Cross Coun­try With Jim Wof­ford

Jim de­scribes his ex­pe­ri­ence teach­ing tal­ented young jumper riders dur­ing a re­cent USHJA Emerg­ing Ath­lete Pro­gram clinic.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - 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.

Lessons and clin­ics are part of my life. I en­joy them be­cause the rou­tine is fa­mil­iar and com­fort­able. How­ever, it is al­ways a great de­par­ture from the usual to do what I did re­cently—con­duct a clinic in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion from my typ­i­cal ses­sions, us­ing a new for­mat, with riders from a dis­ci­pline other than event­ing. This change-up can pro­vide a won­der­ful learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for both the par­tic­i­pants and the clin­i­cian; it cer­tainly was for me.

Let me get the “al­pha­bet” and the nuts-and-bolts back­ground out of the way first. This spring the United States Hunter Jumper As­so­ci­a­tion asked me to do a Re­gional Train­ing Ses­sion in Reno, Ne­vada, for its Emerg­ing Ath­lete Pro­gram. Riders 25 and younger may ap­ply to the pro­gram, which is par­tially spon­sored. They must pro­vide their own horses and are ex­pected to dis­play pro­fi­ciency over show-jump­ing cour­ses set from 1.10 me­ters, in­clud­ing a liver­pool. Th­ese ath­letes may not have com­peted in any com­pe­ti­tion over 1.35 me­ters.

Ten of th­ese five-day ses­sions have been held across the coun- try this year. They are quite in­ten­sive and are un­usual for sev­eral rea­sons: They are by in­vi­ta­tion only, they are hosted at su­pe­rior fa­cil­i­ties, they are taught by elite clin­i­cians (there are sev­eral Olympic medal­ists on this year’s list of clin­i­cians) and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, they in­clude daily in­struc­tion in sta­ble man­age­ment from world-class sta­ble man­agers. In ad­di­tion, par­tic­i­pants get daily lec­tures and pre­sen­ta­tions on top­ics rang­ing from rid­ing the­ory to vet­eri­nary dis­cus­sions of equine nu­tri­tion as well as a host of other top­ics, all de­signed to ed­u­cate ath­letes who are think­ing of mak­ing horses a ca­reer.

The riders in my Reno clinic had spe­cial­ized in the hunter/jumper dis­ci­plines al­most ex­clu­sively, and it showed in their rid­ing. They had good “eyes for dis­tance,” mean­ing they knew what was go­ing to hap­pen in front of an ob­sta­cle be­fore it hap­pened. For the most part they were on suit­able horses and had ob­vi­ously been well coached. Their horses were able to main­tain a rhyth­mi­cal stride be­tween ob­sta­cles, the riders looked through their turns for the next ob­sta­cle

and they could re­mem­ber com­pli­cated cour­ses and pat­terns. Most im­por­tant, they all had a won­der­ful lower-leg po­si­tion.

How­ever, they were al­most un­fail­ingly ig­no­rant of the history of their sport. They lacked any knowl­edge of fa­mous riders who came be­fore them, who had made many of the same mis­takes the par­tic­i­pants were mak­ing, who had learned from those mis­takes and who are in the Show Jump­ing Hall of Fame.

More prac­ti­cally, once it came to “flat­work,” some ob­vi­ous flaws showed up in both their tech­nique and in their ed­u­ca­tion. Most of the par­tic­i­pants could not de­scribe to me the cor­rect aids for the sim­plest of all lat­eral move­ments—a turn on the fore­hand—and few of them could name the var­i­ous lat­eral move­ments that we use to sup­ple and en­gage our horses. In ad­di­tion, they all had “pic­ture-per­fect” po­si­tions for the dres­sage ses­sions. By this, I mean that they looked ter­rific— at the halt. Once I asked horses and riders to move off at the walk or trot, it im­me­di­ately be­came ap­par­ent that the ath­letes’ backs were not truly con­nected to their horses’ backs. They didn’t ex­actly bounce at the trot, but they had not yet learned to fol­low the mo­tion of their horses’ backs with their waists and hips. I fo­cus on this con­nec­tion dur­ing all my dres­sage lessons, re­gard­less of the level or lo­ca­tion of the lessons; the more in­ti­mate this con­nec­tion, the bet­ter our horses go.

For­tu­nately, th­ese riders had been se­lected as will­ing and able to learn, and many of them showed marked im­prove­ment in a short time. Like most riders to­day, they have been taught to com­pete— and now they must learn how to ride. All in all, this clinic was a great ex­pe­ri­ence for me, as an op­por­tu­nity to be ex­posed to that many young ath­letes who have al­ready started to com­mit to horses as a life­long ca­reer.

Ap­prox­i­mately 200 riders will take part in th­ese clin­ics, and 16 are cho­sen for the EAP Na­tional Train­ing Ses­sion, held in Novem­ber. In the past, two riders from the na­tional ses­sion have been se­lected to at­tend the Ge­orge H. Mor­ris Horse­mas­ter­ship Train­ing Ses­sion in Welling­ton, Florida, in Jan­uary of the fol­low­ing year. You can find out more about this ter­rific learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at

You Can Learn from Oth­ers’ Ex­pe­ri­ence

My job th­ese days is to stand be­tween a horse and a rider and ex­plain one to the other. I have learned to “trans­late” to a horse what his rider re­ally meant with that aid and to ex­plain to the rider what her horse meant with that re­sponse. This trans­la­tion is not a skill that one is born with; you need to learn it.

Through­out my life, what we learn and when we learn it have al­ways in­ter­ested me. Early in the sum­mer I at­tended a com­mence­ment ad­dress by Thomas Bliss, the CEO of Geni­sphere, a biotech­nol­ogy com­pany. He was talk­ing about how peo­ple learn and said some­thing that re­ally res­onated with me. He said, “Ex­pe­ri­ence takes too long.”

I am proud of my ex­pe­ri­ence in the horse world and re­mem­ber fondly the mis­takes I made and the dif­fi­cult changes I was able to make in or­der to im­prove. I use that ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery time I teach, to im­prove things I see go­ing wrong. How­ever, I of­ten make the point to my stu­dents that they don’t have to make the same mis­takes I made in or­der to learn the same things and come to the same con­clu­sions about that par­tic­u­lar mis­take. Famed Amer­i­can co­me­dian Will Rogers also talked about learn­ing. He noted that men

learn in three dif­fer­ent ways: Some can learn about it in a book, most can learn by watch­ing, but some just have to uri­nate on the elec­tric fence to see if it is on.

Coaches usu­ally have a long list of pet phrases that sum­ma­rize their teach­ings in pithy, mem­o­rable ways. When it comes to ex­pe­ri­ence, my list of ex­pres­sions is as long as your arm:

“Good judg­ment comes from ex­pe­ri­ence, ex­pe­ri­ence comes from bad judg­ment.”

“You got what you needed, not what you wanted, and that’s the best kind of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And then there’s my per­sonal fa­vorite: “Even white rats learn from ex­pe­ri­ence.”

But now Thomas Bliss has added a new apho­rism to my list—“Ex­pe­ri­ence takes too long.”

Learn­ing to ride takes a long time; it takes a re­ally long time if you do not take ad­van­tage of the mis­takes of oth­ers. Mak- ing a mis­take in your cal­cu­lus home­work can be spot­ted and eas­ily cor­rected. How­ever, mak­ing a mis­take in your con­di­tion­ing home­work when pre­par­ing for your first big com­pe­ti­tion can have dis­as­trous ef­fects on your horse. Sure, you won’t do it the same way next time, but if your mis­take was se­ri­ous enough, there might not be a next time for your horse. Ex­pert, skilled, ex­pe­ri­enced (there’s that word again) horse­men have been suc­cess­fully pre­par­ing horses for that type of com­pe­ti­tion for years with min­i­mal in­juries to the horses in their care. It would have been a lot more fun and a lot safer for your horse if you had availed your­self of the ex­pe­ri­ence of oth­ers.

I have seen sev­eral re­cent ar­ti­cles on the per­pet­ual ado­les­cence of this gen­er­a­tion, many of whom are still liv­ing in their par­ents’ base­ments long af­ter grad­u­a­tion from col­lege. While ev­ery hu­man be­ing is unique, the ex­pe­ri­ence we need to master a skill is not unique; it is knowl­edge that has been ac­quired by oth­ers and, in many cases, has been saved for pos­ter­ity in books and videos. I men­tioned pre­vi­ously that this gen­er­a­tion seems to think it is liv­ing in a world in which no knowl­edge of history is needed. This brings to mind philoso­pher Ge­orge San­tayana’s fa­mous quote, “When ex­pe­ri­ence is not re­tained, as among sav­ages, in­fancy is per­pet­ual. Those who can­not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it.” If you can­not learn from oth­ers and re­tain that knowl­edge, you are doomed to live for­ever as a child. If you do not learn from the past, you are un­pre­pared for the fu­ture. As the late Pulitzer Prize-win­ning colum­nist Charles Krautham­mer once re­marked, if you re­main ig­no­rant, you are un­able to choose wisely. Wis­dom is the an­tic­i­pa­tion of con­se­quence, and our horses de­serve our wis­est and best de­ci­sions. It is the least we can do for them.

When it comes to learn­ing how to ride, don’t make ev­ery pos­si­ble mis­take (what­ever it was) your­self. You will gain ex­pe­ri­ence from your mis­takes, but ex­pe­ri­ence takes too long. Learn from peo­ple who have al­ready made that mis­take, learned from it and—more im­por­tantly—know how to pass that knowl­edge along to you. Shown here lead­ing a course walk for a USHJA Emerg­ing Ath­lete Clinic, I am pass­ing in­sights along to this group that pro­vide them with a short­cut to knowl­edge. Learn­ing from ex­pe­ri­enced horse­men is one way of learn­ing to ride, but you should also take ad­van­tage of books, videos and ar­ti­cles. The more you learn, the bet­ter rider and horse­man you will be—and the more in­ter­ested you will be­come in learn­ing even more. Learn­ing about horses is a life­long jour­ney and learn­ing from oth­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence is a sure­fire way to speed up the process.

We have all been here: One sec­ond you are cruis­ing along, think­ing how well you are rid­ing and what nice strides you are find­ing with your horse. The next sec­ond you are sit­ting on your back­side in a wet arena, and your coach is ask­ing you if you “know what day it is.” On the one hand, it is ob­vi­ously not your day; on the other hand, you have a golden op­por­tu­nity to learn from your mis­take, and to make sure you never com­mit that par­tic­u­lar er­ror again. I am “old-school” when it comes to fall­ing off. If you did not land on your head, are not bleeding badly and noth­ing is bro­ken, then I want you to get back on. Sure, re­mount­ing af­ter fall­ing off is a judg­ment call, and I have put plenty of riders “on the bench” af­ter a hard fall, but at the same time, learn­ing about horses is a rough-and-tum­ble busi­ness. I want you to de­velop an at­ti­tude that says no mat­ter how rough things are right now, you can al­ways learn and im­prove. Pick your­self up, dust your­self off and get back on.

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