Jim Wofford is legendary in the eventing world as a rider, coach, clinician and author. He competed in three Olympics—in 1968, 1972 and 1980, winning two team silver medals and one individual silver medal. He also rode in two World Championships in 1970 and 1978, winning bronze individual and team medals. He won a team gold medal in the 1967 Pan-American Games and captured the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses.
As a coach, he has had countless students on U.S. Olympic, World Championship and Pan American Games teams, including David and Karen O’Connor and Kim Severson. Today he is also a much sought-after clinician. When not teaching, Jim is a prolific author, a historian and an outdoorsman.
But all of those accolades tell only part of the reason I wanted to speak with Jim for a podcast. In my opinion, there is no one better at telling a story than Jim Wofford. In this week’s podcast, he brings alive the history of the U.S. equestrian team starting with the involvement of his father, Col. John W. Wofford, a graduate of the U.S. Cavalry system and a 1932 Olympian. Jim explains where some of today’s training practices, like riders going overseas to compete, started. He talks about the greats of the sport, including many mentors such as Lars Sederholm, Jack Le Goff, Bert de Némethy and Bill Steinkraus. And Jim shares stories of the two great horses in his life—Kilkenny and Carawich.
He does all this with his wry sense humor—I laughed out loud at his description of how badly Jack Le Goff wanted to win medals, which is near the end of this podcast. Jim also reveals a more personal side, talking about how he stopped riding for a while after losing his father when he was just 10 years old; how when he met his future wife, Gail, at age 13, and knew she was the one; and how Kilkenny, whom he rode in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, is still buried at his farm, Fox Covert Farm, in Upperville, Virgina.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, below are some excerpts from our conversation.
1. Jim’s family growing up transported the first pony he rode to shows in the family station wagon.
“I have a picture in my library of me at about age 2 or 3, barefoot, no helmet, on a Shetland pony named Merry Legs. And Merry Legs had been the Shetland pony that had taught all four Wofford children how to ride, and we got her to the horse shows by the simple expedient of holding a carrot and walking into the back seat of the station wagon. And she would walk in there, we would pull the front seats forward … and just stand. When we got to the horse show, we would hold the carrot out and she would walk out the other door. And that was her transport there. My brother succeeded in getting her upstairs once. Unbeknownst to anyone, he led Merry Legs upstairs and it took my father and two enlisted men to get her back down because they don’t like going back down the stairs very much.
“I remember jumping my first cross-rail with her because it was in a stock saddle. My brothers thought that would be funny to lead little Jimmy—there was quite an age gap. I was 9 years younger than my next sibling, so I took a fair amount of harassment from them. They led me over a crossrail, and of course, I lurched around and I hit my nose on the saddle horn of the little Western saddle and bled like the dickens. And of course, they laughed at me and told me it was just a bloody nose and to shut up. That was the family attitude to minor injuries.”
See also: Growing Up with the U.S. Equestrian Team
2. Jim stopped riding for three years after his father’s death.
“I was really rocked by my father’s death because we had been quite close. … I was a little bit of a clone, forever paddling around behind him. When he died I stopped riding because I associated the stables and horses with him. That was a rocky period for a pre-adolescent. Then I got out of grade school, age 13, and Jonas [Irbinskas], basically the day after, he took the book out of my hand because I was a bookworm, always have been. And he said, ‘Put the book down, I need you at the stables’ because he was not stupid. He could see what was going on. And my mother had her own problems at that time. So he just took me over to our stables, which was a half a mile away and said, ‘Those four horses are yours. Here’s the saddle, there are the bridles, hang the tack here. There’s a pitchfork, there’s a muck basket. Get to work.’ And I just went back and started riding again.”
3. After Jim was drafted into the U.S. Army in the late 1960s, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, which then was the training site of the U.S. Army modern pentathlon team, to serve at the stable sergeant assistant riding coach—“that looked pretty good, otherwise, I would end up in Vietnam being shot at and shooting at people.”
The officers trying to make the pentathlon team “had never sat on a horse before and they had 90 days to prove themselves. To learn to ride a 3-foot-6 course … these young officers, they were under pressure because it was a competitive environment anyway because if they didn’t make it, they would be leading a rifle company in Vietnam, at which point their life expectancy was days, not weeks or years because it was a terrible conflict.
Colonel [John] Russell was a magical, magical coach. He wasn’t really a technical coach, but he would just say, ‘Come again. Don’t do that.’ But he wouldn’t say what that was. And you’d come again and he’d say, ‘No, that’s worse.’ So you would reverse what you had done and he’d say, ‘That’s better.’ And he taught entirely on your feel, what did it feel like on the horse, ‘Don’t do that,’ so you would try doing more of something else, ‘That’s better.’ Then you’d feel the improvement in the horse and the next thing you know, these young men would be galloping around pretty competently. Now obviously, they’d make mistakes and that’s where we came in. … We spent our week reschooling horses who had started stopping or ducking out or running away.
So for me it was a two year—I likened it to being a young psychiatrist or psychologist working in the state insanity hospital because all of these horses were badly flawed in some way and you had to get them going again and you had to get them going quickly because they were going to go back into the show string within a few days. So you were continually patching and repairing.”
4. Carawich, Jim’s 1978 World Championship partner, made the hair on the back of Jim’s neck stand up when he first saw him.
“In the spring of 1977, I had a student at Badminton. And I was watching the first day with Lars Sederholm, who had helped me in 1968 get ready for my first Badminton. … I was standing up against the rope with Lars [watching the horse inspection] and this big brown, very, very dark brown, mealy-nosed horse, no white. And I saw him coming and thought, ‘What a walk on that horse. Holy cow.’ He had this wonderful, smooth, head-bobbing walk, and he walked up next to me and he stopped and turned his head at me. And really, I don’t anthropomorphize much … and this horse looked me in the eye for a long period of time and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. And he looked at me and looked. He didn’t move, he didn’t flick, and the groom tugged on the shank to walk on and he didn’t follow. And she looked back and spoke to him and tugged rather sharply on the shank and he walked on with her. Lars was talking to someone and I grabbed and said, ‘Who is that?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s Carawich, but you’ll never buy him.’ And I went, ‘Oh, OK.’ And I thought to myself ‘What an experience that had been.’ [Jim eventually bought Carawich after his owner decided to sell him when she became pregnant.]
“When I get on Carawich, I felt as if I had slipped into a glove. The way a hand slips into a glove. I’m short-legged for my height. And Carawich was quite tall, 16.3, but very narrow, so I fit around him easily. And I had an instant partnership with him.”
See also: Finding Carawich
5. Jim and U.S. eventing coach Jack Le Goff didn’t hit it off immediately.
“Jack was a genius horseman, a genius instructor, and he was a tough guy to be around because he was military, and he understood the fact that you weren’t paying his paycheck. The team was paying his paycheck and he produced for the team. I think some people never really understood that about him, that they thought he had favorites. Jack had a favorite. The favorite was Jack [Jim laughs]. You were a cog in his machine.
We immediately butted heads because he wanted me to go to the Pan American Games some place in South America. [Jim refused to go with Kilkenny because of the bad footing.] Jack, of course, was under pressure from the team to send his guy and I said, ‘I’m not your guy.’ Well, I was the only rider who had a horse up and working because after 1968, the team disbanded. There was no team, there was nobody at [USET headquarters in New Jersey] Gladstone. … Kilkenny was down the road in Virginia, and I wasn’t about to ship him.’ So Jack and I had harsh words about that. I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and he said, ‘Well, this will affect your chances for making a future team,” and I said, ‘Well if I don’t have a horse, I won’t make the team,’ so boom, we hung up.
As we went along, I realized what a good rider and trainer Jack was, and Jack realized that he had someone that was not afraid of the work and wanted to win and he appreciated that. The longer we worked together, the better friends we got to be. But it never crossed my mind that I would get an edge because I was friendly with Jack. Never crossed my mind. I knew better. Because he would have cut his grandmother up with a chainsaw if there was a gold medal on the other side. That was just him. … Horses came first, last and always. That was Jack. But he was tremendously influential in my thinking.”
Stay tuned for next week’s bonus podcast—Part II with Jim Wofford—where he talks about the areas in riding he found easy and those he struggled with, how he handles setbacks, key issues he sees amateurs riding having and rider fitness, as well as advice he would give young professionals in the industry.
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk, Emily Daily and Jocelyn Pierce. Future podcasts include next week’s bonus episode with Olympic eventing legend Jim Wofford, top groom Liv Gude and Pan American Games gold medalist Boyd Martin. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.