Jim Wofford: The Line Between Good and Great

Many riders are good; few are great. What’s the difference?
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Years ago at Madison Square Garden, I was sitting with Bill Steinkraus, the first U.S. Olympic gold individual medalist, watching the final round of the big-money jumping class at the wonderful old National Horse Show in New York City. Any time I get to sit with a gold medalist, I am going to pester them with questions for as long as they can stand me. Bill tolerated me because he understood my desire to learn about horses.

When you talk about great riders, you have to begin with Sir Mark Todd, and in calling “Toddie” a great horseman, you have the long and the short of it. Few riders are good enough to win the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials. To place first and second in the same Burghley, as Mark did in 1987, is a marvelous achievement, especially when you study his two horses that year. Wilton Fair was 18 hands, and Charisma (who had already won an individual gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and would win another individual gold following year at Seoul) was 15.3. Toddie is a great rider on any size of horse. His first international win was in 1980 at Badminton, which he would come back to win again in 2011, 31 years later. | © Kit Houghton

When you talk about great riders, you have to begin with Sir Mark Todd, and in calling “Toddie” a great horseman, you have the long and the short of it. Few riders are good enough to win the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials. To place first and second in the same Burghley, as Mark did in 1987, is a marvelous achievement, especially when you study his two horses that year. Wilton Fair was 18 hands, and Charisma (who had already won an individual gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and would win another individual gold following year at Seoul) was 15.3. Toddie is a great rider on any size of horse. His first international win was in 1980 at Badminton, which he would come back to win again in 2011, 31 years later. | © Kit Houghton

The class we were watching offered a huge amount of prize money, and top show-jumping riders had come from around the world to take a crack at winning it. The individual medalists from that year’s Olympics were there, and the rest of the competitors had ridden at the Olympic, World Championship or Pan American Games level. This was an unusually well- qualified field. Yet as the class developed, I realized I was really watching two different competitions. There were a number of very good riders, and there were several great riders, great being defined as “considerably above the normal or average.”

Since the average riders in this class were all successful international show jumpers, to be considerably above their level was to perform at a very high level of expertise. I could sort of tell the difference but could not explain what I was watching, so I asked Bill how he would describe the difference between the good riders and the great ones. I never forgot his answer: “Good riders land over an obstacle, go to the next jump and make a good arrangement,” he said. “Great riders land with their horses already arranged for the next obstacle.” By this he meant that riders who landed and lost their position were at a disadvantage because they must reestablish their own balance before arranging their horse’s stride. If you do not lose your balance when you land, you can immediately arrange your horse’s stride.

Once More, Position Is Key

This conversation popped into my mind the other day as I was watching one of my one-star eventing students jump one of my favorite show jumping exercises: a 3-foot vertical and then 60 feet to a 3-foot-square oxer. You can do it successfully in five quiet strides or in four forward strides. But if you sit there and do nothing, you will get a half-stride. This young lady jumped into the exercise with a blank expression on her face, and—once again—‘Forrest Gumped’ her way out of it.

“Come again,” I told her, “but this time take the half-stride first, not last. I want you to be a great rider someday.”

In mentally reviewing the lesson later, it occurred to me that great riders have certain traits and habits, and that if I could identify those traits and habits, I might have a better chance of producing riders who can cross the line from good to great. Naturally, when I started analyzing the difference between good and great, my mind turned back to Bill Steinkraus’ statement. There is so much knowledge contained in his axiom that I barely know where to start, so I will do what I always do when I want to get to the essentials of a riding question: I start with the rider’s position.

I have seen one or two great riders who had an idiosyncratic style, but the vast majority of great riders I have ever seen are masters of classical technique. This is equally true of show jumpers, dressage riders and eventers. The reason is simple: Your position allows you to apply your aids with precision. The more precise your aids, the more predictable your horse's response. If your position allows you to jump large obstacles and land in a poised balance, it becomes easier to land with your horse’s stride adjusted for the next jump.

Accuracy is not confined to show jumping and eventing. A dressage rider needs exquisite timing with her preparatory half-halt in order to produce the required movement at the correct instant.

Great Riders Are Not “One-Horse Wonders”

Obviously, there is more to greatness than just an incredible ability to arrange your horse’s stride or step; your horse is also part of the equation. Few riders achieve lasting greatness on just one horse. Riders generally accepted as great have usually produced more than one horse and display an intuition about horses that escapes most of us. Consider Sir Mark Todd, the FEI Horseman of the 20th Century. The New Zealand eventer won two Olympic individual gold medals (1984 and 1988) with Charisma, who was 15.2 hands. A few years later, he won the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials on 18-hand Wilton Fair. Obviously, Toddy could ride a wide range of horses. Could he produce them as well? When he rode Bahlua at the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, Sweden, he had also produced five of the horses who were ridden there by competitors from other nations!

Or think about the career of Ian Millar, Canada’s perennial show-jumping team captain, who has been named to 10 Olympic teams. The Olympics take place every four years, which means that for the past 40 years Ian (aka “Captain Canada”) has been riding yet another Olympic horse. When you examine their records, you notice that great riders have an uncanny ability to produce horse after horse and win big competitions with them. We had another excellent example of this last April, when Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt won his third Rolex Three-Day Event title—a feat he has achieved on three different horses.

Tough Talk: Mind and Body

If you think it is difficult to achieve the position and technique that produce results like these, think how mentally and physically tough riders must be to cross the line from good to great. I doubt there are many great riders who have not won important competitions with injuries that would sideline the average rider. In 1936 the German event rider Konrad Freiherr von Wangenheim broke his collarbone on the Olympic cross-country course, falling at the infamous water jump. The German team would win the gold medal if he could finish the event, so he jumped the stadium course with a broken collarbone. Von Wangenheim is not the only example of physical toughness around. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Australian Bill Roycroft had a crashing fall on the cross-country and suffered a broken shoulder, a dislocated collarbone and a concussion. His team needed him in order to win the gold medal, so Bill checked himself out of hospital and successfully completed the show jumping to ensure the gold medal. And Mike Plumb, U.S. eventing team captain from 1963 to 1992 (yes, 29 years), won a bronze medal at the 1978 World Championships with the most painful of all rider’s injuries, a torn jockey muscle.

Great riders have mental toughness, as well as physical toughness. I tell my students that I do not expect them to rise to the occasion; I expect them to sink to their level of training. Great riders are well aware that any fault will drop them down in the placings and cost them thousands of dollars in prize money. They know this, but they do not think about it. They focus instead on making a smooth turn inside the course decorations to avoid time faults or asking tactfully for maximum extension across the diagonal even though they know their horse is precariously balanced between brilliance and disobedience.

Part of great riders’ toughness is based on their physical fitness. I know I regularly mention this in my columns, but you need to hear it again. First of all, physical fitness is a rider’s best defense against injury. In addition, fitness speeds reaction time, which can help prevent potentially dangerous situations. Fitness also leads to a sense of poise and confidence, which translates into competitive fearlessness. I have seen unfit great riders—but they were either injured or retired. If they are in the competitive arena, they are fit.

We see the results of that fitness in the competitive arena, but we need to remind ourselves that fitness does not happen by accident. Great riders wake up every morning of their lives thinking about how to get just a little bit better in every aspect of their discipline. This tenacity of purpose enables them to train at a very high level for a very long time. Their physical fitness enables them to avoid or lessen the injuries that are an inevitable part of a life spent with horses, and their mental toughness makes them go to the gymnasium even when they are tired from riding multiple horses.

Of course, great riders are like the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement in The Great Gatsby—“different from you and me.” Most of us have other lives to lead, including families and nonriding interests. However, we can study great riders carefully, and emulate their best traits. If we try to copy great riders’ classical position and technique, we will make progress in our own riding, and if we choose and study our horses more carefully, our understanding and appreciation of them will improve. That may be the most important lesson that great riders have to teach us: that the effort to improve our lives with horses brings the greatest satisfaction of all—that we have made our horses better through our own efforts. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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