Still Horse Crazy After All These Years

Review by Nancy Brannon:

We have a lot of “horse crazy” readers, so what more appropriate book than a memoir from an Olympic Eventer who confesses to being “horse crazy” all his life? Jimmy Wofford competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games on his famous horse Kilkenny, winning team silver both times. He was named to the team for the 1980 Olympic Games, but did not compete due to the Olympic Committee’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. He competed on the US Eventing Team at the 1970 World Championships at Punchestown, Ireland, winning an individual bronze with Kilkenny, and at the 1978 World Championship with Carawich, winning a team bronze.

Wofford says, “Growing up in a horse-crazy family is not an absolute necessity, but it helps. The fact that horses are not machines, but living, thinking, breathing creatures is second nature to me. Wofford shares his perspective on horsemanship, much of gleaned from the discipline of the Army cavalry and from the early masters of horsemanship, Bert de Nementhy and Jack Le Goff. And he traces the history of equestrian competition in the United States.

He grew up on a Kansas farm that shared a border with Fort Riley, home to the U.S. Cavalry School from 1887 to 1949, and is the son of an Army-man who rode in uniform in the 1932 Olympics. He records his ascendancy from a one-room schoolhouse, to Culver Military Academy, to the United States Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey during its heyday. Along the way, Wofford introduces some of history’s great horses and the people who loved them, as he strives to reach the top of the international eventing scene.

“Among the most important things that I learned at Culver was not the military system of discipline, but how to develop a personal system of self-discipline. Another important aspect of my experience there was the honor system. In essence, it said, ‘We will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate among us those who do.’” Imagine how much better the world would be if we ALL practiced the honor system.

For Wofford to gain riding success, it was helpful to know friends in high places. “I have been incredibly lucky to have the right people show up in my life at the right time,” he writes.

His father was a huge presence in his life. Wofford grew up in a large, interconnected horse-world family, including Whitney Stone, one of the small group who founded USET, and his father’s friend Bill Steinkraus. “Horses were at the heart of all our family connections.”

“As a result of mechanization, the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team would no longer be military, and my father in 1951 became a founder and the first president of the newly formed civilian U.S. Equestrian Team. …One of the icons at Rimrock Farm during that period was General Jonathon R. (Jack) Burton…”

Another family friend and role model was Tommy Thompson. Wofford described him “as one of the most famous horsemen of the pre-World War II period.”

An interesting conditioning technique I learned from the book is the capacity to build muscle through walking. At Culver, Jim Jolley, a retired Master Sergeant with 30 years in the cavalry, told him to walk a horse that was recovering from a tendon injury – for a year! The evidence was in the before and after photos taken one year apart, with the latter showing a horse in good condition “with muscles rippling under a gleaming coat.”

His eventing career started early – and in the mid-south: “The spring of the year I turned nine, Tiny Blair and I did our first combined test (dressage and show jumping) at Fort Leavenworth. …Later that summer, I went to my very first event at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tennessee, where I had the unusual distinction of being eliminated in all three phases. I eventually got better; I just wish I hadn’t set the bar so low at first.”

Wofford offers some interesting insight into horses: “I learned a lot about horses that summer, including what happened when horses from a good gene pool crossed paths with enthusiastic ignorance. Horses have an extraordinary desire to please humans; they will put up with our most outlandish requests, if asked in a determined and confident manner.”

In a later chapter he describes himself “as a fairly mechanical trainer,” while his insight into horses continued to grow. “Spend any amount of time around horses and you become convinced there is a kind of communication between horses and humans that can’t be measured. The worst among them sense our fears and take advantage of us, while the best among them sense our dreams and take us where we have always longed to go.” Thus begins the chapter on how he met Carawich, the horse with whom he won the 1981 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event.

One personality characteristic that appealed to me is his ability to speed read. “My ability to read at a high rate of speed came to my aid, and I devoured any book that came my way. …Between my solitary outdoor activities and my reading I was content. Books have played a major part in my life.”

Wofford had an amusing observation about the legal drinking age while a student at the University of Colorado (aka CU). “CU was known as a party school. According to state law, the legal drinking age for hard alcohol was 21, but at age 18 one could purchase ‘3.2 beer’ with 3.2% alcohol. The theory was that because of the relatively low alcohol content, one could not consume enough at a sitting to induce a state of inebriation. This is just another example of how wrong politicians can be.”

Wofford learned some valuable riding education from Bill Bilwin. “Bill’s riding and teaching was reflective of his experiences in the Polish cavalry, which made his teaching very similar to that of the founder of the forward seat, Federico Caprilli. …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, years later, I wrote a book about them.”

Wofford also learned a lot from their farm manager Dan Hannah. “Long before natural horsemanship was branded and marketed, Dan was applying those techniques to our young stock. Young horses seemed to trust him and relax in his presence.”

He recalls his first visit to Gladstone, New Jersey in 1965, making the trip with his brand-new Hermés saddle, a Bill Steinkraus model that he purchased for $250. Remember when those were all the rage among the hunter crowd?  “Gladstone had become the Mecca of the U.S. horse world. It was an imposing three-story building with stabling on the middle and basement floors, and apartments and hay storage on the top level. Administrative offices were on the east end.”

In his concluding chapter he summarizes a life filled with horses. “Although I’ve had several other careers in my live, I’ve always been irresistibly drawn back to horse.” And he held other jobs while he “figured out how to make a living with horses.” He concludes with a quote from Bill Steinkraus: “No throne can compare with the back of a horse, and there is no way in which man can come closer to nature than by becoming one with the horse.” I think our readers will agree.

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