Remembering the 1968 Olympics: ‘The gravel landing gave way to deep mud and I was pitched forward onto his ears…’

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  • Jim Wofford’s new autobiography, Still Horse Crazy After All These Years (If it didn’t happen this way… it should have), is a brilliant read for both the casual eventing fan and hardcore geeks.

    During his illustrious eventing career riding for the US, Jim won two Olympic team silver medals and the individual silver at the alternative Olympics in 1980, held due to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. His early eventing career was rooted in the army – his results had to be good enough to allow him to avoid the draft for Vietnam – and as his competition career wound down, he became one of the greatest coaches in the US.

    This book is wonderfully entertaining. Jim’s prose is flowing and easy to read, and his fascinating life will keep any reader turning the pages.

    It is also in many ways a history of the sport. US readers will be particularly interested in Jim’s accounts of riding at events that have become the pillars of their fixture list, as well as his involvement in the early days of many US equestrian institutions (the alphabets, as he calls them, because of the acronyms used for their names).

    But so much of what Jim writes about is universal worldwide in the history of eventing – the demanding fitness programmes horses needed for roads and tracks and steeplechase, the incredible influence of cross-country in the days when it was perfectly possible to contribute to a medal having had a horrific fall and remounted, the close attention paid to weight at a time when there was a minimum weight to be carried, but riders were very aware of not burdening a horse with extra pounds.

    On the subject of the latter, Jim acknowledges riders’ nutrition advice was lacking during the 1960s and 70s and his accounts of working out how to live on an army per diem and keep to a certain weight (no breakfast or lunch, alternate evening meals of wine and cheese and a pub steak) are particularly amusing.

    Do pick up a copy of this book – you won’t put it down until you’ve finished it.

    If you still need persuading, why not check out this extract from the book, in which Jim describes his experiences riding Kilkenny, known as Henry, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico…

    When determining the order of go for their riders, most teams followed the same strategy: the first rider out was the pathfinder. His job was to get home at all costs, in order to tell his teammates about the course. If he got around, the next rider could ride a little closer to the maximum bonus time, and so on. Remember, this was before the era of cell phones and closed-circuit TV. Teams needed elaborate “spy systems,” to gather as much information as possible.

    I was named first of the U.S. team, on the basis that Henry Kilkenny was our most experienced horse, and my performance at the Pan Ams had at least shown that I could take a licking and keep on ticking. I wasn’t supposed to worry about the time, just get around and set the table for Michael [Page], Kevin [Freeman], and Mike [Plumb], who would follow in that order. Henry had a phenomenal trot and could easily cruise at nearly 400 meters per minute (mpm). I had learned that rather than holding him to the required speed of 240 mpm on roads and tracks, I was better off letting him trot at his pace, and then walking when I could. He would walk on, take a few breaths, then strut off with me, obviously as eager as I was to see what the competition had in store for us.

    I followed the same strategy on the steeplechase, allowing Henry to cruise along at a pace that was comfortable for him. I started my watch but didn’t check it until the finish and was surprised at how easily he had made the time. I mentioned to Joe [Lynch, team trainer] in the vet box that the first three phases had no surprises for us, got a leg up, and after all those years of effort I was on course at the Olympics. Once again, I started my watch, but did not refer to it again.

    My strategy remained the same – to accept time faults, but to make sure I finished. Henry settled into a rhythm quickly, and things were going well until I jumped a simple ditch and rail at fence number seven. The landing was level, and covered with gravel, and we had not thought much of it when we walked it. However, the gravel was only a top dressing, and it quickly gave way to deep mud when a horse landed on it. I have a video of our efforts there – Henry jumped the rail in stride but punched through the gravel halfway up to his knees. The abrupt halt pitched me forward onto his ears, and the next thing I knew, I was hanging on Henry’s off side, with my left spur caught in the wither pad, and hanging on the left rein, which was crossed over the top of Henry’s head. My eyes were level with Henry’s right eye, and he stood like a statue while I laboriously pulled myself back into the saddle by using the rein as a rope.

    Extricating myself, I got my stirrups back, gathered my reins and set off again. I made no attempt to ask for speed, but every time we jumped onto a gravel landing, you can believe that I had my legs in front of me, anticipating another serious peck. There was an open ditch at the far end of the course; looking ahead, I could see a crowd gathered to the side, and a rider standing next to a form covered with a tarpaulin. I later learned that the first Russian horse, Ballerina, had broken her neck when her legs got stuck in the mud on landing over the ditch. I understood the situation, but I had my hands full and had to concentrate on getting home. I did not have any further dramas and finished about 30 seconds slow, a very acceptable performance for the pathfinder. I quickly shared my information about the footing with Joe Lynch, then ran up to our bungalow to change clothes. Michael was on course with Foster, and I missed watching his round, but could catch Kevin and Mike.

    As I looked out the window, a sudden rainstorm obliterated the scene. The weather had been perfect for me and Michael, but the footing changed dramatically as the course’s volcanic pumice soil turned to soup in the heavy rain. The competition was proceeding normally up to that point; however, the deluge changed the competition from a normal cross-country event to a fight for completion and survival. Kevin’s horse slid into a jump in rain so heavy that Kevin could not see it until the final strides; he had been staying on course by following the footsteps of earlier horses. A heavy fall there shook Chalan’s confidence and he had two more falls before completing, thus being eliminated. This put enormous pressure on Mike to finish, as by now we knew that any team that finished was in with a chance at a medal.

    Mike and Plain Sailing had a fall at the first water. By the time Mike got to 5AB, the gentle stream underneath the rails had become a torrent, and the water was so high that only the top rails of the in-and-out were visible. The water was moving so fast that it knocked Plain Sailing off his feet when he landed. Fortunately, Mike was able to remount and complete the course, thus assuring us of a team score. Mike told me that Plain Sailing was the bravest horse he ever rode; knowing he would fall if he jumped into swiftly moving water, he jumped anyway. Given the rough-and-tumble attitude of eventers in that era, I then thought that Plain Sailing was the model of a Classic horse, one that would fall rather than refuse or run out.

    Later that evening the scores were posted, and several things became apparent. Despite our difficulties, the U.S. Team was in second place behind the British, and I was in second place individually. Henry had the fastest round of the day by 30 seconds, with Michael the next fastest. For the second team competition in a row, Henry and I had the fastest time of the day, and we were developing an international reputation for speed.

    As we studied the scores, it was clear that there had really been two separate competitions – before the rain, and during the rain. Except for two fatalities (Ballerina and a horse name Loughlin that inexplicably suffered a rotational fall over one of the simplest fences on course), the first two riders from each team managed to complete because they had acceptable conditions. Once the rain started, the competition became a debacle. The only good outcome of the downpour was that it shorted out the generators needed to run the television cameras. Fortunately for the sport, no broadcast recorded the deaths of two horses, or displayed the extreme conditions.

    There would be time enough to learn from our experiences, but the vet check came next. Henry jogged out very well, a testimony to the care that Duffy and Dr. Jacque Jenny, our treating vet, gave him after the cross-country. We walked the show-jumping course, which was on one of the golf course’s main fairways. The footing was, in a word, horrible. Boggy in some places, hard and slick in others, it was going to increase the difficulty for horses who were already tired. I finished dressing for the show jumping, only to learn that Duffy [Smith, Jim’s groom], so nervous that Henry was in contention for a medal that his hands were shaking, had broken the outside caulk [permanent stud] of Henry’s left hind shoe.

    There wasn’t enough time for our farrier, Seamus Brady, to reset the shoe; we would have to go, while being extra careful on the turns. I went into the show jumping in second place but finished in sixth. Henry’s left hind slipped underneath him as he turned left toward the final line of obstacles, and I had a fall, thus losing my chance at an individual medal.

    Jim Wofford autobiography: the US team at the 1968 Olympics

    Kevin Freeman, Michael Page and Mike Plumb with Jim Wofford with their team silver medals at the Mexico Olympics. Credit: Ray Firestone

    While terribly disappointed at my individual results, I was proud to get a silver team medal, standing on the podium during the Olympic medal ceremony with three of my heroes. I have experienced all sorts of emotions in my life – marriage, the births of my two daughters – but I would have to add the emotion of watching the Stars and Stripes being raised in a foreign country, and knowing I had a part in making it happen. We stepped off the podium, remounted, took part in the victory gallop, left the arena, and just like that my Olympic experience was over.

    Still Horse Crazy After All These Years
    Published by: Trafalgar Square Books/HorseandRiderBooks.com and distributed in the UK by Quiller Publishing
    In the UK? View now at amazon.co.uk
    In the US? View now at amazon.com

    • Do you have memories of eventing from the roads and tracks and steeplechase days? Send your tales to hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and country, and you could win a bottle of Champagne Taittinger

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