Louise Parkes sits down with equestrian legend, double-Olympian and world-famous American coach James Cunningham Wofford.
An interview with James Cunningham Wofford is not something to be taken lightly. Any attempt at leading the conversation fails miserably because you are talking to a man with the most exceptional communication skills and extraordinary stories to tell.
There’s a sense of riding the tide of equestrian history as the double-Olympian and world-famous American coach recalls sporting highlights, great horses and magical moments from his stellar career.
But it’s a bit like sitting on a runaway train and even when you get to the end it feels like you’ve only half-halted. Because you just know that there are many more tales to be told and lots more wisdom to be shared by this raconteur par excellence..…
I begin by asking him if he always had Olympic ambitions, and he admits it was “in my cross-hairs from a very early age”. Not surprising really considering his father, Col John W. Wofford who later became first President of the United States Equestrian Team (USET), competed in Jumping at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (USA) and his older brother, Jeb, helped claim bronze for Team USA in Eventing at the Helsinki (FIN) Games in 1952. Another brother, Warren, went to the top of the sport in both Jumping and Eventing and was a reserve for the US Eventing team at the Olympic Games in Stockholm (SWE) in 1956. That’s quite some pedigree just there.
When Jim was growing up, Jeb and his Helsinki team-mates Champ Hough – father of American Jumping star Lauren Hough – and Wally Staley were his childhood heroes. “Then along came Mike Plumb and Michael Page – I looked up to them for years so when I joined them on the US team that was a real thrill!”, Jim says.
Did he ever have any doubts about his ability to make it to the top in sport? “I had terrific doubts, and at first I didn’t have a suitable horse. I was riding around on a 15.3hh roan Appaloosa. However Warren lived in England, and in spring 1967 he went to Ireland looking for horses and saw Kilkenny who was for sale because he’d been to the Olympics, the World Championships and Badminton and they reckoned he was pretty much done.
“Warren called my mother and said what a cool schoolmaster the horse would be, so they sent him to me and suddenly I was the hottest kid on the block! We had an unusual partnership, we really shot to the top, from him being thought to be over the hill with all his mileage and me having never been anywhere of any repute – they put us together and it just worked. So we won the National Championships at my first try, and now I’m standing on the podium with Mike Page and Mike Plumb!”
Kilkenny had previously been ridden by Irishman Tommy Brennan who, following a stellar Jumping and Eventing career, became a world-renowned horse agent and cross-country course designer. Did Jim have a preference for what discipline he would compete in with the horse? “I was intrigued by showjumping, but I was a moth to a flame when it came to Eventing!”, he says.
Kilkenny had already enjoyed a successful career in both disciplines. “In late summer ’64 he went to Tokyo (Olympic Games where he finished individually 16th in Eventing), in ’65 he went showjumping with Tommy, and in ’66 he was back on the Irish gold medal Eventing team at the World Championships in Burghley”, Jim explains.
I ask him to describe Kilkenny.
“He was a 17hh dark bay gelding by Water Serpent with a mealy nose, a tiny star on his forehead and the look of eagles. When he trotted by you in hand he had all four feet off the ground!”
He had seen every sort of situation which was handy for me because I’d seen none of them. So I could just drop my hands and tell him to get on with the job which he was happy to do!”
That US National Championships victory was in 1967, and the following year they competed at Badminton (GBR) in preparation for, arguably, the most memorable Eventing Olympic Games of all-time in Mexico in 1968.
In the heyday of the “classic format”, the toughness and versatility of horse and rider were fully tested. Dressage was followed by Speed and Endurance day which consisted of two sessions of Roads and Tracks interspersed by a steeplechase phase, and then a vet check before heading out on the cross-country course. The final day’s showjumping decided the result.
Talking about selection for Mexico, Jim says “Plumb and Page would never be left off the team if their horse was sound, and Kevin Freeman was such a marvellous horseman, maybe the best rider of all of us. So there was really one slot left, and fortunately I filled that.” However, the Americans were steeped in good fortune when drawn early to go on Speed and Endurance day, because an afternoon deluge created monstrous conditions that nearly claimed the life of Kilkenny’s former rider.
“I went early and was first out of the box for us. We were on top of the ground so I had the fastest round of the day and I think Michael may have had the second-fastest. When you look back at the scores it’s two different competitions, but it could all have been completed in sunshine!”, Jim recalls.
Despite knowing that a monsoon would descend around 13.00 hours as it did every day, the start-time was not adjusted and those that set out later in the competition met with a nightmare. “Once the heavy rain began the volcanic soil became a morass immediately. It was a golf course, there was a shell of grass over this powdery substance that turned to soup under wet conditions and we got the biggest monsoon of the five weeks we were up there!”, Jim explains.
Tommy Brennan was only called into action at the last minute with the reserve Irish horse, March Hawk. Second-last to go, he faced inches of water on the steeplechase track where he took a fall on the flat, and by the time he headed out cross-country, a stream that had to be crossed several times had become a dangerous flood in full spate. Only the top few inches of Fence 5 were visible and Fence 6 was almost fully submerged. Horse and rider were swept away and disappeared underwater, both in danger of drowning. But somehow they struggled ashore and continued a little further before March Hawk decided he’d had more than enough.
Great Britain claimed team gold, USA silver and West Germany bronze. Jim’s compatriot Michael Page (Foster) took individual bronze and Jim and Kilkenny slotted into sixth place.
The World Championship in Punchestown (IRL) two years later was another dramatic affair, but Kilkenny’s class saw Jim take individual bronze this time around.
Once again there was controversy on cross-country day with a big number of fallers late on the track. “The Irish knew they had to lead with their strength and that was the quality of their horses, so they designed a course that was maximum in every aspect – distance, speed, dimension of obstacles, number of obstacles. This was always going to be a big test, and that suited me because I had a horse purpose-built for it!”, he points out.
“But no-one knew there was a bogey fence at the 29th. You came through the woods above the old sheep tank and you galloped on a trail and then there was a guard rail and the ground fell away precipitously, and six feet out there was an oxer rail stuffed with gorse. You were supposed to gallop and jump out over the oxer and take a 6ft 6ins drop – it’s what Americans call a ‘gut-check’, a test of courage, scope and balance. But what the course designer didn’t take into account was a few fences before that there was a double-bank, and it rehearsed the horses to step on the gorse which they did again and again. As they built up the brush every time they kept stuffing the fence with more green branches so it was even more inviting for the horses to step on it.
“Something like 27 horses got that far and 24 of them fell including Kilkenny, and including Richard Meade (GBR) who got the silver medal. But Mary Gordon-Watson’s (GBR who took individual gold) horse jumped it neat as a pin. Nowadays if there were two falls like that the jump would be removed from the course and adjustments made in the scores. But in 1968 this was still a sport run by cavalry generals!”, Jim says.
The Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 brought his partnership with this faithful steed to an end. The US side that also included Mike Plumb with Free and Easy, Kevin Freeman riding Good Mixture and Bruce Davidson with Plain Sailing claimed team silver, but for Jim and Kilkenny, it wasn’t their finest hour.
“I rode according to orders instead of the way I should have, and we finished well down the list. But he didn’t get the ride he needed so that’s nothing to say about him. At our silver medal victory bash, I said that Kilkenny would retire now and come home. He was the property of my mother, but my brother (Warren) who was a Master of Foxhounds in England was dropping heavy hints about what a wonderful Fieldmaster’s horse he would be, so I had to have a little palace revolution there to make sure he did come home!”
Kilkenny’s cross-country days were still not quite over however because he hunted another few seasons with Jim and his wife Gail back in the US even though he wasn’t the ideal candidate because he was a bit over-keen. “He couldn’t bear to have another horse in front of him, and Gail was too brave with him!”, Jim points out.
There was a lean period after Munich. “I was ‘on the bench’ and I knew part of it was because I’d ridden badly in Munich, but also because I didn’t have a horse of Olympic capability”, he says.
All that would change however when he met Carawich. Jim insists he doesn’t believe in anthropomorphism – attributing human traits and emotions to non-humans – but then tells the story of how they first met….
He hadn’t won a competition above Preliminary level since 1972 when, at Badminton in the Spring of 1977, he experienced a moment of connection during the vet-check when a horse stopped and turned to look at him. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck – he picked me out of the crowd and stared at me. His groom tugged on the lead but he didn’t listen – it took about 30 seconds but it seemed like an hour!”, Jim recalls, with excitement still in his voice after all these years.
The horse wasn’t for sale at the time but came on the market a few months later. “He arrived in late December 1977 untried. I took out a loan on my life insurance policy to pay for him and it was the best investment I ever made!”, says Jim.
“Carawich suited me as the rider I was after two Olympics and one World Championship. We went to Lexington World Championships (Kentucky, USA) in ’78 where we finished 10th and were on the bronze medal team, and then we were fifth at Badminton the following spring and then second at the alternate Olympics in Fontainebleau (FRA) in 1980. We were second in the Kentucky event that spring and won Kentucky the following year. He was quite some horse too!”
More Great Horses
An injury sustained at Luhmuehlen (GER) in 1981 put an end to Carawich’s career, but Jim still had more great horses to ride. There was Castlewellan who came his way when British rider Judy Bradwell, in recovery following a nasty accident, asked him if he knew of a suitable new US owner for the horse.
“I said don’t go away, and in about 30 minutes we had a deal! He came over that summer, again untried, and we won a big Intermediate event. Then in Spring ’84 we were well-placed at Kentucky and then we were non-riding reserves at the LA Olympic Games”.
Jim retired after that, but two years later came out of retirement for one more moment of glory. Offered the ride on The Optimist, normally competed by America’s Karen Lende (now O’Connor) who was riding in Australia that year, he jumped at the chance.
“He was a big bull of a horse, Irish-bred, 16.3hh and a bit big-eared and small-eyed, with massive shoulders like a bullock. He’d run away with everyone who got on him, but he had a wonderful attitude going down to jumps”, Jim recalls. It wouldn’t be all plain sailing, but again a moment of connection would turn everything around.
“For about a week or 10 days I thought I’d painted myself in a corner because we were not getting along at all”, he explains. However he accidentally caught the horse unawares in the stable one day, and The Optimist didn’t have time to put on his normal sullen expression. Instead, Jim got a fleeting glimpse of a bright, intelligent, focused horse. “I laughed and shook my finger at him and said “it’s too late, I saw you!”, Jim says. “I suddenly realised he didn’t want to be told what to do, he already knew his job so the next time I threw my leg over him I did it with that in mind and we got along famously. He won a couple of prep events and then he won Kentucky. And then I quickly retired again!”, Jim says.
Asked to compare the talent of riders from his own era with those of today he replies, “this stuff about ‘Oh we were better in the good old days’ – don’t you believe it! I lived through the good old days – these people today would beat us like a carpet!”, he insists. There have been many changes in the sport of course. “Riders are in a much more predictable situation these days. When they are pacing distances between cross-country obstacles you know it’s a different sport.”
And the horses – are there big differences in them too? “In the classic format they had to be brave as a lion because we jumped some formidable stuff. We don’t test now for strength of character in the horse – today it’s a test of technique”, he points out.
For many years now he’s been a dedicated and hugely successful coach, and he enjoys training pupils at all levels. He’s looking forward to getting back to working with his students again very soon and seeing how “profitably” they’ve used this time during the pandemic shutdown. “Will they have improved their horse’s training, or will they have worn them out by endlessly practicing competitive details?”, he wonders.
I ask what advice he has for riders concerned about returning to competition in the shadow of the virus still sweeping across the world, and he replies – “event riders are already bio-mechanically engineered not to be afraid, so don’t be afraid! Know the risks and the safeguards, and go from there.”
Life, he concludes, is like the wording on a famous painting “The Bullfinch” by English artist, Snaffles – “glorious uncertainty” is what awaits us all on the landing side. And, for James Cunningham Wofford, that’s all part of the thrill of the ride…..