Jim Wofford: Another Notch in Sloopy's Saddle Horn

Eventing legend Jim Wofford shares funny anecdotes from some of the many clinics he has taught over the years that have left a lasting impression on him.
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Eventing legend Jim Wofford shares funny anecdotes from some of the many clinics he has taught over the years that have left a lasting impression on him.
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I have been doing clinics for a long time now, so you can imagine that I have had some pretty rare things said to me and had some pretty funny things happen.

I did my first clinic in 1969, when the Houston All-Arabian Dressage Society hired me to teach a one-day dressage clinic. I'd like to have seen my face when the nice lady said she would give me $200 and lunch for two one-hour sets, with six riders in each set. I snatched that check out of her hand so fast she was lucky not to lose a fingernail at the elbow. Two hundred dollars? Are you kidding? That was my rent for the month!

It wasn't until I actually stepped into the arena with my first set of riders that I realized I didn't have a time sheet, I didn't have a lesson plan and I didn't have a clue. But that was then, and I can laugh at it now... almost. Anyway, I must have pulled it off, because they didn't run me out of town on a rail. The only thing I can figure is that they knew even less than I did, which is hard to imagine.

Relaxation Is Hard Work
Years later, I was doing a clinic outside of Atlanta, where everybody seemed to have accents you could cut with a knife--real Appalachian-Americans. (This is the only place in the world where "Jimmie" has four syllables.) One of my favorite exercises is to have my riders count aloud in rhythm with their canter strides. It relaxes them, and it makes them more aware of their horses' rhythm. But the local Southern accents were so strong I had to quit it, because instead of counting "one-two-three," they were counting "uh-one-ah, uh-two-ah, uh-three-ah," and it was throwing off their rhythm even further.

"I'm supposed to be an equestrian genius," I thought. "I can adjust." Little did I know this supposed genius was about to meet his match. In rode this young lady with all the right stuff for one of my clinics: nice horse impeccably turned out, highly polished boots and spurs, hairnet, gloves and jumping whip--perfect. Then she started to trot. Uh-oh. This girl radiated tension. I mean, she hummed like a wire as she went by me. So, we did some simple exercises designed to relax the rider. Nothing.

More relaxation exercises. Still nothing, maybe worse, because now she can vaguely detect that I'm not satisfied, which of course is the last thing in the world I want her to think. Finally, I told her to pull up. "Honey," I said ... (PC? That's a personal computer, right?) ... "this is a meaningless comment for a coach to make, but I'm gonna make it anyway. You have just got to relax!"

She said, "Oh, Ah know, Mr. Warfurrd, Ahm relaxin' jus' iz haaard iz Ah cay-un!"

I still haven't come up with a snappy comeback for that. Got any bright ideas?

The Alpo Alternative
Speaking of bright ideas, losing my temper wasn't one of them. A few years ago, I was at a clinic in Summerselse. This horse had been stopping like a fat lady at a doughnut shop all day, and I was getting a little tired of it. The rider was making some minor mistakes, but horses who know how to jump should not take advantage of their riders when the jumps are 2-foot-6. Anyway, we had done all the standard things: lowered the jump to poles on the ground and built it back up, closed the rider's heels in the approach, given the horse a lead over the jump, applied the whip behind the girth, all the tricks. Not happening.

Nothing would make her misbegotten creature move any faster than a crawl. This worthless counterfeit of a real horse would sooner get hit than jump. He would stand there in the pile of rubble he had just created by stopping, leaning down on the rails while the poor unfortunate rider was whaling away with her stick. By now, she was worn out from the situation, and I was worn out from watching her horse cheat on her.

About the ninety-eleventh time he refused, I swore at him, and as he wandered away from the scene of the crime, I took off my hat and slapped him on the rump. You guessed it. Faster than you can say "scat," that scoundrel spooked out from under his rider and took off like Secretariat. The rider leapt to her feet in hot pursuit but I stopped her, saying, "Don't catch him. Throw rocks at him. That horse isn't worth the powder to blow him up." She agreed with me and wandered out of the arena on foot, muttering something about "Alpo' under her breath.

Snow Angels Have the Best Lines
I sometimes say some humorous things, but at a cross-country clinic, I'm not the only one who can get off a snappy one-liner. I was explaining to a group of auditors that jumping was anaerobic exercise for horses because they hold their breath when they jump. One of my students was standing behind me when I said this, and I heard her mutter to a friend "Yeah, and when we jump, Jimmie holds his breath."

That was a good line, but it didn't take the cake. That happened recently. Picture this: mid-August, hot as the dickens, dry as dust, ground like a rock, the last set of the day (all Novices) and yours truly, tired but game. We jumped a few little cross-country warm-up jumps, and I knew right away one girl was a fugitive from the law of averages ... sooner or later she was going to hit the ground. My first clue had been when she came around the corner of the barn looking like a dead heat in a zeppelin race. This lady was overweight and out of shape. Those are bad conditions, and poor basics don't help.

So I worked on her position, telling her that she had to stay attached to her horse in the air. Opening her knees, gripping with her heels and pulling back on the reins wouldn't get it. She was keen to learn and got better for a while, but then the inevitable happened--she got tired. Two hours in the hot sun will do that to you.

"OK," I thought to myself, "this set is almost done. We are going to jump that little ditch, then one more really easy jump, and we'll quit while we are still ahead."

That was not my best decision of the day, because Miss Airborne's horse chipped in to a 2-foot-wide ditch, then spook-jumped a mile up over it, ejecting her out the back door. She bounced once on his rump and snow-angeled into the sky before landing. It was at least a 4 on the Richter scale, and I'm telling you now she wasn't going to get a 10 from the Russian judge. This girl hit the ground hard, and just lay where Jesus flung her.

"Whoa," I thought, "this is not good."

I was standing uphill a little distance from her, so I picked up my portable megaphone and asked her, "Honey, are you OK? Do you know what day it is?"

After a breathless pause, she pushed herself into a sitting position, looked back at me and replied, "It's not my day, that's for sure!" I couldn't argue with that.

Sloopy's Last Laugh
It is not just students who hit the ground in my clinics; the clinician can take his lumps, too, as I did at a clinic in Colorado a few years ago. The show-jumping had gone pretty well the day before, and I was feeling good about things as we headed out to the cross-country course. This clinic was held in a high mountain basin, which meant the ground was flat between the mountain ranges.

The organizers had told me that there were so many irrigation ditches on the property that it was difficult for vehicles to get around the cross-country course, but not to worry--they would tack up "Sloopy" for me to ride.

Sloopy was a treasure: 15 hands, bright chestnut with a lot of chrome, long mane, short tail, withers like a card table, pasterns like a jackhammer and a face to die for. He had a good walk, he could canter in a teacup and who needs to trot anyway? He ground-tied, was good in company and could go first or last in line. He came complete with a comfortable Western saddle and a bosal with split rawhide reins that were joined at the end by a loop of latigo. (Remember this part for later.) The saddlebags were already loaded with PB&Js, Diet Coke and Doritos, three of the five major food groups.

All in all, Sloopy was the best sort of conveyance I could have had, and we formed quite a team that day. However (there's always a "however" where horses are concerned, isn't there?), there was one little detail about Sloopy that I had yet to find out. Late in the afternoon, I was walking him down one side of a steep irrigation ditch. As I reached the bottom, the student behind me asked a question. Leaving Sloopy to find his own way up the steep bank, I turned in the saddle to answer. To keep my balance, I leaned back and put my hand on his loins behind the saddle. Sloopy gave no evidence of the gathering explosion. He walked quietly up on to the level, took another step or two and suddenly bucked higher than the first range of mountains.

The first set of bucks unseated me, and the next repetition launched me straight up. I might be still ascending, except that I caught my index finger in the loop of latigo that held the split reins together. This meant that my hand stopped, Sloopy put his head down one more time, and my heels spun above my head. I hung there for an instant, absolutely straight in the air, head down and looking at my impending doom. The last thing I remember is looking down at that hard caliche from quite an altitude and thinking, "This is going to hurt." I was right about that.

When I woke up, I was surrounded by a circle of anxious faces and could hear the proprietor saying, "Oh, dear, are you all right? They forgot to tell you not to press on Sloopy's back. He doesn't like it."

I thought, "Now she tells me!"

"Do you want a leg up so you can ride home?" she asked.

"No thanks," I replied, "I think I'll walk back to the barn. Maybe it will work some of the kinks out."

And that is how I came to lead Sloopy home in the long shadows of a Rocky Mountain sunset, thinking that this clinic business isn't always what it is cracked up to be. I may have gone on to develop a fair reputation in the clinic business, but out in the Rockies I will always be just another notch on Sloopy's saddle horn.

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.