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Riding on the Trampoline: Jim Wofford on Humor and Sarcasm

Get a sneak peek into the chaos of Jim Wofford's mind—and the method behind his humor and sarcasm.

I always enjoy writing my New Year’s column, bouncing around on the trampoline of my mind. My editors have been away for the holidays—nobody is paying much attention—and I am able to sneak in some material that won’t fly under the usual rules. This is a once-a-year chance to write a humor column, which is easy for me, considering that I think pretty much everything is funny. For example, after I got off a pretty good zinger one day, one of my “working” students—see the quotes? Get it? Now, that’s funny—even funnier if you knew the student. Anyway, I got off this zinger, and the student said, “Oh, I’d love to be able to see inside your mind.” I said, “If you could see inside my mind, you’d run screaming down the aisle.”

Somebody sent me a review of some of my stuff the other day. The reviewer sort of liked my work, but said my writing sounded vaguely like late-night emails from a slightly tipsy friend. You have to take your compliments where you can. Although you don’t have to be slightly tipsy to survive in the horse world, it helps. Our little subset of society is a pretty whacky place, which is a good thing when you are writing a humor column—so much material, so little time.

Just look around and you will find something to chuckle at. For instance, take the FEI. (Where’s the king of one-liners Henny Youngman when you need him? “No, you take the FEI.”)

Illustration by Debbie Palen
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Some Little-Known Eventing History

If I need a laugh, however, all I have to do is ride past a mirror these days and I will laugh at myself. “Wofford’s a fine one to talk,” said one of my so-called friends. “The only thing funnier than his writing is his riding.” That’s true, sad to say, but you must take into account that I have been at this sport a long time now, and there have been a lot of changes. First of all, I’d like to see you try to get anywhere riding a woolly mammoth. When one of those suckers got tired at the end of the steeplechase phase, his head would get too low, he would hook his tusks under the ground line and give you the mother of all rotational falls. And this was way before air bags, too.

Mike Plumb fooled around with a brontosaurus for a while, but he couldn’t get him on the bit and gave up. Denny Emerson had some success with a really fancy Tyrannosaurus rex until he got run away with. Rex chewed through the snaffle and took Denny all the way back to his home in Vermont—scared him so bad he never rode again. (That’s a clone of Denny that you see, doing those 100-mile endurance rides. No real human can stand the pain of sitting in the saddle that long.)

I had a promising velociraptor for a while. He could really jump, but when I put my leg on him, he would turn and try to bite me. Ever seen the teeth on those things? Putting a bridle on one of them was taking your life in your hands. Speed across country was the main thing back in the day, so next I figured a pterodactyl was the answer because those things fly. But it was too hard to get shoes on them, and I finally gave up and went back to horses. I mean, horse-show people are crazy, but dinosaur-show people are the lunatic fringe of humanity.

Laugh and Ride Better
I suppose horsepeople who take my clinics and lessons fall between crazy and lunatic. It takes a special kind of personality to deal with them and a special vocabulary, too. Fortunately, I have both, and my students expect a certain amount of sarcasm and insult. But there is a method to my madness, and we need to talk about that method. I am not doing stand-up comedy, but humor is a useful tool to improve the riders I am teaching. Riders are usually serious about their riding—so serious that they get in their own way. If I can get a laugh out of them, I can distract them for a second, which helps them to refocus. When people laugh, they breathe more deeply—their diaphragms move, which helps with relaxation. With a simple one-liner, I have an athlete who is more focused, more relaxed and ready for improvement. Funny how that works, huh?

Think of the fun I have giving nervous students some complicated instructions about how I want a course to be ridden. Then, as they screw their courage to the sticking place, I mutter—just loud enough for them to hear—“Boy, I hope this works.”

That one is guaranteed to make their hearts skip a beat. Then they figure out that my sense of humor has slipped the leash again and they laugh and relax, which is what I wanted in the first place.

Nerves make students do strange things during their lessons. Talented, intelligent people get a nasty case of the dumbs when they hit the saddle. The first thing I usually notice is that if I tell them to turn left at the end of the ring, they will turn right. “Your military left, darling.” Well, I think it’s funny. If my riders don’t find it funny, I have them walk around for a second. My humor can be like a bird dog lifting his leg on a fire hydrant—it takes a while to sink in.

Course Correction 101

The expression has gone out of style now, but when I was growing up, “He’s a real straw-foot” meant that the kid did not know his left foot from his right on the parade ground. Dyslexia not having been diagnosed yet, Civil War drill sergeants would stick some straw in the new recruits’ left shoes and some hay in the right shoes, and march them around bellowing “hay-foot, straw-foot” at them until they knew the difference between left and right. The hay and straw (plus some heated invective) usually did the trick.

People have been directionally challenged throughout history, and riders in my clinics are no exception. If a student continually gets lost, I turn up the heat: “You are skidding around my arena like a hog on ice!” Or “like a cockroach in a wastebasket”—either one gets their attention. If the problem persists, I usually follow up with some comment about not being able to fix their sense of direction with duct tape. If they continue to struggle, however, I secretly start to suspect some form of dyslexia, which comes in various stages. It is a learning disability, one that instructors need to be aware of and know how to deal with. If a student of mine blows through my directions more than once, I will park my sense of humor and start to use shape and color to give directions. “Turn in front of that oxer” or “pull up after the red wall” can easily substitute for “turn left” or “turn right.”

Humor is usually my first choice when teaching, but sarcasm works as well. If someone repeats an error after understanding the fix I suggest, I will usually say, “Even white rats learn from experience.” Riders who wave their arms before a jump usually hear, “You don’t have any spurs on your elbows,” and if their horses catch them asleep at the switch and refuse, then it’s, “There are riders who make it happen, riders who watch it happen—and riders who wonder what happened. Wake up, kid.”

I will return to my usual sort of column next month, just in time for the new competitive season, but now is a good time to look back at the past year and smile at some of what went on in our lives with horses. Abraham Lincoln once said that he was in a situation where he was too big to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh. Anybody who spends enough time around horses is going to recognize Old Abe’s condition. Horses give us some fantastic highs, but even if you have a sense of humor, the lows are pretty low. Still we wouldn’t trade them for anything. Makes you laugh, doesn’t it?

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