The Literary Jim Wofford: A Review of ‘Still Horse Crazy After All These Years’

Readers of Eventing Nation will know James C. (“Jim”) Wofford as one of the premier three-day event competitors and trainers of event horses and riders of the past half century. A team and individual medalist in Olympic Games and World Championships, Wofford also won the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses. He has coached the Canadian national team, and has taught a stellar roster of students, packed with U. S. Olympic and four-star riders, that comprises a who’s who of elite three-day eventing.

Many readers also will know Wofford as the author of technical and practical books, such as Training the 3-Day Event Horse and Rider, Gymnastics: Systematic Training of the Jumping Horse, and Cross-Country with Jim Wofford, and as a regular columnist in Practical Horseman. Fewer readers, though, may know Wofford as the writer of two literary works that are primarily but not only about horses: a collection of occasional essays, Take a Good Look Around (2007), and the recent memoir, Still Horse Crazy After All These Years (2021).

Take a Good Look Around

Imagine an equestrian writer not parented by a celebrated horseman and expert horsewoman, as Wofford was, but rather, say, by Mark Twain and Chelsea Handler, and you will have a sense of Take a Good Look Around—a collection of tall tales in the tradition of mild exaggeration and local color, on one side, and in the more current style of wild hyperbole and slightly off-color jokes, on the other. “My attitude,” Wofford repeats often with variations, “is that if it did not really happen the way I tell it, it should have.”

Comparing Take a Good Look to Wofford’s emails, William Steinkraus called it “usually funny in a very original way, often provocative and occasionally poignant.” Reflecting that tonal range, the book takes its title, Wofford notes, from an acerbic local expression for a guest who has drunk too much and won’t be invited back, but it also inevitably recalls Paul McCartney’s more genial plea to his Old English Sheepdog in “Martha My Dear”—a juxtaposition that also reflects Wofford’s ease with references from the folksy to the cosmopolitan, from how cowboys walk, for example, to Keb’ Mo.’

Take a Good Look, Wofford writes, “is about training horses, but it is also about people, and Labradors, and trout, and quail, and ducks, and places I have been, and our interaction with the natural world.” It has three parts: Hooks and Bullets; Mostly Horses; and Verse. Its first part, a sporting travelogue, roams from bird hunting in Texas to duck hunting in the Bayou, from trout fishing in Ireland to salmon fishing in Alaska, spinning tales of adventures and mishaps well-lubricated by “all-purpose brown.” Its brief third part comprises three verses, charming encomia to countryside, dogs, and foals.

The book, though, pivots on horses, “because my whole life has been dedicated to their training and welfare.” It opens with an essay on the Miles City [Montana] Bucking Horse Sale and, for example, its rollicking street bands—”You aren’t going to hear a lot of Cole Porter here, but you will see some fancy two-stepping.” Wofford uses the occasion to amplify his assessment of George Armstrong Custer, who appeared earlier as “an idiot . . . who nails his own horse right between the ears with a .44 slug,” and now as “a glory-hunting egomaniac . . . profligate with the lives of his men.” An entertaining essay, it speaks less specifically to eventers than do the three that follow it.

Those are Wofford’s authoritative “weblogs” posted from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2002 World Championships, and 2004 Athens Olympics. Since standings and scores would have appeared online prior to his reports, he notes, “if I was going to keep people interested . . . it would be because of my commentary, not my reportage.” The articles, consequently, read as polished dispatches, packed with insight, on horses, riders, overall event conditions, and, particularly, cross-country courses and specific rounds made on them. The posts from Athens also dwell on the new “short format,” sure to prompt a controversy about its “rights and wrongs,” a battle that Wofford would join more fully in Still Horse Crazy.

Still Horse Crazy After All These Years

A sustained narrative rather than a collection of essays, Still Horse Crazy is a fully realized literary work at once wry, wistful, and elegiac, like the Paul Simon song echoed in its title. It treats memory, for example, not as a simple instrument, but as a vexed process. Its subtitle and refrain, “if it didn’t happen this way, it should have,” uses a light hand to make a point. Both factual and fanciful, Horse Crazy not only will report the horse world as witnessed by Wofford, but also will explore Wofford’s subjective experience of the horse world—an interplay of public history and private memory, each with its own form of validity, its own set of challenges and rewards, and its own claim on the reader’s attention.

Still Horse Crazy, overall, unfolds Wofford’s life and multiple careers with horses—competitor, trainer, administrator, commentator, and writer—from his childhood in the 1940s and youth in the 1950s to the present day. The book also chronicles the history of Olympic-level three-day eventing, particularly its evolution from a military to a civilian enterprise and its transformations as both institution and sport. In addition to text, the book includes nearly a hundred photographs. Mainly professional action shots of horses and riders over fences, they celebrate three generations of equestrian partnerships.

Wofford, the book begins, has been “horse crazy” his whole life, “obsessed with horses . . . how to ride them, how to train them, how to care for them, how they think, and how we should think about them.” After growing up in a “horse-crazy family,” he married Gail Williams, “horse crazy, too,” and now his wife of over fifty years. Driven by “an instinctive, irresistible power,” he determined when young “to pursue a life that revolved around horses”—a life, he concludes some four hundred pages later, spent “on the back of a horse, complete,” that is, with perhaps a nod to Le Comte d’Aure, a life as a centaur.

Family looms large in this memoir. Wofford’s father, a cavalry officer, rode on the U.S. Army show-jumping team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and was non-riding reserve rider at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; he was a founder and the first president of “the newly formed civilian U.S. Equestrian Team [and] coach of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic show jumping and eventing teams.” His mother bred Olympic level “Thoroughbred sport horses,” including “three of the four horses on the Helsinki eventing team,” and the mare Hollandia, ridden by Wofford’s sister-in-law in the 1960 Rome Olympics. His brothers were Olympians and his wife an avid foxhunter and former MFH; their daughters and grandchildren are all riders.

The military looms equally large. Three-day eventing emerged from cavalry training, and “from the first equestrian Olympics in 1912 until 1948,” Wofford reminds us, “participants were exclusively men in uniform.” Wofford’s boyhood dream was “to be a cavalry officer between 1920 and 1940: I would have been paid to ride, show, steeplechase, play polo, and generally live a horseman’s dream.” Although that option disappeared when the Army dehorsed, “close family friends,” mainly senior Army officers who had ridden with his father, arranged for Wofford to complete his military service in the 1960s by training for Olympic competition and coaching at the U.S. Army Pentathlon Training Center.

The early chapters of Still Horse Crazy, of course, focus on Wofford’s training. Coaches at Gladstone, New Jersey, “the mecca of the U.S. horse world,” emphasized “a different system of riding than I was used to . . . no longer the U.S. Cavalry system, as developed by General Harry Chamberlin,” but one based on controlling “every movement of the horse.” As a result, “I was changing my riding from an Italian system [as modified by Chamberlin] to a German system.” Over time, he would learn to combine them, tutored both by practical experience and the work of classical and modern writers on military equitation, especially Chamberlin, who had taught Wofford’s father and whom Wofford reveres.

That experience and reading had a salient effect. Following the Caprilli revolution, theorists had dismissed dressage as either antithetical or irrelevant to jumping and riding across country. Chamberlin, though, revived the nineteenth-century cavalry’s emphasis on the critical role of dressage in training the cavalry horse and rider—not only for the discipline needed to maneuver in close formation, but also for the suppleness and agility needed to cover ground and jump fences. Not surprisingly, and despite his obvious passion for the cross-country phase, Wofford has advocated consistently for the importance of dressage in training event horses.

Later chapters, and the bulk of the book, focus on Wofford’s career in elite international competition from 1959 to his retirement in 1986. His riding successes were legion: they feature Olympic, World Championship, and National Championship medals, including an individual Silver Medal in the 1980 Alternate Olympics, and two wins at Kentucky: “wire-to-wire” in 1981, and “at my final Classic” in 1986, the latter allowing him to “retire on top.” Likewise his teaching successes: Wofford’s students included all four members of the U.S. Bronze Medal team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three of the four members of the U.S. Gold Medal team at the 2002 WEG, and individual medalists at three Olympic games.

Despite those successes, however, Still Horse Crazy shies neither from Wofford’s failure, at times, to make teams, win competitions, or accrue championships, nor from the riding mistakes that caused the missed opportunities, nor from the frustrated ambitions that followed them. In a slump in the late 1970s, for example, Wofford “had ridden in the Olympics twice . . . but hadn’t been on a Team of any sort for five years [and] had not won any competition above Preliminary level since 1972.” While that would change for the better with the 1980 Olympics and a ranking of “number three in the world . . . I was still unsatisfied. I wanted to be the best event rider in the world before I retired.”

In the early 1980s, in any case, and while still competing, Wofford began looking toward “the next chapter in my life, a life that would not revolve around competitions.” He became immersed in “the world of horse politics . . . what Gail called the alphabets (AHSA, USCTA, USET, FEI, USOC, IOC),” a commitment that occupied him through 2004. He served as “an officer in all three associations responsible for my sport—the USET, the USCTA, and the AHSA.” With a brother and sister-in-law holding similar positions in England, “we were responsible for about 150,000 riders.” Like much in his life, in a word, this service too was a “Wofford family affair.”

As noted earlier, the essentially bifocal Still Horse Crazy chronicles the world of U.S. eventing as closely as it does Wofford’s journey through it. Eventers in the 1960s, for example, were “a small, disorganized group of people who wanted to gallop at speed over solid obstacles and then party like hell that night.” By the early 1970s, however, “USCTA [subsequently USEA] had grown from several hundred members to more than a thousand.” Likewise event horses. In 1966, “the U.S. eventing team . . . assembled every conceivably qualified horse in the country . . . and it wasn’t an impressive list”; by 1984, horses had to compete to qualify. Even so, Wofford sums up, “opportunities [taken] for granted . . . today simply did not exist in eventing in 1984.”

Growth in numbers aside, the change from “classic” to short form in the early 2000s, in Wofford’s view, changed everything: horse breeding and training, rider strategy and tactics, and, of course, scoring. While classic events “were usually decided by the speed and endurance test,” the short form weights dressage. Neither format is a cake walk, but Wofford’s preference rings clear: “I have enjoyed both the psychic payoff from success in an upper-level, big-time short format event—and the ecstatic joy one feels after completing a Classic. They are not even close. There is no sensation like completing a Classic cross-country phase. And when your horse has come out on top of the placings? Indescribable.”

That brings us, finally, to the not-so-secret heroes of Still Horse Crazy: horses. Without a fit, bold, and superbly trained animal as a partner, Wofford makes clear, no rider, no matter how expert, can achieve excellence at the highest levels. While the perfect equine partners for success arrive reasonably soon for some riders, such as Prince Panache for Karen O’Connor or Custom Made for David O’Connor, others turn up later, such as Three Magic Beans for Nina Fout or Donner for Lynn Symansky. In the meantime, such outstanding riders must bide their time and endure the frustration of deferred dreams.

Counting himself among them, Wofford did not lack for good horses, but he still had not found, by the 1970s, “a horse with talent to match my dreams.” He soon would. Following Kilkenny (Henry), “a young man’s ride [who] disliked dressage,” and Castlewellan (Paddy), who excelled in dressage and could have won either classic or short form events, Carawich (Pop) “found” Wofford, as he puts it. Thus began a “partnership with the best horse I would ever ride . . . I rode him for four years, and there was never a time when I did not feel that he could read my mind.” Perfectly matched, the partners excelled in the 1978 World Championships, 1980 Olympics, and 1981 Kentucky Three-Day.

As should be obvious, any eventing competitor or spectator will find Still Horse Crazy After All These Years a highly instructive and rewarding read—a tour through the recent history of the sport with an expert guide who experienced it first-hand. Readers also will enjoy the book’s literary quality. As a youth without TV, Wofford devoured literary classics; later, as an undergraduate, he studied them formally. He appreciates good prose, in short, so he takes lessons in writing, as well as in riding, from models like Harry Chamberlin, whose “literary work reminds us of the power of the simple declarative sentence.” Along with Chamberlin, Jim Wofford belongs to the select group of horsemen and horsewomen who, over the centuries, have both ridden with tact and written with finesse.

Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, and the author of Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, forthcoming in January 2022 from University Press of Kentucky.

Still Horse Crazy After All These Years, by Jim Wofford, is available in print and eBook from Horse and Rider Books here