When it comes to horses, I think of myself as a fairly mechanical trainer. Squeeze your hands and the horse will slow down, close your legs and your horse will speed up … that sort of thing. However, there is more to it than that. Spend any amount of time around horses and you will become convinced that there is a communication between horses and humans that can’t be measured. The worst among them sense our fears and take advantage of us; the best among them sense our dreams and take us where we have always longed to go. For example, there was Carawich.
Not many people get a chance to ride in the Olympics. During the time that you are involved in the training and selection process, you don’t have time to think about anything else. If the stars align for you, then you are too busy riding at the Olympics to think about it. It is only after the Games are over that you get a chance to think about your experiences, to wonder about the long, hard, winding path that brought you there, and especially about how incredibly lucky you were to have a horse good enough to ride in the Olympics. And you can’t help wondering if you will ever find such a horse again.
By the spring of 1977, I had ridden in the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, but those experiences were receding into the past. I had not been on a team of any sort for five years and, indeed, had not won any competition above Preliminary level since 1972. I had competed with an endless succession of horses who were almost good enough—but when you aspire to ride at the highest level, “almost” won’t do. I had not given up on my dreams yet, but I was beginning to wonder if one day soon I might have to exchange dreams for reality.
I was coaching at Badminton that spring and was standing in the courtyard of the Duke of Badminton’s hunter stables, waiting for the first veterinary examination to start, when Lars Sederholm came up to me and we stood there talking for a moment. Lars, a genius horseman, had a terrific influence on my riding, so I always enjoyed a chance to catch up with him.
By now the horses had started to walk around the outside of the courtyard, and we moved up to the crowd-control barrier to watch the proceedings. Lars was distracted by someone else, so I stood at the barrier alone for a moment and watched all these wonderful creatures walk past.
I suddenly noticed a big, handsome, mealy-nosed dark-brown horse walking toward me. He had an enormous, smooth, flowing walk, and he caught my eye immediately. Just as he got next to me, he stopped and turned his head toward me. I had the sudden eerie feeling that he was looking directly into my eyes and that I had been picked out and was being evaluated. I stood, spellbound, while the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I can’t say how long he stood like that, looking directly at me, because time had stopped for me and I was not aware of crowd noise or other people around me or anything but this horse staring intently into my eyes.
The horse’s groom tugged impatiently on his lead shank, yet he stood a moment longer, looking at me. Then he seemed to say “Hmmm” to himself, turned his head forward and moved on with that powerful, athletic walk.
I grabbed Lars by the arm, interrupted his conversation and asked him “Who is THAT?”—pointing at the horse’s receding form. “Oh, that’s Carawich,” Lars replied. “He is a wonderful horse, but you’ll never buy him.” I said “OK” to Lars, but I was thinking, “What a strange experience I’ve just had.” I watched Carawich go for the rest of the weekend, and he was indeed wonderful, but when I returned to the U.S., I put the whole incident out of my mind.
International rules in those days required that to be eligible to compete in the World Championships or Olympics both the rider and the owner of a horse had to be of the same nationality by January 1 of the year of the competition. By now it was early December of 1977, and I was starting to realize that I was not going to get a chance to ride in the 1978 World Championships. All the good U.S. horses were already taken, and my search for horses in other countries had come up empty. I was 34 years old, fit and at the peak of whatever abilities I could muster. If I did not ride in the 1978 World Championships, I faced a long, dark three-year period of training with little hope of making the 1980 Olympic team. This made me sad, but that was just the way it was; I might as well get used to it.
I did some buying and selling of English and Irish horses during that period of my life. I had been looking for a horse for a client and suddenly thought I might give Lars Sederholm a call to see if he had anything for sale.
“Hello, Jimmie,” Lars said. “What a coincidence. I have just now hung up with Carawich’s owner. His rider is pregnant and they have decided to put Carawich on the market.”
“Well, call them back and tell them he is sold, pending a vet exam,” I said without hesitation. We chatted for a few minutes about other horses and then I hung up. “Now what?” I thought. I did not have the money for Carawich, so I wound up borrowing against my life-insurance policy. It was the best business move I have ever made.
We got the deal done in time to have my name on the ownership papers before the first of the year, and I started a partnership with the best horse I would ever ride. I can remember to this instant that when I slid onto his back for the first time, I felt as if I were putting on a glove. I rode him for four years, and there was never a time when I did not feel that he could read my mind. If I tacked him up for some dressage work, he stood like a statue. But when I put his jumping saddle on, he would start to dance and fly-kick in the cross ties—he knew the difference before I could even get on him.
When he arrived, he had a horrible, demeaning stable name. I put a lot of store in a horse’s stable name, but I am also very superstitious, and it is supposed to be bad luck to change it. “Well, my friend,” I thought, “you are getting a new lease on life, and my riding life has definitely taken a turn for the better, so I am going to change your stable name and call you ‘Pop.’ You have a hell of a pop over a jump, and ‘Pop’ is what the cowboys call the wisest and most experienced among them.”
Pop gave me my greatest thrill on horseback at the Alternate Olympics in 1980 in Fountainbleu, France. Basically, he sensed the importance of the occasion and ran away with me around a formidable cross-country course. This is not the approved strategy for the first rider in a team, but I had no real choice in the matter. Pop had taken over. The only thing I can say for myself is that I had enough sense to sit quietly and let him run his race. We finished with the fastest round of the day and an individual silver medal. Is it any wonder that I loved him above all horses?
Let me tell you one more story before I close. As a rule, horsemen don’t let horses rub their face on them. It is considered rude and you have to be careful about letting an animal that outweighs you by 1,000 pounds push you around. After I had been with Pop for a while, I decided that I would suspend that rule for him. He appreciated this and would greet me every morning with the most ferocious face rub.
When he retired, I put him in the south field here at our farm in Upperville, Virginia, with Alex. From time to time, I see horses that I instinctively like and know how to ride. I had seen and instantly loved Alex as a 4-year-old, but it would be 10 years before the USET let me ride him. (Of course, when I did, we won the National Championships, but that is another story.) Anyway, no matter how fond I was of Alex, he did not rub his face on me. He knew the rules and respected the bond between Pop and me. When I would go to the south field to check on them, they would walk up to me at the gate, and Pop would luxuriate in a long and thorough face rub on me at the expense of my shirt and sweater.
After I had to put Pop to sleep, I could not go down to the south field for a couple of days; I knew it would be too painful. But eventually I had to go down to see how Alex was doing on his own. When I called him, he marched right up to me and rubbed his face on my chest. I was crying as he did it and I think Alex was, too.
Reprinted from the book, Take a Good Look Around, by James C. Wofford with permission of University Press of America. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.