James C Wofford

12/27/04

 

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Jimmy Wofford Teaches the World

  -by Annie Eldridge-

 


(This article originally appeared in the May 19, 1995 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. It is reprinted by permission of The Chronicle of the Horse).

The list of riders Jimmy Wofford has trained reads like a Who’s Who of American eventing: Don Sachey, Derek and Bea (Perkins) di Grazia, Wash Bishop, David and Karen O’Connor, Packy McGaughan, Jim Graham, Ann Hardaway Taylor, to name only a few.

 

His current pupils are some of the brightest up-and-coming stars of the sport: 1992 Olympic rider Jil Walton, 1994 Radnor CCI** winner Michael Dan Mendell, two-time Harry T. Peters trophy winner Linden Wiesman, 1994 FEI Land Rover World Rankings young rider champion Deanna Hines, and 1995 Mid-Atlantic Horse Trials Series winner John Williams.

 

Wofford teaches 20-25 clinics per year, coaches 20-40 riders at each of the many horse trials and three-day events he attends annually, and instructs a steady stream of eager eventers at his Fox Covert Farm in Upperville, VA. One could suggest that only Jack Le Goff shares Wofford’s sphere of influence among American event riders today. But Wash Bishop points out, "Almost all of Le Goff’s proteges were started by Jimmy." Although he’s earned laurels others might rest upon, at age 50, Wofford’s horizons keep expanding. He takes an active role in the USET’s ongoing young riders program. He designs cross-country courses. And he commentates for KET’s annual televised production of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

 

Most recently, Wofford succumbed to the pestering of fellow equestrian luminary and book editor Bill Steinkraus, who wanted Wofford to write an instructive book for eventers. Wofford spent 2 ½ years on the project, dictating chapters to a secretary or writing them in long-hand during rare moments away from teaching. Doubleday will publish the result of his labors, Training the Three-Day Event Horse and Rider, on August 1.  He calls the book a "technical manual," as he explains in his introduction: "It takes a long time to develop a system for teaching three-day eventers that really works. I’ve been at it for thirty years now, and I hope to share what I’ve learned – the hard way – with you."

"The book highlights the things I say every day in lesson after lesson," said Wofford. His methods reflect a legacy garnered from his own coaches – Bert de Nemethy, Jack Le Goff and Lars Sederholm. Like them, Wofford expounds traditional theories grounded in correct riding, followed by the systematic training of the horse.

"Adopt a classical position, resist all fads and gadgets, and ride the horse quietly and softly between the two straight lines of the stirrup leather and the elbow to the horse’s mouth," he explains in the book. "It’s simple. It’s just not easy."

 

Clearing Away the Fog

"Some trainers like to find obscure causes for whatever problems their riders face," said Packy McGaughan, 31, a long-time Wofford student and USET rider in the 1987 Pan Am Games. "But there's nothing mysterious about Jimmy’s teaching. Put your hands down, sit up straight, use the leverage of your upper body – it’s not complicated. Jimmy’s teaching clears the fog for riders."

McGaughan is a lawyer who resides in Washington, DC. He is vice president and general counsel for InterBank Corp. and continues to event. Newcomers to Wofford’s program, whatever their level of expertise, will spend some time going back to fundamentals. Wofford conjures up an endless array of exercises designed to stabilize the rider’s position.

Hands move? Spend some time in the indoor arena with a wooden dowel placed over your fingertips as you ride. Legs swing in the air over fences? Tie the stirrups to the girth with a piece of string. Pull on the horse’s mouth on the way to a jump? Take the reins over the neck and flip them back, creating a neck strap against which riders can pull to no avail.

Having achieved success at the two-star young rider level, Megan Ferguson, 22, from Bixby, OK, arrived at Wofford’s barn last November to move to the advanced level. "I came here expecting to jump big fences and scary courses and instead spent the winter in the indoor arena, without stirrups and with a stick over my hands!" she said.

Wofford’s jumping lessons follow a standard format. Each week Wofford sets up jumps in his outdoor arena with specific exercises designed to focus on a certain problem: related distances, narrow fences, angled jumps and corners. Horses and riders first "rehearse" each lesson, always using low jumps and separating the elements of a combination before putting the exercise together.  "Start from the simple and proceed to the complex," said Wofford. "That way you build the horse’s confidence while teaching them what they need to know." Neither elaborate training gadgets nor faddish equipment finds a place at Fox Covert Farm. "Jimmy can take four standards and six rails and give you the riding lesson of a lifetime," said McGaughan.

 

"Jimmy is brilliant at taking complex problems apart and bringing them down to manageable parts," said David O’Connor, 33, of The Plains, VA. A World Champion veteran and three time CCI*** winner, O’Connor rode with Wofford as a teenager and remains a colleague and friend. "Then he offers riders simple solutions that seem within their reach," said O’Connor. "My horse Border Raider, for example, was very strong but very quick in front. Jimmy taught me to use the horse’s ability to my advantage, going with him to the jumps and simply allowing him to do what he does best – use his agility and cleverness."

 

"My job is to give students tests they can handle," said Wofford, "always going back to basics when problems set in. For example, you don’t ask for shoulder-in if your student hasn’t mastered leg yielding." Wofford students agree that he harbors an innate ability for knowing what individual horses and riders need. "Jimmy knows you can’t apply the same rules to everyone," said advanced rider Karen Karkow, 35, a Wofford student since 1979. "Jimmy might coddle one rider and get tough on another within the same lesson. He figures out what eveyone needs to compete well."

Michael Dan Mendell, 29, concurs: "Jimmy will adapt his teaching style entirely to each horse and rider he works with."

That’s one reason he can teach riders of any age or level. Donna Donaghy, 57, of Millwood, VA, began eventing with Wofford four years ago and rode her horse Aquarius to the 1994 USCTA national training horse honors. She was also the year’s USCTA national masters training rider champion. "In the same group lesson, working on the same exercise, Jimmy will expect every horse-rider combination to handle things a bit differently," said Donaghy. "By focusing on the particular strength of each horse, his teaching gives them the confidence to jump, no matter what. So if I ride my horse badly or make a mistake the horse will say, ‘Never mind, I’ll do it anyway.’"

 

Nina Fout, 35, signed on with Wofford in 1972 and may be his longest-term student. "Jimmy is a non-conformist," she explained. "To him, all horses and riders are individual athletes and must be treated as such. For example, a group of us local kids came to him years ago with a foxhunting background that made us ride aggressively cross-country but without much structure. In teaching us the refinement and discipline we eventually needed, he never steered us away from the positive instincts we’d already developed."

Wofford remains a perpetual student of the sport. He encourages students to learn from other riding disciplines and to share whatever they discover there. When his students attend USET clinics at nearby Morven Park, for example, he often observes and takes notes. "I learn something from anyone I watch coaching," he said. "Sometimes I have what I

already believe reaffirmed, sometimes I’ll learn something new."

 

Wofford learns from his students too. He remembered struggling to find just the right way to explain one aspect of cross-country riding until a student said, ‘Oh, I get it, you want me to use the jump for the brakes instead of the reins.’ I’d never heard it put quite that way and she said exactly what I’d been trying to articulate. I’ve used her phrase ever since. Teaching makes me a better teacher." Watching riders compete inspires Wofford to develop new exercises and refine old ones. "Recently I’ve noticed many horses rushing through related distances," he said, "so I added a halt, rein-back exercise in the middle of the lines I had everyone working on."

Course designers’ recent emphasis on technical riding has prompted Wofford to change his mind about refusals. "Years ago we all regarded 20 penalties as reflecting a serious problem in our riding," he remembered. "But today 20 points because of the glance-off at a narrow jump isn’t a big deal."

 

Wofford’s focus in cross-country training involves allowing horses to jump on their own. Deanna Hines, 21, said, "Jimmy expects event horses to jump despite their riders, not because of them." Hines, a successful young rider from Guerneville, CA, moved to Millwood, VA last year and began training with Wofford. "He creates exercises at home that train the horse to deal with any situation one might encounter on cross-country. Once you’ve done your homework, the pressure is really off the rider; your job at the competition becomes simply to go for it and let your horse do his job," said Hines.

To this end, gag snaffles and gadget devices remain taboo. "Because most Americans learn to ride in an arena instead of out in the open today," said Wofford, "there’s a general lack of understanding about the nature of speed and balance. Riders often think you must be slow to be in balance." He writes in his book, "Any bit which depends on pain and leverage rather than pressure is a substitute for training." "Learning how to ride cross-country without a gag has been a truly enlightening experience for me," said two time national young riders champion Linden Weisman, 20. "I feel now that I’ve truly learned to let my horse gallop to the jumps instead of trying to tell him when to take off. He knows a lot more about his job than I do."

 

Over the years Wofford developed a system of cross-country gymnastics designed to teach riders about this critical aspect of the sport. "Horses can’t handle both height and complexity at the same time," he explained. "By placing standards and rails in a cross-country setting, you can simulate the situations you need to further your training."

 

A Bookworm

Wofford remains a perpetual student of horsemanship. "He reads constantly and can quote abundantly on any topic involving horses," said Fout. "He’s just a sponge for information. For Jimmy there’s always that morsel yet to be learned out there somewhere. He takes ingredients from many other equestrian disciplines and applies them to his own teaching process."

 

"Jimmy is a real bookworm," said Karen O’Connor, 36, perhaps his most famous pupil. "Jimmy’s riders become thinking riders because he insists you understand the reasons behind everything you do on or around a horse. He retains everything he learns and he’s always hungry for more."

 

"He’s simply one of the smartest people I’ve ever known," said McGaughan. "He’ll quote you chapter and verse on all the classic theories of equitation."

 

The famous Wofford wit plays a pivotal role in his teaching. "Jimmy’s dry, witty delivery keeps people serious and sharp on the outside but smiling on the inside," said Karen Stives, 44, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and chairman of the USET Three-Day Selection Committee. "And he’s articulate to a fault, with never a wasted word or unnecessary repetition. We’re so lucky to have him at the core of our sport in this country."

Wofford remains a coach first and last, never bolstering egos with faint praise or offering his shoulder for support when lessons aren’t needed. "It’s not my job to set limits for my riders," he said. "It’s their life and they must come to define their goals on their own."

 

Barn manager Darla Price, 21, won a preliminary division at Radnor when she was just 18. Price remembers the moment in show jumping when, the last fence looming ahead, she realized the win was hers. Her momentary lack of concentration caused her horse, S.S. Skipper, to take down the final rail. She won despite the mistake but will never forget Wofford’s words immediately after her round: "One of these days, Darla, that mistake will cost you."

 

"Jimmy won’t hold your hand," said Fout. "When he gets riders to a certain level he sends them out on their own or to someone else."

 

When Karen O’Connor reached a plateau in her training with Wofford, he arranged for her to accept a year-long stint riding jumpers in Texas. When Bishop reached the top of his mentor’s approval, Wofford arranged for him to take over some of his clinics. "Jimmy’s been tremendously helpful and progressive in furthering the careers of so many of his students," says Bishop, 39. "Jimmy always pushes you to go out and broaden your knowledge." Wofford remains in contact with all of his long-term students and shares his time generously when asked. Last year, Bishop missed six months of riding because of a shoulder operation. Before his first jump school, he called Wofford for help. Wofford’s riding career alone justifies his position as one of the great authorities on American eventing. Yet, as his book suggests, he prefers to let his teaching be the standard by which he is judged. "I hope my success is best measured by the students who have come out of my system," he writes in the book’s introduction.

 

Where does Jimmy Wofford go from here? USET coach of the future? International advisor to the sport? More books? A movie deal?

Probably not. Wofford teaches lesson after lesson, day after day from the bucolic vista of his farm at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, yet his enthusiasm never falters or flags. Perhaps the man has found what he does best and enjoys that rare happiness stemming from doing something superbly well. "After all," he said, "this isn’t exactly something I have to make myself get up and do everyday."

 

 

 

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