Jim Koford caught the eye of many last year when he received the $25,000 Anne L. Barlow Ramsay Annual Grant from The Dressage Foundation to train in Europe. On his return he duly won the finale of the Dressage Under the Stars Series in Wellington, Florida, dressed as Batman, which garnered even more press and attention! His lovely horse
Robin Rhett, belongs to Versailles, KY based equine chiropractor Shirley McQuillan so he's been based here in Lexington for a couple of months, and when my eventing friends started raving about him, and driving from as far afield as Louisville to take lessons with him, that's when I sat up took notice too.
Sadly for us all here in Kentucky though, Jim is en route to Virginia now,
"I say I'm from North Carolina but I haven't been there for a while. I've been a bit of a gypsy for the past few years. I'm going to Middleburg for the summer, and then back to Germany in the fall."
Jim spent his grant money training with Michael Klimke in Germany, where he said he discovered EventingNation.com.
"EventingNation was my lifeline to all that was happy and good and American, while I was in Germany where everything was quite serious and intense. I just loved it and became addicted! Now I read it all the time."
This isn't as random as it sounds because Jim has a not quite so secret eventing past. I'd assumed that he was an eventer turned dressage rider but not at all...
"I've always been stronger in the dressage than any other phase, but I did a bit of everything. After college I was living in Northern Virginia and working for Equus magazine, and doing a bunch of serious, professional jobs while doing dressage on the side. At some point I decided I wanted to give horses a go, so I took a sabbatical from work. With dressage you spend your life in a 20 x 60 m box, and I went to Badminton
to watch on vacation, and then I went on one of those cross country training holidays, and I thought, this is what is missing in my life! So I came home and bought a horse from Peter Green and got on with it! At that point I'd been working in Washington DC for ten years and I was ready for something completely different. My whole eventing career was so ill-advised really, I didn't have a coach, it was just something I did for fun. Back then ( late 90's, hardly the Stone Ages!) you didn't really need to qualify I was just an arrogant dressage rider who would put up a couple of rickety standards at the back of the barn and go over them back and forth a few times and think that was great. It wasn't like I took lessons, or thought perhaps I should get some advice: I did one preliminary, a couple of intermediates and then moved up to advanced. I had no idea about how to get a horse properly fit, I just did everything I'd been taught in pony club!"
Jim has a great sense of humour and is a very funny story-teller, happily poking fun at himself, (unusual for an american, and even more so for a dressage rider?! ) he's very laid back and gregarious, but mostly it's obvious, he really enjoys horses, all horses and all aspects of his life with them. But back to the eventing.. how on earth did he get on at Rolex...
"I was pretty psyched! I only fell off once! Otherwise I made it around the course. Then I had to retire that horse because of a stupid injury in the pasture, and I got another funny little horse from Elizabeth Iorio, that didn't work out for her, so she suggested I give it a go because I was bitten by the bug. I kept on and took him advanced and did the long format 4* at Rolex with him, but before that I had done a 2* and several 3*'s, and this time I made it round Rolex and didn't fall off!"
I wondered if people tried to offer Jim advice on his eventing career choices,
"No, because I didn't really tell anyone what I was doing! I just snuck out on weekends. I'm still a mild-mannered dressage professional during the day, and then I would sneak out when no one was looking and run an event on the weekend, and for me I didn't really care how I did, I mean I tried to keep my penalties under 100, that was like a big thing for me! I didn't really have any problems jumping, and I figured I could always fix the dressage, except I never could fix the dressage, they were complete nutters, it was hideous! I think I probably put in the worst rides at Rolex ever performed, honestly! I was riding at Grand Prix dressage though, literally the weekend after Rolex I was going out riding Grand Prix dressage.
I'm busy all the time with students and horses literally all day long in my dressage job, with things that have to be done, so my poor event horse got put on the back burner a bit, he wasn't such a serious thing for me. I wasn't trying out for any teams, I wasn't trying to impress anybody. On cross country, I'd come round the corner, if I wanted to swing wide and take an extra tug to make sure it was right, I was going to do it, because once again, it was all about a good time, it wasn't about me needing to be Bruce Davidson!"
Plans were tentatively to go to Burghley after Rolex, but horses being horses
"My horse was in a trailer accident on the way home from Kentucky in 2000. I'd ended up bringing another person's horse home from Rolex because we were going to train together, and I was going to fix the dressage, once again, (!) but he never recovered from the trailer accident."
...and Jim hasn't evented since,
"I do miss it, but when I look back I shudder to think of the things I did! I had wonderful, funny good times though, and wonderful, funny, good horses, and every weekend was like a great adventure because I had no clients; I didn't have to impress anybody, dress up or be on my best behaviour, it was was more about getting together with my friends for the weekend and it was a giant, funny good time, and you got to go cross country, and it was a really magic time in my life, and it felt like nothing bad could happen, and fortunately it didn't! (Jim laughs!) I zipped around the courses, grinning ear to ear, and hung on. I was on super-talented horses that luckily saved the day for me. The horse that I got from Peter (Bank on It) is now 30, and when I ran Rolex, I ran down to the biggest jump I'd ever seen and just missed badly, so so so badly. I grabbed the mane, let him do it and landed on the other side; he didn't touch wood and he almost bucked me off on the other side and I told him, 'you have a home for life'. That's one of the things I miss about eventing: I can go into a line of pirouettes, or a line of tempi changes, and if I don't give the exact right cues it's not going to happen. In eventing you go to that fence and it's not something you do together, that horse has to say, 'gotcha, got you covered', they do it FOR you. It's the most amazing, humbling thing to ride these horses that give you so much. You try to prepare them and train them, but when the rubber hits the road, it's the horse doing the job and you're just there with them, letting them do their job well. I do miss that."
I asked Jim if he would ever consider eventing again?
"I could definitely do it better, and faster, but it was totally a fun thing for me. I was never planning to go professional. It was my avocation, not my vocation. To do it again wouldn't be the same. The horses sort of came to me, they kind of fell into my lap. I wouldn't do it unless it was on a very special horse. When I was on a magic, special horse like I was then, I felt like I could jump anything so I was up for it, let's do it!"
Jim still enjoys teaching the eventers though, and even some jumpers,
"When I lived in Southern Pines that's what I spent all day doing, riding event horses, helping event riders get ready for their dressage, and I think there's so many unbelievable horses and unbelievable riders that are really gifted, and to help them find their way a bit in the dressage is great. One of my first students was John Williams, and I couldn't believe anyone would take me seriously when I had just been so appalling at the events! I do love teaching event riders because I look at the physical talent of the horses and the riders, and it's really impressive, and the thing is they're not always polished, but they're always effective. It's interesting how many event riders compartmentalise the riding; for instance they're so capable of getting a horse balanced up, like if they came around the corner and had to jump a big vertical they'd be sitting, balanced and straight and then give it a good ride to that jump, yet they'll go in a dressage ring and for some reason they'll often leave their effective riding in the show-jumping ring. We'll be in the dressage ring, and say half-halt and they don't know what to do! As a dressage coach I just try and make them take what they're already doing and just put it in their dressage test; then they can get their horses straight and balanced, uphill and active - for me it's easy to just shape them up a little bit, they already know how to do it. It's making eventers re-think and re-focus on how to ride just as effectively in the dressage ring as they do over jumps. It's a completely different standard now too, especially shortening the format, the type of horse that can be used many times can focus and handle the pressure of collection, and the demands of the dressage test. The sport has become so serious that there's fortunately less people like me in it that do it ( I disagree !), the level of professionalism is really astonishing to see, the growth, and just how good these horses and riders are."
Jim is rather good at the dressage game himself, and is making a serious bid for London next year, but I have to drag that out of him!
"I have a super horse, Rhett, bred right here in Kentucky, I think he's the only US bred horse in years to have done anything. Again, he sort of fell into my lap, I got a phone call from a friend to say she had a horse that wasn't really working out, and I happened to be in the area, had a slot open in my trailer, so I told her if he loaded, I'd take him. He did load, and we got on like a house on fire; we moved him up to Grand Prix in Germany last year. He's 11 this year, and bigger and larger than life - huge movement, huge power, huge personality, when we focus it, amazing things happen! Our challenge is keeping everything stuffed in the box so that we can channel all that energy."
Jim also seems lost for words when I ask him why he thinks he seems to find the keys to horses other people tend to give up on,
"I don't know...I get bored easily? I don't know? People shop for the perfect horse but I sort of let the universe provide what I needed..I had had a super Grand Prix horse before this that was like My Friend Flicka, my favourite horse ever, and he was doing super and then life unraveled and he got EPM. He was small and black, this little ferarri, so I had said to myself I wanted big - big head, big feet, hybrid bigger, everything completely the opposite of this horse, and my friend gave me a call about this other horse, and I was like, alright, this is exactly what I ordered! Really though, I'm just grateful for all the opportunities I get."
Jim will take 14 horses to Virginia with him, "they have a way of multiplying", as well as "the best young rider in the country: she's dynamite - focused, hungry, wants it badly." That would be Holly Shook, Jim's new assistant, "she's my assistant, she can help warm up, cool down, unbelievable rider, and unbelievable to have her as my eyes on the ground, and hopefully she'll bring her horse and come with me to Germany in the fall to compete in the Young Rider World Cup." When he returns to Europe Jim will take Rhett, as well as hopefully another up-and-coming Grand Prix horse, "don't get me started, he's just the coolest thing ever!" and this time they'll be based with Edward Gal. Don't expect Jim to settle down anytime soon, but you can cross your fingers to watch him ride in London next summer. Thanks for talking to us, Jim, safe travels! Thanks for reading, go have fun and go eventing!