Jim Wofford: Silverbacks of the Sport

The great eventers of the past still speak to us.

My father, shown here giving me a lesson aboard Tiny Blair, was my first instructor. There is no doubt in my mind that I am the only one of the three individuals involved in this picture who is having any fun. The concerned look on Daddy’s face tells you what he thought of my position. My bicycle grip on the reins is an obvious attempt to promote a correct following hand, a concept that would continue to escape me until I acquired a better lower-leg position. Tiny, a 14.2-hand pony, had already taught my sister and both of my brothers to ride, and his bored expression and slightly inverted jumping style show that this is not his first rodeo. He knows how to protect his mouth from a fixed hand. Ponies and horses with the temperament and patience of Tiny are the unsung heroes of the horse world—we should treasure them when we find them. Safety standards in 1954 were very different from today, so please, no hate mail about my lack of a helmet. Besides, the threat of a brain injury implies the presence of a brain, and I can tell you from personal experience that 9-year-old, redheaded boys can’t injure something they don’t have. Courtesy, Jim Wofford

Chances are you would pay good money to be able to listen to the “matriarchs” and “silverbacks” of eventing when they get together. Naturally, adult beverages feature prominently in such gatherings and the conversations soon turn toward the “good old days when things were right.”

I remember sitting outside the circle as a young rider, listening to the verbal pyrotechnics and thinking, “Wow, these geezers can talk.” When they were in a gathering of their equals, they could talk and they had a lot to talk about. They talked about horses and their experiences and most especially about their mentors. All of them were proud of their experiences, of climbing their learning curve and fondly remembered their coaches’ role in their development from novice to expert.

One thing I noted was that the old-timers bragged more about their failures and the lessons they learned from them than they did about their big wins. But don’t think there wasn’t a lot of pride on display. These were tough people to have done what they did. Although they may limp up to the bar, even now you catch a glint in their eyes and realize that if they could shed 30 years and 30 pounds, they could still beat you like a carpet. They don’t exactly brag, but there is a certain amount of humble-bragging going on when they speak—“Yeah, Lucinda was one of the best riders I have ever seen. I could just barely beat her.”

The next time you get a chance to eavesdrop on such gatherings, take advantage of it. Chances are they know you are there and tolerate you for the same reason they (and I) were tolerated in turn. Until very recently, learning to ride has been a verbal, heuristic process—that is, by trial-and-error methods. Lessons learned the hard way were passed down from an experienced rider to a new guy: A rider would make a mistake, learn from it and pass the correction on by talking a student through the same situation.

Because there was less travel and exposure to far-off top riders years ago, positive visual role models were few and far between. In each geographic area, competitors developed stylistic tics and flaws. One benefit of the modern era is the exposure of local riders to positive models worldwide with a homogenization of technique and style as a result. Following the advent of digital photographs, videos and periodicals such as Practical Horseman, you can say that whatever your problem, there is a fix waiting for you on the Internet, if only you have sufficient desire to improve.

But I am straying far from my original topic—matriarchs, silverbacks and adult beverages. I have been lucky in the mentors that, in Mark Twain’s phrase, “took me to raise.” I remember them half a century and more later, and I still quote them when I teach and lecture. Now I’d like to talk about a few of them here, in chronological order. Just pull up a chair.

Jonas Irbinskas, shown here aboard Mrs. Dorothea B. Wofford’s Passach, was a two-time winner of the U.S. National Eventing Championships in 1957 and 1958. Both events were held in Colorado Springs with the dressage and show-jumping phases at the Pikes Peak Or Bust Rodeo stadium. Cheyenne Mountain is to the left, just out of view. Arguably the most successful eventer of his era, Jonas was denied a chance at the Olympic team due to his professional status. It would take another 30 years before the International Olympic Committee joined the 20th century and opened the Olympics to professionals. It was 1985 before another professional won the National Championships, when Derek di Grazia won Rolex. (I don’t count “shamateurs.”) While Jonas was my first dressage instructor, his teaching skills obviously improved over time. Later in his career he taught dressage to someone who would go on to be a three-time winner of the U.S. National Championships, Kim Severson. Courtesy, Heather Irbinskas

In the Beginning …

Although my father, Col. John W. Wofford, died when I was very young, he was my first instructor. He was a graduate of the U.S. Cavalry system that had been developed by one of our country’s finest horsemen, Col. (later General) Harry D. Chamberlin. That system obviously suited him because he had quite a competitive career, culminating with the U.S. show-jumping team at the 1932 Olympic Games. He later went on to coach both the U.S. eventing and show-jumping teams at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Throughout his career as both rider and trainer, he adhered closely to the system he learned as a young cavalry officer. To a great extent, the system that Chamberlin developed is still in use—if you have ever been told to “put your heels down,” you are hearing Chamberlin’s advice.

Fortunately for me, my next instructor after my father was our farm manager, Jonas Irbinskas. Born in Lithuania, Jonas had fled the oncoming Russian army in 1945 and found refuge in Allied-occupied Germany. (It is ironic that several of my other mentors were affected by war, as we shall see.) After arriving, Jonas found a job at a stable in Berlin where he came to the notice of a family friend and my godfather, Maj. Gen. I.D. White. I.D. was the U.S. chef d’équipe at the 1948 London Olympics so you know he understood horses and good horsemanship.

I.D. was quite a guy, a lifelong cavalryman and a brilliant combat commander, but he had a famous temper. When he heard that the Army was going to change the uniform lapel insignia and remove the crossed sabers, originally adopted for the cavalry in 1851, he caught a plane for the Pentagon. (He had attained such an exalted rank by this time that he had his own plane.) Witnesses say his temper was at full volume when he got there. Two-star generals would jump out a window rather than face his considerable wrath at this insult to the generations of cavalrymen who had gone before him. At this point in his career, only about three men in the whole Army outranked him, and it took an ironclad promise from a superior officer to assuage him. The next time you see an armor insignia, you will notice the crossed sabers around the insignia of a tank. This is in homage to the long line of cavalrymen and their horses who have served us so bravely and honorably. We can thank I.D. for that.

The point of all this is that Jonas had made a pretty fancy friend, and after I.D. sent him to our farm in Kansas, he made the most of the experience. My first serious dressage lessons consisted of Jonas putting me up on my brother’s retired Olympic horse, Benny Grimes. Jonas told me, “Put your leg here and turn his head that way” and similar instructions. I did not realize it at the time, but at the ripe age of 12, I was introduced to all the dressage movements I would ever need.

Jonas described these strange new exercises, which I now recognize as shoulder-in, half-pass and so on, to me as the tools we use to communicate with our horses, especially when galloping and jumping. It came as a shock when I got to the U.S. Equestrian Team training center at Gladstone, New Jersey, and was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to do these exercises at a certain point on the space–time continuum in an arena, not just when it felt right. I have struggled with this concept ever since.

I promised you right away that geezers could talk—I should have warned you that if you give them a keyboard and caffeine, geezers could write, too. I need to move along, but I can’t leave Jonas without mentioning his career. After getting me started, he won the U.S. National Eventing Championships in 1957 and 1958. Later in his career, he made probably his greatest contribution to our horse world. Remember the story in Genesis about how God makes a rough draft first in Adam before he produces the finished article in Eve? I suppose we can find more humble analogies with Jonas, because later in his career, one of his young students was the incomparable Kim Severson. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Continuing Education

To ride during high school, I spent the next four years at Culver Military Academy in Indiana. The instruction there was based on the writings of my father’s coach, Col. Chamberlin, so I was very comfortable with the methodology.

My world kept turning, and by the fall of 1962 I landed in Colorado—ostensibly to attend the University of Colorado, but actually because one of the few eventing trainers in the country at that time, Zygmunt (Bill) Bilwin, was in Denver. Like so many of my mentors, Bill is gone now, but his effect on my riding was palpable. He had been an officer in the Polish cavalry, which suffered terrible casualties when World War II broke out in the fall of 1939. There is a historical urban legend that early in the war, the Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed with only their lances. There is no historical record of this happening, although Bill would have been the type to grin, shrug, take one more pull on his flask, pat his horse on the neck and obey suicidal orders.

As a cavalryman, Bill was a product of his country’s cavalry school. This is meaningful because there were very different schools of military equestrian thought between the World Wars. For example, the Polish cavalry school was heavily influenced by the Italian cavalry schools at Tor di Quinto and Pinerolo in Italy while the Royal Hungarian cavalry school was greatly influenced by the German school at Hanover, Germany. Thus, Bill’s riding and teaching were reflective of his experiences. This made his teaching very similar to that of the founder of the forward seat, Federico Caprilli and that of Caprilli’s acolytes who came to the U.S. after WWII, most notably the Russian émigré, Capt. Vladimir Littauer.

Bill came to the U.S. in the early 1950s and initially made his living as a racehorse trainer. (If rumor is to be believed, he generously supplemented his income through a keen appreciation of the odds on drawing to an inside straight in a poker game.) However, once the U.S. equestrian world found out he had been named to the 1940 Polish Olympic eventing team (although WWII caused the cancellation of those Olympics), he discovered his calling and managed large hunter, jumper and eventer training facilities in Denver until his death. Bill taught me to listen to the balance of my horse and to improve that balance using gymnastics. I was so intrigued by the effectiveness of gymnastics as a training tool that I would write a book about their use years later.

By now I had completed 16 years of academic education and had seethed with impatience at every second that I had been confined to a classroom rather than outdoors with horses. I wanted to continue my equestrian education, and in those days, there was only one place in the country for that—the U.S. Equestrian Team’s training center at Gladstone. Once again, I would meet the right coach at the right time. In my next installment, I will introduce you to the man who started me on my path to the Olympics and tell you what happened after that.

Read more about Federico Caprilli in “The Evolution of the Lower Leg” by Jim Wofford. 

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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