie moved forward unhesitatingly. I love the connection Buck has with the reins … he is supporting without pulling. When your horse is balanced at the base of the fence, food things happen. 5. Think Reggie is a good jumper? He shows his scope here with a great response to Buck’s positive ride though this water obstacle. If Buck were close to his saddle, this series would be close to perfect. There are riders who make it happen, riders who watch it happen and riders who wonder, “What happened?” Buck made it happen at the Head of the Lake. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

William Fox-Pitt & Bay My Hero, 2014

1. William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero (Moonie) are in good shape as they approach Fence 7 ABCD, the Park Question. William’s leg is perfectly at the girth, he has a straight line from his elbow to his horse’s mouth, his back is flat, his shoulders are just in front of his hips and he has a laserlike focus on the top rail of the vertical. 2. Because his last stride is a little close to the rail at 7A, William has put himself behind the motion. Although he is very tall, William knows how to control his upper body. Even if Moonie had bumped the rail with his forelegs due to the close takeoff spot, William would still be exactly where he is now. His eyes are looking ahead at the next element, and he is allowing the reins to slip through his fingers so that Moonie can use his head and neck.3. After an aggressive ride down the slope, William is rewarded with a spectacular effort from Moonie. Once again, William is in the right place at the right time. It all starts with the placement of his lower leg: Although it is now behind the girth, it is still classical because his stirrup leather is vertical. The stability of his leg position allows William to be completely with his horse’s motion. The straight line from his elbow to Moonie’s mouth is still obvious, and William’s eyes are looking slightly to his left. The next element in this combination is offset, and William is making sure Moonie knows where he is going and what striding is needed. Notice how quickly William has changed his position, from behind the motion at 7A to flowing with the motion here at the ditch.4. The distance between 7B and 7C is long, and William wastes no time sending Moonie forward up the slope. He has closed his elbows to maintain his connection with Moonie’s mouth. Moonies needs direction to stay on the best line through this combination, which is a left-handed curve. Because of the effort needed to extend a horse’s stride uphill, I would like to see William even farther out of the saddle at the instant to make sure that Moonie’s back keeps working. From the calm look on Moonie’s face, however, he could not care less what I think … he is locked onto the cabin at 7C. Jim Leiby
5. William’s positive ride uphill has put Moonie at the perfect takeoff spot in perfect balance. Moonie has responded both with his body and with his brain. Due to the curved approach, Moonie knows his left knee is closer to the cabin at 7C than his right knee and he makes sure to tuck his left leg out of the way. Four-star horses are so athletic, they sometimes take your breath away. Of course, William had something to do with this too … look at his elbows. They have closed enough to keep Moonie as connected and balanced as he was when he cantered down the centerline for his dressage test. The connection explains the superb engagement of Moonie’s hindquarters. 6. Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course designs always demand forward, aggressive riding. This is not news to William, who is forward and aggressive toward the final element at 7D. The faster you go, the farther into the stirrup your foot should be placed, which explains William’s position here. The stirrup leather, however, is still vertical, his shoulders are above his knees and his upper-body position is textbook correct. The look on Moonie’s face makes me laugh. “Oh, goodie, another jump!” Jim Leiby
7. Horses go the way we ride them, which explains why Moonie is going to land galloping while William is already planning his departure from 7D. The slight bracing of his lower leg is ready to compensate from the slop behind the cabin, and his elbows will follow Moonie’s head and neck, but William’s upper body will remain behind the withers. With technique like this, it is easy to see how he added Rolex 2014 to his lengthy list of four-star wins, which now totals 13 (William went on to win Badminton in 2015, so his total is now 14). Jim Leiby

Colleen Rutledge & Shiraz at The Hollow, 2015

Colleen Rutledge and Shiraz (Luke) have just jumped the same 3-foot-11 log with a 6-foot-6 drop at the Land Rover Hollow (18A) that Phillip is shown jumping above. Here Colleen and Luke are a few strides later at 18B. I am impressed by Colleen’s position here. It should be entered in Practical Horseman’s popular monthly Jumping Clinic with George Morris. Her lower leg is correct, back flat, eyes ahead with a straight line from her elbow to Luke’s mouth. But what about Luke? Well, Luke cracks me up. His ears are at half-mast, he has a bored expression on his face (“Is that all you got?”) and he has pushed the brush out of the way rather than make any kind of jumping effort. I guess you are entitled to that sort of attitude if you are the only horse in history to ever jump seven (yes, seven) four-star cross-country courses clean. Although age 17, Luke turned in the fastest round of the day, finishing nearly 20 seconds under the optimum time and still pulling at the end. As he galloped through the timers, I could hear him thinking, “Take that, all you young whippersnappers.” Luke is a Classic-format horse in a short-format world, and he has never gotten the recognition that he would have received in a different century. If he had been born 50 years ago, he would have a tack trunk full of Olympic and World Championship medals. Still, he has set a record that will not be broken in our lifetimes. We were fortunate to see the “Look of Eagles” in action at Rolex 2015. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Michael Jung & fischerRocana FST, 2016

You rarely see Michael Jung, the German Olympic and World Champion gold medalist, in the wrong place in the saddle. His winning mount at the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, fischerRocana FST (Roxie), owned by Michael’s parents, Brigitte and Joachim, trusts him completely, which explains the lovely shape she is taking over Fence 10, a maximum cross-country table (3-feet-11 high, 8-foot base spread). Her head and neck are lowered and her knees are up. Photoshop the flags and crowds out of the image and change Michael’s attire and Roxie would not look out of place in a big-time hunter derby. It helps that Michael always demonstrates such solid fundamentals. Here his lower leg is rock-solid, his heel is down, his little toe is on the outside branch of the stirrup and his toes are turned out at the same angle as that with which he walks. Michael has a lovely and soft feel of the reins and a very correct straight line from his elbow to Roxie’s mouth. Note that his lower leg is just in front of the vertical and his seat is quite close to the saddle—both minor adjustments and both entirely logical given that the top placers at Rolex were cruising at more than 20 miles per hour at this point. Someone asked me to describe Roxie, a 16.1-hand, 11-year-old German Sporthorse. I replied that she is a brown mare with big eyes, big ears and a big heart. Ben Radvanyi

Michael Jung & fisherRocana FST at the Head of the Lake, 2017

1. I have been watching Michael Jung for 10 years, but I have never seen him ride like he did at Rolex 2017. This photo gives you an idea of the size of the first table at 10A, the signature “Head of the Lake.” Note the drop on the landing side. Cross-country course designer Derek di Grazia uses the terrain as well as height and spread when he places his fences. As for Michael’s position, he is right where he should be—light, poised and balanced. Roxie looks like a kid rushing downstairs on Christmas morning. 2. Things change in a flash at the four-star level and riders must be quick to go to Plan B. The drop affected Roxie more than Michael had thought and her first stride is too short. Michael has to send her forward and has gone to a very powerful position, driving with his seat and legs while keeping his contact soft and supportive. Easy to say, but hard to do under four-star pressure. If anyone can stay focused when things don’t go according to plan on cross country, it’s Michael. 3. Michael has done all he can and Roxie is ready for the next jump, but they have not covered all of the distance to 10B and are going to stand off at a 3-foot-11 (maximum height allowed) fence with a 6-foot-3 drop into water. This sort of effort produces a terrific shock of landing and Michael is wisely in a defensive position. 4. Here at 10B, the only thing missing is Roxie holding her nose and going “wheeeee” as she jumps off the springboard into the pool. Note that Michael has not leaned forward at all. His seat is off her back, his contact with the reins is exactly what’s needed and his lower leg is rock-solid. This is not his first rodeo—he knows he is in for a rough ride, but he is already looking at 10C and measuring his approach. Mackenzie Clark
5. Desperate times call for desperate measures. You rarely see an Olympic double-gold medalist with a straight line from his nose to his toes, but Michael wants to land behind the motion with all his horse in front of him. Mackenzie Clark
6. Wow! Despite a huge effort, Roxie is still attacking. Michael understands the art of regaining the reins after a big drop and while keeping his eyes on 10C, he is getting his reins back. At this point, most riders’ hands are flailing around like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mackenzie Clark
7. Michael’s competitive drive and attitude are evident here, but his lower leg is the reason for his success. Mackenzie Clark
8. Direction, speed, balance and impulsion: Michael has them all, so his takeoff is going to be correct. Mackenzie Clark
9. Roxie tickles me—she is jumping this like “that all you got?” It is hard to see through the splash, but Michael is already planning his turn to the left. Just another day at the office for these two. Mackenzie Clark

Phillip Dutton & Mr. Medicott at the Mighty Moguls, 2017

Phillip Dutton is quite simply a genius in the saddle. He rode three very different horses at Rolex 2017 and was in the top 10 with all three. I was especially impressed with his ride aboard Mr. Medicott (“Cave”), who finished fourth, shown here at Fence 4A, the Mighty Moguls. Cave, a two-time Olympic veteran, is 18 now and has never looked better. Some of the underlying reasons for Phillip’s success are on display here: terrific balance, classic lower-leg position and a sensitive feel of the reins. Looking at this photo, I get the feeling that no matter what else is in front of this pair, they are going to jump it—at the gallop. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Oliver Townsend & Cooley Masterclass at the Head of the Lake, 2018

Derek di Grazia designs cross-country courses that require brave, accurate riding. My definition of “brave” is to gallop into a 6-foot-6 drop into water with a very big corner three long strides after the landing on a horse who has never been to a four-star event. Eventual Kentucky winners Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class (Coolio) are shown here at Fence 18AB, the Land Rover Head of the Lake, the signature cross-country jump at the Kentucky Horse Park. Ollie knows the distance in the water is long and he has selected the brave option by approaching the question at an open gallop rather than a slower and more controlled canter. In the air, Ollie is already planning his line to the corner and Coolio looks like, “That all you got?”
Nancy Jaffer
Ollie’s lower leg is in the right place and Coolio is going to land in balance. However, you are about to see why I disapprove of cross-country riders with longer stirrups. All of Ollie’s angles are correct and his touch on the reins is just right, but he has allowed his weight to settle onto the saddle. In a split second, Coolio’s hind end will deliver Ollie a monumental kick in the seat of the pants.
Nancy Jaffer
This is why riders need shorter stirrups when landing over a big drop. Certainly four-star speed is a factor in riding shorter, but the essential reason for shorter stirrups is that big drops cause horses to lift their hind end to clear the obstacle on the way down. Look back at the previous image and imagine that Ollie had kept the same exact angles, but shorter stirrup leathers had raised the points of his knees an inch or so higher in the saddle. His seat bones would then be a commensurate amount above the saddle and Coolio would have room to use his back without disturbing Ollie’s balance. This is not Ollie’s first rodeo and he is catching his balance with his knuckles against Coolio’s neck while keeping his eyes on the next jump.
Nancy Jaffer
There is not enough room between the obstacles for Ollie to get his reins back. Instead, he has opened his arms to lift his hands, bring his elbows back and maintain contact and control. (I want my one- and two-star riders to get their reins back before five strides while three- and four-star riders have four strides to get their reins back.) Coolio is already measuring the next obstacle by lifting his head and Ollie has a straight line between his elbow and the bit. The stability of his upper body here is based on his lower-leg position. Ollie is a clever rider—he knows Coolio sprawled a bit on landing, but the striding is long and he has used that to cover the distance. One stride later, he has Coolio on a balanced, open gallop with his horse’s hocks well under him and ready for the next fence.
Nancy Jaffer
“When in doubt, wait it out,” is the experienced cross-country rider’s maxim. Ollie makes sure Coolio actually jumps before he bends over. He is soft with his reins but slightly behind the motion. It is better to be a second behind the motion than a split-second in front of it. Most glance-offs at upper cross-country levels are caused by riders assuming that because they see their stride, their horse will jump. I call this mistake “riding off your eye, not your leg.”
Nancy Jaffer
Coolio is landing well beyond the maximum corner and Ollie is already planning his turn to another obstacle. Riders finish Derek di Grazia’s courses and remark on the relentless nature of his designs, which are both physically and mentally challenging. At the four-star level, you can’t afford to take a break. Ollie is still taking care of business. This pair will gallop on to come home inside the time, setting themselves up to win the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Nancy Jaffer

Boyd Martin & Tsetserleg at the Head of the Lake, 2019

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg (Thomas) are jumping into the Land Rover Head of the Lake the way it ought to be jumped. Following an aggressive approach to Fence 17A and a powerful jumping effort, Boyd has slipped his reins correctly, allowing Thomas to stretch his head and neck. They are both in balance, and they are both veterans with their eyes firmly focused at the next obstacle. They know there is more to do than land like a feather over a 6-foot-6 drop into water. We will have to wait a year to find out if Boyd’s near-as-anything finish just behind the 2019 winner is the start of a new trend among our elite U.S. riders or yet another brief glimmer of possibility that does not consistently produce the satisfaction that winning brings. At competitions in the past, Boyd has ridden an incredible number of horses pretty well. However, this year he seems to have made a conscious decision to ride fewer horses really well, and his upper-level results are starting to show it. I’m an optimist, and I think we will be seeing a resurgence of U.S. riders at the international levels. We have some good riders who have now had a taste of five-star competition, and they are hungry for more. Photo: Mackenzie Clark
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