Cross Coun­try With Jim Wof­ford

Part 2: Meet the men­tors who helped Jim build his in­ter­na­tional event­ing ca­reer.

Practical Horseman - - Contents -

Jim rem­i­nisces about the men­tors who shaped him as a rider and helped build his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer.

In last month’s col­umn, I in­tro­duced you to sev­eral peo­ple who guided and shaped my early ca­reer, just as your men­tors steer your rid­ing progress. My nar­ra­tive stopped at a point when I had moved to Denver, where I could get This is the way I re­mem­ber Bert de Némethy: al­ways im­mac­u­lately turned out, ob­vi­ously pleased with his horse while train­ing in the main ring at his beloved Glad­stone, the New Jersey head­quar­ters of the U.S. Eques­trian Team. It is hard to over­es­ti­mate his in­flu­ence on in­ter­na­tional show jump­ing. His use of dres­sage to train his jumpers, his use of gym­nas­tics and his in­sis­tence on cor­rect fun­da­men­tals are only some of the hall­marks of his legacy. His rid­ers rode in a for­ward, flow­ing style, jump­ing large ob­sta­cles with in­vis­i­ble aids, and his teams were con­sis­tently suc­cess­ful. It is not quite as widely known, but Bert was one of the best show-jump­ing course de­sign­ers of his era. Per­haps his best work oc­curred when he de­signed the cour­ses for the 1984 Olympic Games. I fol­low his pre­cepts as closely as I can, and I re­fer to him of­ten when teach­ing and lec­tur­ing. Many of you will have heard me re­peat my fa­vorite quote from Bert, “A good feel­ing after the round is bet­ter than any rib­bon.” lessons from event­ing ex­pert Bill Bil­win. It was in Denver that I had my first ex­po­sure to an­other man who would be­come a life-long men­tor— Ber­ta­lan de NŽmethy.

After my fa­ther’s death in 1955, Bert was named to suc­ceed him as the U.S. Eques­trian Team show-jump­ing coach, and by the early 1960s he was al­ready an icon in the horse world. In 1961 he con­ducted a tal­ent search at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around the coun­try. Fig­ur­ing that at age 16 I wasn’t a vi­able team prospect but would at least get a free les­son out of it, I en­tered and was the re­cip­i­ent of some of Bert’s typ­i­cal, no-su­gar-coat­ing ad­vice: “Jim­mie, you need to start over.” I took his ad­vice to heart and four years later made it to the U.S. Eques­trian Team’s head­quar­ters in Glad­stone, New Jersey, as a mem­ber of the event­ing squad. More about that in a minute, but first I want to tell you about Bert.

Mem­o­ries of Bert

Bert de NŽmethy joined the Hun­gar­ian cav­alry after grad­u­at­ing from the Lu­dovica Mil­i­tary Academy in Bu­dapest. At that time, Hun­gar­ian eques­trian train­ing was heav­ily in­flu­enced by the Ger­man cav­alry school at Hanover, which was far more in­ter­ested in dres­sage train­ing than the Ital­ian school of the time. Bert stud­ied un­der such Ger­man dres­sage masters as Otto Lšrke, Fritz Stecken and Wal­ter (Bubi) GŸn­ther. Although un­fa­mil­iar names to the modern horse world, they were forces to be reck­oned with in the 1930s.

Bert’s pri­mary in­ter­est was show jump­ing, but he was very proud that he once won the Hun­gar­ian Na­tional Event­ing Cham­pi­onship. (From 1920 to 1940, it was typ­i­cal of cav­alry of­fi­cers in ev­ery coun­try to be adept at more than one dis­ci­pline.) Bert was named to the 1940 Hun­gar­ian Olympic show-jump­ing team, but World War II pre­vented his par­tic­i­pa­tion. He was able to es­cape the rav­ages of war by mov­ing to Den­mark and em­i­grated to the U.S. in the early 1950s.

An­other men­tor to Bert was a fel­low

Hun­gar­ian cav­alry officer, Lt. Col. Agos­ton d’En­dršdy. Dur­ing his post-WWII ex­ile in Eng­land, d’En­dršdy wrote a very good book on rid­ing and train­ing, Give Your Horse a Chance. What this book lacks in read­abil­ity and brevity, it com­pen­sates for with in­for­ma­tive de­tails and should be on ev­ery se­ri­ous horse­man’s book­shelf. An­other of d’En­dršdy’s stu­dents in Eng­land was David Som­er­set, who later be­came the 11th Duke of Beau­fort and owner of the Bad­minton es­tate, site of the world-fa­mous event. D’En­dršdy had al­ready be­gun a se­ri­ous study of the use of gym­nas­tics as a train­ing tool for jumpers, and Bert later told me that he had been the guinea pig for ev­ery gym­nas­tic in d’En­dršdy’s book. Bert be­came fa­mous for com­bin­ing the use of dres­sage and gym­nas­tics, an ap­proach that ac­counts for much of his suc­cess as a trainer. With his ap­point­ment as the U.S. show-jump­ing coach, he be­gan ap­ply­ing these train­ing tech­niques to our Olympic squad.

A few years ago, I was dis­cussing Bert’s meth­ods with the late Hugh Wi­ley, who was a mem­ber of some of Bert’s first U.S. teams from 1955 to 1960. Hugh laughed and ad­mit­ted that a ma­jor fac­tor in Bert’s use of gym­nas­tics was the in­ex­pe­ri­ence of Hugh and most of his team­mates. “Ex­cept for Bill Steinkraus, none of us could find a stride,” he said. “Bert had to keep us in a con­trolled sit­u­a­tion. If he turned us loose the first year or so, we were a dis­as­ter.” Bert im­posed a cur­few on the team while they were trav­el­ing in Europe in the 1950s—he wanted them rested for the com­pe­ti­tions, not hun­gover. The show-jump­ing team at the time—Bill Steinkraus, my brother War­ren, Hugh, Frank Chapot and Ge­orge Mor­ris—were young men and, like Bert, were all sin­gle. But as they climbed the stairs after din­ner and be­fore cur­few, they of­ten saw Bert, slim and el­e­gant in a tuxedo, step­ping into the limou­sine of the lo­cal duchess or con­tessa, out for a night on the town.

Mem­ory is a funny thing. Bert has been gone for a while now, but in my mind, he is still stand­ing in the main ring at the USET train­ing cen­ter in Glad­stone. Bert spoke sev­eral lan­guages, but he never lost a heavy Hun­gar­ian ac­cent and many of his stu­dents re­ferred to his speech pat­terns as “Hunglish.” For ex­am­ple, “Just you are mak­ing post­ing” meant go for­ward in post­ing trot. His lessons ran with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion. Rid­ers were ex­pected to be on time with both horse and rider im­mac­u­lately turned out. What­ever gym­nas­tics or cour­ses to be used that day were care­fully planned and metic­u­lously mea­sured. Oc­ca­sion­ally he would get on a prob­lem horse, and the prob­lems would dis­ap­pear. It quickly

I knew Bert for more than 50 years. He never low­ered his stan­dards or his ex­pec­ta­tions, and he never once showed up with yesterday’s dust on his boots. Never.

be­came ob­vi­ous to me that in ad­di­tion to be­ing a ge­nius trainer, he was a su­perb rider.

There was noth­ing fancy or ex­trav­a­gant about Bert’s ap­pear­ance, but he took great care. No mat­ter how many days he taught or how dif­fi­cult the weather, he showed up for work the next day im­mac­u­lately turned out. He al­ways wore ei­ther jodh­purs or boots and the “batwing” breeches that were fash­ion­able half a cen­tury ago. I knew Bert for more than 50 years. He never low­ered his stan­dards or his ex­pec­ta­tions, and he never once showed up with yesterday’s dust on his boots. Never.

Bert had an enor­mous in­flu­ence on sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can rid­ers. His train­ing in clas­si­cal dres­sage en­abled him to demon­strate and teach a syn­the­sis of dres­sage and jump­ing. His tech­niques, trans­for­ma­tional at the time, are to­day the gen­er­ally ac­cepted method of train­ing jumpers around the world.

Be­cause he coached the show jumpers, most of my ed­u­ca­tion from Bert while at Glad­stone was through os­mo­sis; a com­pa­triot of his, Ste­fan von Visy, was the event­ing coach. Like Bert, Ste­fan was a Hun­gar­ian cav­alry officer and had rid­den on the 1936 Olympic event­ing team in Berlin. Ste­fan also was a sur­vivor of WWII and made his liv­ing in Aus­tria as a show jumper after the war. He brought the same sense of dis­ci­pline as Bert and the same at­ti­tude to­ward per­sonal ap­pear­ance. Ste­fan jogged a mile be­fore work ev­ery day, fol­lowed by a cold shower. He was never able to teach me that par­tic­u­lar habit. He spoke sev­eral lan­guages, but you had to be care­ful when at­tempt­ing to ap­ply his in­struc­tions lit­er­ally. Dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult les­son one day, I dis­cov­ered that when Ste­fan said “right,” he meant “left.” Things im­proved after that.

Although I strug­gled at the time, in later years I re­al­ized that Ste­fan had taught me a valu­able les­son: Not ev­ery coach and train­ing sys­tem suit ev­ery horse and rider. In the long term it is some­times just as im­por­tant to learn what does not work for you as to learn what works. Still, I do not con­sider my time at Glad­stone the best pos­si­ble learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. For­tu­nately, an­other of the sil­ver­backs who guided my life ar­rived and proved to be just the right coach at just the right time. By now it was early 1968, and I wanted to go to the Mex­ico City Olympics that Oc­to­ber. The next ob­vi­ous step in my ca­reer was Bad­minton, and my team­mate, Mike Page, sug­gested I train with Lars Seder­holm. In the spring of 1968, I showed up on Lar’s doorstop at his famed Water­stock Train­ing Cen­ter in Eng­land.

Lars: The Mas­ter of Course Walks

If I had to name peo­ple who had a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on my ca­reer, I would

Walk­ing a cross-coun­try course with Lars was to re­al­ize you were in the pres­ence of a true mas­ter. He could pre­dict your horse’s re­ac­tion to var­i­ous ob­sta­cles and de­scribe your ac­tions to han­dle the prob­lem suc­cess­fully.

im­me­di­ately be­gin with Lars’ name. Although an as­tute stu­dent of rid­ing tech­nique, he based his train­ing very much on the horse. I re­al­ized I had been strug­gling up to this point be­cause us­ing the sys­tem I had been taught un­til now, I had been try­ing to ride as if my horse were a ma­chine need­ing con­tin­u­ous su­per­vi­sion and con­trol.

One of Lars’ many say­ings that have stayed with me is, “Leave the think­ing to him. His head is big­ger than yours!” Walk­ing a cross-coun­try course with Lars was to re­al­ize you were in the pres­ence of a true mas­ter. He could pre­dict your horse’s re­ac­tion to var­i­ous ob­sta­cles and de­scribe your ac­tions to han­dle the prob­lem suc­cess­fully. By the time you had fin­ished your course walk, you knew how to ride the course. I have led a lot of course walks with a lot of peo­ple, but I have never been able to du­pli­cate his abil­ity to trans­late the prob­lems posed for rid­ers or to have them as men­tally ready for the chal­lenges.

Although he was of­fered the job as coach of the 1968 U.S. event­ing Olympic team, Lars’ busi­ness in Eng­land was too big to leave. Thus an­other for­ma­tive in­flu­ence stepped into my life, this time from out of the past. I had worked in Ire­land for a while in 1962, rid­ing and school­ing young horses for a fa­mous dealer, Capt. Cyril Harty. While there, I had taken clin­ics with the coach of the Ir­ish Olympic event­ing team, Maj. Joe Lynch. The USET hired Joe on a short­term con­tract to coach us through the 1968 Olympics. Joe was, quite sim­ply, an Ir­ish char­ac­ter. He had been in the British cav­alry most of his life, and dur­ing WWII he was a train­ing officer in Scot­land pre­par­ing troops for com­bat in North Africa, Si­cily and then Italy. Like many of his coun­try­men, he had a mar­velous com­mand of the English lan­guage (in­clud­ing a ca­reer sol­dier’s use of pro­fan­ity and ob­scen­ity), an in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of horses and a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of whisky.

Given some of the more lurid tales he would tell after hours, we sus­pected that Joe was ei­ther about 105 years old or he was more than ca­pa­ble of em­bel­lish­ing a story. His age or his nightly in­take could affect his coach­ing, and I have painful mem­o­ries of him stand­ing on top of a hill, red-faced and screech­ing at me in a British ac­cent while ob­vi­ously for­get­ting my name, “You theah, come heah, you im­be­cile, you, YOU …KILKENNY! Come heah!” (He never for­got your horse’s name, but you? Not so much.) Joe was a su­per horse­man and I learned a great deal from him, but he tended to have a short­term fix for your prob­lem rather than a long-term an­swer to the un­der­ly­ing cause. This may have been a re­sult of the short-term na­ture of his job and the Olympic pres­sure he no doubt felt. By now I was de­vel­op­ing con­fi­dence in my own sys­tem, and Joe’s in­sight helped me in my prepa­ra­tions for the 1970 World Cham­pi­onships at Punchestown, Ire­land—but when I got there, I walked the course with Lars Seder­holm.

En­ter Jack Le Goff

I fin­ished the 1970 World Cham­pi­onships with the bronze in­di­vid­ual medal

and with my sights al­ready set on the 1972 Olympics. I was in that funny zone that ath­letes oc­ca­sion­ally find—I wasn’t to­tally ar­ro­gant but I was con­fi­dent of my sys­tem and my horse’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties and was not in the mood to change things that were ob­vi­ously work­ing. This at­ti­tude set the stage for the sil­ver­back who would change my life and change my sys­tem. In early 1971, Jack Le Goff ar­rived from France as the new coach of the U.S. event­ing team. Jack had ex­cel­lent cre­den­tials, hav­ing rid­den in two Olympics him­self (1960 and 1964) and coached the in­di­vid­ual gold medal­ist in the 1968 Olympics. In ad­di­tion, he had been a suc­cess­ful steeple­chase jockey ear­lier in his ca­reer and then spent 10 years with the Cadre Noir, the corps of in­struc­tors at the French

mil­i­tary eques­trian academy.

Like sev­eral of my other men­tors, Jack was a com­bat vet­eran, hav­ing been in­volved in the Al­ge­rian War dur­ing the early 1960s. It was only in the last few years of his life that he spoke of it to me. He was ob­vi­ously moved and changed by his ex­pe­ri­ences and tor­tured by his mem­o­ries. An ac­quain­tance of mine who had been a U.S. Ma­rine sur­vived WWII in the Pacific and kept a photo by his shav­ing mir­ror of the beach at Iwo Jima, where he could see it ev­ery morn­ing. He said he kept it there to re­mind him­self how lucky he was to have one more day and the chance to do some­thing good that day. As an­other com­bat sur­vivor, Jack had the same at­ti­tude. To him, this meant that he trained and rode in­tensely all day and then ate, drank, smoked (like a chim­ney) and par­tied

I am sad that video had not re­ally been in­vented while Jack was still rid­ing be­cause you would see an ex­em­plar of the light­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity of the clas­si­cal French sys­tem.

well into the evening.

I am sad that video had not re­ally been in­vented while Jack was still rid­ing be­cause you would see an ex­em­plar of the light­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity of the clas­si­cal French sys­tem. Jack ex­pected you to solve your own prob­lems, but oc­ca­sion­ally he would ride your horse for a few min­utes. When he stepped down, you got back onto a dif­fer­ent horse. A stu­dent once made the mis­take of com­plain­ing about how dif­fi­cult her Ad­vanced horse was. In his inim­itable French ac­cent, Jack replied, “Oh, daahling, I vould put him in pas­sage and pi­affe in one week.” She jumped down, handed the reins to Jack and said, “I bet you a case of cham­pagne you can’t.” A week later she watched, one case of Moët & Chan­don poorer, while Jack rode a 20-me­ter cir­cle around her with the snaf­fle reins in one hand, a cig­a­rette in the other, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween pas­sage and pi­affe with in­vis­i­ble aids.

I don’t envy Jack the sit­u­a­tion he found when he ar­rived in 1971. The event­ing sta­bles at Glad­stone were de­serted, and his vet­eran U.S. rid­ers were run­ning their own pro­grams in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try. Mike Plumb had al­ready rid­den in three of his even­tual eight—yes, eight—Olympics. Kevin Free­man and I were Olympic and World Cham­pi­onship veter­ans and medal­ists. As far as we were con­cerned, we had noth­ing to prove. This at­ti­tude guar­an­teed some spec­tac­u­lar clashes be­hind the scenes. But as we trained to­gether, Jack grad­u­ally re­al­ized that he had a few ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers who wanted to win as badly as he did, and we re­al­ized that Jack was a con­sum­mate horse­man. Thus be­gan what many re­fer to as the “Golden Era” of U.S. event­ing.

There are many rea­sons for com­pet­i­tive suc­cess—cer­tainly good horses and good rid­ers are a part of it. But Jack was a rare mix­ture of sen­si­tive horse­man, ruth­less hu­man dis­ci­plinar­ian, clas­si­cal dres­sage train­ing and an un­canny abil­ity to get Thor­ough-

breds fit for an event while re­tain­ing their san­ity. (Jack trained dur­ing the Clas­sic for­mat era, and most of the horses were Thor­ough­breds or nearThor­ough­breds.) Jack de­vel­oped what is nowa­days re­ferred to as an in­ter­val sys­tem but is ac­tu­ally an intermittent sys­tem. He found that if he gave his horses short in­ter­vals of rest be­tween pe­ri­ods of ex­er­cise, they could tol­er­ate more ex­er­cise and yet re­main sound.

There is no one rea­son for suc­cess. You cannot point to a sin­gle el­e­ment and say, “That’s the rea­son.” This is es­pe­cially true of Jack Le Goff, the most com­pli­cated per­son I have ever known. But you would not be far wrong if you sim­ply said, “Jack was a com­plete horse­man.” He was a ge­nius rider who could train a horse to a high level in dres­sage, a skill miss­ing in the event­ing com­mu­nity when he first ar­rived in the U.S. His ex­pe­ri­ences as a steeple­chase jockey also gave him un­usual in­sight into work­ing horses at speed. Jack was a se­vere taskmas­ter and one of his fa­vorite say­ings was, “I am not your friend, I am your coach.” Yet when he was through train­ing for the day, he would once again show you how to take the top off a cham­pagne bot­tle us­ing a cav­alry sabre and let you prac­tice un­til you, too, learned the skill.

After I had trained a few years with him, Jack re­mained my coach—but he also be­came my friend, and we re­mained so un­til the end of his life. I know I am a bet­ter per­son for know­ing him and in­deed for hav­ing known all my men­tors. The Amer­i­can au­thor Wen­dell Berry said, “It is not from our­selves that we learn to be bet­ter than we are.” All the men­tors I have writ­ten about in these two col­umns—these sil­ver­backs—shared their knowl­edge so gen­er­ously with me and have en­riched my life be­yond mea­sure. I cannot tell you of a cer­tain path to suc­cess in the horse world, but I can hope that you will find peo­ple such as these ex­am­ples to light that path.

Based at Fox Covert Farm, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia, Jim Wof­ford com­peted in three Olympics and two World Cham­pi­onships and won the U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onship five times. He is also a highly re­spected coach. For more on Jim, go to www. jim­wof­ford. blogspot.com.

Jack Le Goff and I are shown here at the start box of the cross coun­try at the 1981 Luh­mühlen, Ger­many CCI***. He was shar­ing with me the in­for­ma­tion he had about the course. Be­fore the ap­pear­ance of closed-cir­cuit tele­vi­sion, it was dif­fi­cult to know how the course was rid­ing, what the foot­ing on the turns was like, how the strid­ing in cer­tain com­bi­na­tions was work­ing and so on. Jack brought his or­ga­ni­za­tional skill and his at­ten­tion to de­tail to this as­pect of event­ing, and by the time his rid­ers started on course, they had up-to-date in­for­ma­tion about it. Jack was in­tensely com­pet­i­tive, and no de­tail was too small for him. This partly ex­plains his suc­cess. He was a unique syn­the­sis of clas­si­cal dres­sage with ground-break­ing con­di­tion­ing tech­niques, both es­sen­tial skills for an event trainer. His train­ing ses­sions were an in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion of sen­si­tive horse­man­ship with his horses and ruth­less pres­sure on his rid­ers. Jack was the most out­stand­ing horse­man I have ever seen. I was for­tu­nate to have him as a coach and as a friend, and the U.S. was lucky to have him as our team coach for a golden era of event­ing.

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