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We Are Flying Solo

October 5, 2009

And Then There Was The Woff

Unless you live in some kind of cave, Jim Wofford is a household name in the horse world. And in eventing-land, he is synonymous with God. Only funnier and less likely to smite.

For over a decade I had longed to ride with "The Woff," (that's right guys, it's skill, humility, & humour that make thousands of women long for you) but considered it about as likely as being recruited to the Olympic team (read: probability = zero). Until I got a flyer about a Wofford jumping clinic being held about two hours from me.

Oh yeah, baby, I pounced. That check got written so fast that the pen burned a hole through the register. And on a cool fall morning in 2008, we trailered up to the mountains for two days of immersion in The World According To Jim.

Each day started with a sit down lecture for about an hour in a room with a whiteboard where Jim drew diagrams, answered questions, and postulated his great theories on how eventing should be done. Just like his writing, it was steeped in experience, insight, humour, and a passion for the horse. I mostly sat there with a stupid look on my face, staring in awe.

Then we'd go get horses ready and move out to the understated little arena at the hosting farm.

It was freaking gorgeous.

I started out so excited -- jumping is our strong suit, so I was sure we were just going to blow Jim away with Solo's boundless heart and enthusiasm coupled with his easy going and calm demeanor. We started to warm up as Jim set up his gymnastics. Then I asked for the canter.

Then my horse vanished into thin air and was replaced by a hopping, bucking, bolting, snorting beast of an animal to whom I claimed no ownership. I was mortified. And Solo -- I mean SatanSpawn, bless his heart, was kind enough to keep it up for the entire clinic.

I dealt with it as best I could, namely, 40,000 half halts, swearing under my breath, getting left behind half the time, and perfecting the leaning circle at terminal velocity. And Jim, in his infinite patience and kindness, refrained from laughing.

Each day started with progressive gymnastics, with an emphasis on a soft, quiet rhythmic approach (which we failed, mostly dismally) and letting the horse work out problems for themselves, as they would be REQUIRED to do on a XC course, where, when the rubber hit the road, the ability of the horse to think for itself was critical!

Then we'd string a few fences together in exercises that varied each day. One of my biggest problems when jumping is that my mind tends to go blank as soon as I start a course. I walk it, I analyze it, I get all prepared, then I get on my horse, and as soon as the whistle blows, all my planning coalesces into an internal monologue like this:

Ok, canter, OMG JUMP, ahhhhh, SLOW DOWN, dammit another jump, AHHH TURN TURN TURN, OMG, no we have to jump THAT ONE!

Yeah, the picture of composure. So as we were doing several exercises, I could hear Jim calmly asking, "Where are you going? The jump is over here?" But he was able to give me some great tips on being a THINKING rider, instead of a reacting one.

Getting tips from the Master

We didn't leave out our dressage either of course -- my lovely mount, SatanSpawn, decided to practice his levade mid-lesson over a terrifying blue jump.

We worked it out in the end.

We left that weekend with a LOT to think about. Jim really changed my approach to riding and training, building on what I had learned from Ian Stark and reinforcing the fact that as riders, we really need to be thoughtful about what we are teaching our horses. A horse can learn something with as little as ONE repetition. So lessons like "you WILL be on the correct lead every time" and "you WILL have a calm, rhythmic canter before proceeding to the next jump" are ones that we are teaching (or UNteaching) every day by insisting that these things WILL occur and not proceeding until they do.

There was much much more of course, but in the interest of moving forward, I will leave you with that. Next time: Tales Of The Blue Lagoon And Confidence Lost.


  1. Lucky you for being able to get a lesson from Wofford! I would love for him (or Denny Emerson!) to do a clinic somewhere near me...Sigh...or even a few states over would be fine really.

    What you said about horses learning from as little as one repetition is so true...even when it is something you don't necessarily want them to repeat/learn!

  2. Jim does travel a lot -- have you checked his website at Fox Covert for his schedule?

  3. I love the pic where it looks like the Wofford is talking/emphatically-gesturing to you and you're looking off in the other direction all casual, like, "Ppssshhht. Solo and I totally spend a lot of time in the company of Olympians. We are soooo not freaking out over the privilege of basking in your all."

  4. Heh, you gotta love it when your horse morphs into some previously unknown devil-being!! Seems like it happens when there are the most spectators or stakes are the highest! Mosco usually does it right after I say, "Hey watch this!" Maybe their true purpose in life is to keep their humans humble :) I'm totally jealous of you getting to bask in the Wofford glow!

  5. I'm still waiting for the mowhawk! I promised Jackson he wasn't the only english horse in the world with one.... but I have yet to be able to point to a screen and show him. I KNOW the mowhawk was what brought the power of the canter back to Solo.

  6. I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your journey with Solo. You have a wonderful way of being honest and funny and really making the reader feel like they are right alongside you in your journey. I can't wait to read more!

  7. Thanks, TI!

    The cruel truth, Frizz, is that I was afraid to make eye contact because then Jim might notice that I blushed and my hands were shaking.

    ROFL, molly, patience, grasshopper....