Sharon White: Passing On the Skills That Matter

Five-star eventer Sharon White remembers Jim Wofford and the lessons he taught her.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is to let a sense of curiosity and wonder drive me forward. It’s that curiosity and wonder that causes us to become horsemen—the fascination in all things. We’re eager to learn infinitely more about the horse, the horse’s brain and psychology, and the horse’s connection to ourselves. Horses will tell you everything you need to know about yourself if you let them. Curiosity keeps us learning—because you can never know everything there is to know—and it keeps us in pursuit of more knowledge.

Sharon White (left) is working toward passing on the skills that matter that she learned from the late Jim Wofford. ©Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

I learned many lessons from Jimmy Wofford, and this one stands at the foundation of all I know and love about horses and understanding them. “Even white rats learn from repetition,” he would say in his good-natured way. It took me a while to figure out what he actually meant by this, and now I think of it as taking the time that it takes. We repeat the things we want to be good at. Repetition: the mother of all skill.

Hell Week

To drive this notion of repetition and continued learning home, Jimmy created a training camp concept he dubbed “Hell Week.” Over 10 years ago, he brought this tradition to our farm.

Held early in the year to prepare for competition season, Hell Week was a training camp, but not in the way you might imagine. We took off our stirrups and did longe lessons until our cores were mush. We built strength and agility with unique exercises like “around the worlds” (where leaning forward, the rider swings her legs up and back, crosses them over the saddle as she turns her body, and ends up sitting in the saddle backward) or lying on the saddle, perpendicular to the horse’s body and face up, and then doing a flip to get off. Mentally, we were challenged with things that seemed scary: sidesaddle position or sit-ups as you cantered. All to develop a more independent seat, a stronger position and mental strength—three things that make an event rider skillful and that enable a horse to do his job in the best manner. We learned so much from this camp that we continue it annually to this day.

Getting It Right for Him

Last year, Jimmy left us far too soon. I will never stop wishing that we had just one more day, one more conversation. To honor him, and to process my own grief, I remember his words and strive to live my life in a way that would make him proud. I teach my students the things that he taught me to make them better horsemen, competitors and people.

Sharon White (left) and Jim Wofford ©Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto

As we approached Hell Week this year, my emotions were more complex.

Could I do it without him?

More than anything, I just wanted to get it right for him. In the past, I’d had Jimmy by my side, passing on his teachings every year during Hell Week, and even when he couldn’t be there in person, he was just a phone call away.

Revisting Basic Principles

I miss him dearly, but at the same time, he is always with me. I hear myself saying the things he used to tell me. Looking back, I think of all the things he was trying to tell me, and how it took me time to understand just what he meant. As I ride each horse every day, I hear him.

The thing I wish I wouldn’t have done was worry so much about letting him down. I can feel him next to me, rolling his eyes, as I write this. I was never going to let him down, I realize this now. What a silly thing to worry about, and yet I felt this way as Hell Week approached. “For God’s sake, Sharon!” I could hear him saying as I worried.

Jimmy always got after me for doing everything in the most difficult way possible. Now, I find myself revisiting his most simple and basic principles, like his “cowboy warm-up” (where the rider holds the reins on the buckle at walk, trot and canter to see if the horse is sound and to show that the horse isn’t pulling). This has benefitted my Advanced level horse Claus already. Now I can own this and understand that I don’t always have to do things the hard way. But that takes time to understand, and maybe it took Jimmy not being here for it to really sink in.

Continuing Jimmy’s Philosophy

So, I was very proud to do Hell Week this year for Jimmy. I felt my mentality transitioning from “I have to make sure I get this right” to “Just do it, pass it on, and you’ll get better and better at it every time.” And isn’t that how we should approach all things in life? Repetition: the mother of all skill.

I feel like it’s my absolute responsibility to keep doing Hell Week and to continue to use Jimmy’s philosophy in each and every ride and lesson I teach. The good horsemanship that Jimmy taught us has to go on. He took the time to do it, and I will continue to take the time to do it because it matters. 

About Sharon White

Sharon White is an international CCI5* three-day eventing rider, trainer and Level 4 U.S. Eventing Association ECP Certified Instructor based at Last Frontier Farm in Summit Point, West Virginia. White’s career includes over 10 starts at the Kentucky Three-Day Event with five different horses. She has also traveled overseas to contest CCI5* events at Lühmuhlen (France) and Les Etoiles de Pau (France) as well as CCI4* events at Boekelo (Netherlands) and Hartpury (United Kingdom). She most recently earned a team silver medal at the 2023 Pan American Games with Claus 63.

About Jim Wofford

Longtime Practical Horseman columnist Jim Wofford competed in three Olympic Games and two World Championships. He also won the U.S. National Championship five times. Additionally he was also a highly respected coach. For decades beginning in 1978, he had at least one student on every U.S. Olympic, World Championship and Pan American team. He passed away February 2, 2023.

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