First Ride With Jim Wofford

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

0101Over the past year I’ve attended two or three clinics and lessons with Jimmy Wofford. Not as a rider, but helping my friend Cherie. I learned a lot and was impressed that I completely understood what he was talking about. Bear in mind I’m an exercise rider with a background in dressage. I never really learned to jump. I have jumped before, but never learned how. Truth be told, I never really had a desire to. I loved dressage, but couldn’t make a living at it. They’d pay me to ride at the track, so I went there. Racing has been very good to me and I don’t regret taking that path.Birdie gave me an opportunity to ride in a clinic with Jimmy Wofford. Something I really wanted to do. My friend Cherie said I was ready and it would be great for my riding to have Jimmy take a look at me early in my learning.

I’d gone cross country jumping twice with Cherie and it was fun, because Birdie was so fantastic. I told Cherie, I didn’t want to be the class clown. She assured me we belonged there. I’d observed the last cross country clinic with Jimmy and they didn’t jump anything I wouldn’t have been completely comfortable with. Besides, Birdie had come so far. He was much more relaxed and happy with me now. His only issue was ditches. What could go wrong?Well, I know Jimmy Wofford sees hundreds of riders, maybe thousands. One thing I’m sure of – if I ever ride in another clinic of his, he’ll remember me – and Birdie.When we arrived, all was great. Both Birdie and Katchi, Cherie’s horse, stood quietly on the trailer while we set up our stuff for the day. We were early and had time to watch the clinic before us for a time. So we unloaded the boys and headed down the hill to watch, and let them graze. Birdie was relaxed and I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. We were watching the Prelim people and Cherie said, “We won’t have to jump that stuff, our jumps will be much easier.” I remembered the last cross country clinic and felt certain she was right.There was some question as to exactly what time we were to start, and down the hill came a gal that was riding in our clinic with her horse tacked, but in a halter. We decided we should do the same. Everything was going great. Finally the time came to get on our horses and warm up. Jimmy would be coming down that hill soon to begin. I got on Birdie and it was as if an electric shock went through him.

Suddenly, it was the horse that arrived at my farm. Filled with anxiety and leaning on the bit for assurance. Then he backed over a bush, a real bush too, about 3 feet high. Well, all eyes were on me and Birdie, but not to worry. I was confident if I just sat quietly, he would relax. I know from riding so many racehorses, you can’t make a big deal of anxiety. You have to just sit.Jimmy likes to line you all up at the beginning of the clinic and learn your name and about your horse. I told him my name and that Birdie had competed to Training Level. He asked me how far I’d competed. I told him I’d learned to jump about two months ago. He said he’d have to keep an eye on me. Birdie was standing and I don’t think he was aware of the entire problem standing before him. My friend Cherie did try to help by telling Jimmy I can really ride. Thank you Cherie, I appreciate your vote of confidence.It was time to warm up in the sand arena. We were to line up single file, leaving enough room between us and jump a simple fence. Easy enough, I was sure Birdie would soon calm down, because jumping always seemed to pacify him. Well, we went around the edge of the arena and he just didn’t want to turn, through another bush and then finally headed to the jump. “Wait, stay out of his way, don’t sit down too early”, I reminded myself as we headed to the jump. He jumped it like he always does – great.

Thank you Birdie. It was that way every time, he didn’t want to turn but once headed to the jump, we were fine. I felt pressure, my horse was so up tight and leaning on me and everyone else could just, well, do the jump. Right about then Mr. Wofford said exactly what I needed to hear. Take your time, don’t worry about everyone else. At this point, I was sure everyone there thought I was an idiot. I have a rather thick skin though and wasn’t about to give up. I came there to learn and my horse needed to get through this. I continued to sit and relax my body as much as I could. Jimmy likes you to ride on a long rein and let the horse do the work. I knew this, but I also knew there was no long rein for Birdie unless he started to relax.

0083Jimmy covered this point before we set out to the first cross country fence. He looked at me and said he realized if I gave Birdie too much rein, he’d be gone and if I took too much hold, he’d be gone. He wanted me to try my best to get him on a longer rein throughout the day. I was glad he said that to me, because I really couldn’t let go of the hold. I’d tried it in the past when Birdie was in this mood and he not only took off, but his head went straight into the air. So much that I had to move my face to one side to keep from being hit.Now I want to take a moment to say, I love this horse. I adore him and I knew he was just having a bad day. I wasn’t mad at him. I felt bad I couldn’t give him what he needed. If I were a better rider, I’d be able to help him. He was upset and looking to me to make it better and I was failing him.The first cross country fence was simple, I’m not good at names so I’ll just say it looked like some logs with a little brush at the bottom. Same thing, Birdie was hard to get to the jump, but once he got there, he jumped flawlessly. My jumping style was not as good as most days, but I did a fair job.

Jimmy didn’t really rag on me about getting left a little here and there. He kept reminding me to figure 8 between fences to keep Birdie busy. I tried to, the best I could, but I knew if Birdie didn’t relax soon, I was going to get tired. We only ride racehorses when they’re like this for fifteen minutes or so. Birdie had now been in this mood for over a half hour. I was still sure if I just sat there, he’d come around.Jimmy Wofford is really great at telling you what you need to hear. That’s not the same as telling you what you want to hear. About halfway through this clinic he said to me he really liked Birdie, and that was important to me. He said Birdie just needed time and patience and would probably be a wonderful horse in four years. Well four years wasn’t exactly great news, but one thing I have is time.

Remember, this is all happening because of the Gray Monster.One thing I knew was that Birdie was teaching me. He made RIDE, he didn’t hand me anything. What kept me going on this day was the fact that I knew if I got through it, I’d be a better rider than I had been the day before. Birdie would be a better horse. I kept pushing back the little voice in the back of my head that tried to tell me I wasn’t going to make it through this day.I was getting tired and Birdie wasn’t relaxing. It was now over halfway through this clinic and I had remodeled my goal. Now I thought, if I just got through the day, just sitting quietly on Birdie and not making a big deal of his anxiety, the next time we went out, he’d be better. In other words, I lost all hope he was going to relax on this day.One other thing was happening. While I was sure that everyone else riding in the clinic, save Cherie thought I was an idiot at first. At this point I felt I had earned their respect. Now mind you, no one ever said or did anything the least bit unkind. This was in my head, and I guess I was feeling rather proud I’d made it this far.Jimmy occasionally would have me do an easier jump than the others, which truthfully, I was grateful for. He then instructed us to jump this sort of fake trakehner, then gallop down a hill and up another hill to a ramp (I think that’s what it’s called). That trakehner thing looked ominous to me. It had an awfully big telephone pole on it. I took a deep breath and headed out, it was my turn. Well, Birdie did what he does, he jumped it.

0095Hooray, I made it!! I got a little left and as I always do when that happens, I apologized to him. As Birdie always does, he accepted. Now, for the fun part, I’m great at relaxing horses in the gallop. That was one of my strong suits as an exercise rider. I let him out as he settled in to his rhythm. The ramp thing didn’t worry me at all. It seemed straight forward to me. Well you know where this is going don’t you?I’m going to say maybe 8 strides out Birdie said to me “I’m ducking to the left”. I said “No, don’t do that”. He said, “Okay, I’m ducking to the right”. I said, don’t do that either.” Then he said something I wasn’t prepared for. He said, “Okay, I’ll go.” Now that shouldn’t be a problem, but you have to keep in mind that although Birdie does quit once in a while, it really isn’t very often. Consequently, I have not developed the skills to get a horse to jump that’s quitting. Even worse, I had never had a horse that was quitting, change his mind and decide to go. It should have been great news and it was, for a moment. When Birdie said, “Okay, I’ll go.” I reacted. I leaned forward. Now all my weight was on his forehand as he was lifting off. I’m not sure, but I think since he was planning on quitting on approach, he wasn’t paying attention to the height of the jump. At any rate, he hit it – hard – and over his head I went. He was hanging over the jump.

Front feet on one side, back feet on the other. Struggling, looking over the jump. I looked up at him and pushed myself back, as soon as he saw me, he scrambled over the jump. He was looking for ME. He was in trouble and instead of saving himself, he looked for me.What a wonderful horse. What a kind and gentle soul. Who was now running around Win Green Farm at racing speed. New reins swinging in the air, back and forth. Wow, he is fast. Everyone else was down the hill, huddled together. I was later told, Birdie seriously thought about running right through all of the innocent bystanders on horseback. Cherie said, “holy cats, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he came around the corner (reins flapping below his neck) and zeroed in on his pack of horsey friends – myself and the other girl at the edge of the circle didn’t know where to go! I just kept thinking that surely he’d have enough sense not to actually run us over!” I was up on the top of that big hill. On display for all to see, as my horse made the rounds. Birdie even took time to go in and out of a turn out shed before deciding to come back my way. As he ran by, I reached out and grabbed the reins. Lucky catch really, and he was ready to be caught anyway. Cherie said Jimmy never said a word. It was a long walk down that hill. I was glad Birdie and I weren’t hurt. I will comment that hitting solid timber is painful, but I wasn’t hurt, hurt, if you know what I mean. I got to the bottom of the hill and a really nice girl was waiting to help me. I asked her if I should get back on, she said absolutely, so I did.Jimmy looked over at me and said, You got a little left over the first fence, so you overcompensated and jumped ahead on the second one. Something like that.

0163I was instructed to go and jump the first cross country jump I’d jumped that day until Birdie settled back down. Birdie did what Birdie does. He jumped like I’d never crashed him. Somehow that horse has confidence in me. When we’re approaching a jump, no matter how much I messed up the jump before; he says “I know you’re going to do it right this time!!” I don’t think I deserve it, but I’m thankful he is so forgiving.I was tired, very tired by now. I think we went to the bank next. Jimmy had me do the small bank and then told me to rest awhile, he wanted me to be able to do the water. Birdie has always been great at the banks, but I was very glad to rest. I said to Cherie, I get the trophy for most humiliating experience and I hoped she’d never win it back from me. I’ve been present for some of her, well, not so wonderful moments. I accept the fact, it doesn’t always go the way you plan when horses are involved.The rest of the clinic went without a hitch.

After one hour and forty-five minutes, I was finally able to ride Birdie on a loose rein. He was probably tired, but I was glad we had achieved that goal. I had lost hope we would.Now, I should have felt humiliated and sorry for myself – I think, but I didn’t. I really learned a lot. I had a stronger bond with Birdie. I had no idea how much he cared about me before that day. Also, he had finally relaxed, and had I reacted to his anxiety, it could have been a disaster. I do not believe that horses consider the time it takes to do something. I believe they think, “I did it or I didn’t do it. It was pleasant or it was unpleasant.” I don’t think they think “Ha, I made that human wait an hour to get me on that van.” Or “It took an hour and forty five minutes for me to relax that day.” I learned how to better deal with Birdie’s anxiety. I jumped lots of fences I’d never seen before. I also learned, it’s a lot better to get left than it is to jump ahead of a horse. Not only for the rider, but for the horse too. I rode under pressure and I made it through the whole clinic. I never gave up.

Comments are closed