Those of you who have read the late Jimmy Wofford’s instructional books know that his writing style was easygoing and friendly, like the man. His autobiography is everything I hoped it would be. It’s page-turner filled with personal anecdotes that range from touching to laugh-aloud funny. It’s also a fascinating inside look at the evolution of modern horse sports, especially eventing. Jimmy witnessed—or was a player in—many key moments.
Readers of EQUUS, Practical Horseman and his many books no doubt know that Jimmy died February 2, 2023. He was 78, and his loss has reverberated throughout the horse community.
Jimmy’s life story is the tale of a free-spirited, horse-crazy boy growing up among the horses and people who would become the legends of equestrian sport. Legends—that’s a group Jimmy belonged to, though he was always too modest to admit it. A three-time Olympian and veteran of countless other national and international competitions, he has long been one of the best-known (and most respected) eventing coaches in the world. His list of star students is a who’s who of the sport. When you read the back stories of people and events, you’ll see why I call this a page-turner.
Jimmy was born and raised on his family’s Kansas farm. His early years were the sort of rough-and-tumble outdoor existence that countless baby boomers shared, a time before cable television, computers, cell phones and riding helmets. The Wofford farm bordered Fort Riley, then home to the U.S. Army Cavalry School, and Jimmy’s father, Colonel John W. “Gyp” Wofford, was in uniform when he rode in the 1932 Olympics. But by 1948 international teams were no longer exclusively military, and five years later horses were phased out at Ft. Riley. The Woffords took in 73 unsold horses and gave them forever homes.
Born November 3, 1944, Jimmy missed his chance to follow in his father’s footsteps as a cavalry officer. His father succumbed to cancer in 1955, but his mother continued to breed horses on the Kansas farm who often showed up in competitions under Jimmy, his siblings and other relatives.
Jimmy managed to live his life in the presence of horses, as he intended. And some great horses at that. One of his favorites was Kilkenny (“Henry”), named the 2000 Irish Sport Horse of the Century by the Irish Horse Board. Jimmy’s mother bought the horse for her son in 1967 and the pair went on to be a part of the U.S. Equestrian Team eventing squad for the next six years. After Kilkenny was retired from competition, he became a regular in the Piedmont Fox Hounds hunt field, where Gail Wofford, Jimmy’s wife was the master of foxhounds for many years.
Jimmy was blessed with another special horse, Carawich (“Pop”). He would ride the gelding in the 1978 World Three-Day Championships at the new Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. It was the first time the event had been held in the United States. The course was tough enough to impress even the Europeans, and a wicked test in the heat of September. (I know. I was there as a rookie reporter for the Baltimore Sun.)
Jimmy and Carawich had a fall on the cross country course and settled for a team bronze. But he was back in Kentucky in 1981 to win on Carawich and again in 1986 with The Optimist (“Bill”). Those competitions were the longer, harder “classic format,” not the “short format” used today. Look it up. You’ll be amazed.
After he retired from competition in the 80s, Jimmy served as an officer in various governing bodies of horse sports. Over the years he also shared his wisdom by writing instructional books and monthly columns in Practical Horseman with his longtime editor, Sandra Cooke.
On their Upperville, Virginia, farm, Jimmy and Gail raised two daughters who shared their parents’ passion for horses and gave them four grandsons. In recent years Jimmy found time to fish and hunt with faithful dogs by his side, as he did when he was growing up in Kansas.
He opened Still Horse Crazy After All These Years with a Native American expression: “They say a person who experiences an extraordinary connection with animals and the natural world is ‘standing in the shadow of a rainbow.’ I have spent my life standing in the shadow of a rainbow.”
In the pages of this book, Jimmy welcomed fellow horse lovers to briefly share that rainbow shadow. It’s a special experience.