I knew this day was coming. My brain just couldn’t accept it. When has there not been a Kansas Wofford in my life? Relating to all the posts, sadly, I asked myself the same question. What are we going to do now??? After a minute or two, the better question became quite clear.
‘What would Jimmy have us do?’
Apparently, he heard me. An image of Jimmy stood before me. Hands on his hips, clear as day, squaring me in the eyes from somewhere over a Kansas/Virginia rainbow, came his answer.
‘Carry On…Practice the Basics…Read the Masters…Read My Books!’ I think that’s what he would really want us to do.
Asking Jimmy for advice on the eve of his death was my brain’s way of dealing with the grief and loss of all the Woffords I had known all my life.
I couldn’t sleep that night. A memory bank search ensued and began replaying every episode of Life with The Wofford’s it could dig up. Growing up in the proverbial Wofford back yard meant there were a lot of seasons and episodes.
From a very young age, I knew the Woffords as Kansas neighbors, family friends and fellow equestrians. I knew Rimrock Farm and Ft.Riley. It seems time to honor them all, and begin to briefly share a few glimpses that graced us.
Where it all began…
Growing up in Kansas made it hard to believe the earth was round.
Even though my family lived on the highest point in Kansas City, elevation idk…20 feet above sea level, I spent a lot of time wishing I was beyond the flat and could see over the horizon.
Horses were part of everyone’s lives back then. Still viable as transportation and for work, horses continued to pull their own weight in society. They did everything from pull spiked railroad ties that resurfaced streets to Beer wagons to Caissons and many tasks in between. And apparently, Jimmy, to school! If I had known that then, I would have been jealous. I had to walk.
Restaurants were named The Golden Ox and located right next to the Stock Yards for the freshest cuts this side of Denver. Next door in one of the oldest indoor arenas and livestock exhibition halls in the United States, champion horses and prize cows from all over the country competed at the
American Royal Livestock and Horse Show. We had mounted U.S.Cavalry drill exhibitions and the Canadian Mounties, too.
Until Howdy Doody, Hop Along Cassidy and The Lone Ranger came alive right in your living room, (cowboys and horses) television was just something you watched on Friday and Saturday nights for a few hours at your grandmother’s house, if that. Scenes in commercials were full of nature and animals were the stars. A beaver brushing its teeth, a bear selling beer, and twenty mules pulling a wagon full of borax to brighten up your wash. Every single part of nature and a horse seemed important and useful in some way.
Groomed for Resilience…
Spending so much time outside in Kansas meant you developed an educated palate for the delicacy and texture of dirt-o-the-plains. The gritty substance was laced with a hint of corn, milo, horses and cow manure. To eat, or not to eat the fine Kansas dirt wasn’t really an option. You breathed, you ate it.
Winters could be brutal and well below zero, with snow burying your car and barricading you inside your house. One winter, Dad opened the front door to a solid floor to ceiling wall of snow, packed so tight and high, he had to get a shovel and start digging from the living room, inside out. Our Plymouth parked in the street, because that’s as far as Dad got the night before, looked more like a bunny slope than a car.
On the flip side, Kansas in the summer could be heat stroke hot and jungle humid. Temps might and did reach 120 degrees. Clothes became a second skin. Basically, we were all walking laundry lines on constant drying cycles.
Lest I forget tornados. A regular occurrence, we had multiple options for close encounters. The worst would threaten to suck you and your horse up during Pony Club and drop you off in Omaha.
Kansas groomed us to be resilient.
The First Wofford…
My earliest memories of road trips to Junction City and Ft. Riley began around 1958. Warren, JEB, Dodie and Jimmy’s mother, Dot, was the first Wofford I met. Col.Wofford, stationed at Ft. Riley, had recently passed away. Jimmy was attending Culver and JEB and Warren were competing. I think Dodie was married to Paul by this time and living in Wichita, so Dot was left to manage Rimrock.
Solid steel from head to wing-ed tail lights, our navy and light blue two-door Plymouth, a heavy metal behemoth of a tank-like vehicle, was the horsepower that got us to Ft. Riley and Rimrock. It got us anywhere in any kind of weather. Unless, of course, she was buried in snow, which, thankfully only happened that one time.
Air conditioning in cars back then meant all six windows were open and rolled down all the way. Triangle-shaped ‘wings’ unlocked and swiveled at an angle, making six possibilities for maximum air circulation. To get the full panoramic scene and for ultimate climate control, you rested your chin
on crossed arms which sat on the hot steel door frame until you had to peel your arms off because your face was starting to feel a lot like sandpaper.
We had the best seat for counting cows, silos, oil wells, trains, horses, round barns, barbed wire, coyotes, meadowlarks, and buzzards. Long bench seats were leather or vinyl and long pants or a towel were essential! Albeit a hot one, our summer road trips and trips to the barn were always adventures with a lot of nature and imagination to tune into.
On a Mission- Ft. Riley to Rimrock…
As the crow flies, Kansas City to Ft. Riley was one hundred and thirty-three point eight miles, one way. Wait in the car, Blondie, were my orders. I carried them out in front of the flat-faced barracks like the dutiful dog tag-wearing, real soldier’s daughter I was. After about an hour, Dad would stroll out. He never said what transpired at his Ft. Riley meetings. Next stop, Junction City. Ready Blondie? Rimrock Farm here we come.
I remember the first time walking through the big front door at Rimrock was a relief. The house was cool and dark compared to the hot-air balloon air and sharp-shinned sun outside. My father and I followed Dot through the dining room. On the credenza was a black wire cage and inside was a Mynah Bird.
Many say I have a great memory. Which, for the most part, is true. Except for that Mynah Bird. For my entire adult life, until Jimmy finally unveiled the mystery in Still Horse Crazy, for some reason, I blanked out where that Mynah Bird lived.
My email to Jimmy went something like…’ OMG! Finally!!! I have been trying to remember where that creepy Mynah Bird lived! And now I remember asking your Mom to let it out of the cage, but she wouldn’t do it.’
“Oh, dear. He would make a huge mess,’ Dot said! Apparently so. Back to horses…
From 1957 through the mid to late 1970s, we rode daily, Pony Clubbed every weekend, foxhunted, helped with Polo, competed regularly, and took clinics from renowned equestrians. In the very early days, Hugy Wiley and Gordon Wright made memorable impressions as visiting clinicians.
Hugh was very quiet and jovial. Most of us were more interested in asking about Nautilus, the Horse With the Flying Tail than anything. Gordon Wright was quite the opposite. Solid, square, he barked instructions and drills to us little horse soldiers. You dare not, not pay attention! Through the bluster and bark, we learned precision and how to execute a drill perfectly.
Of course, by then we all knew Col.Wofford paved the way for Olympic Equestrians. Grateful also for Warren’s wife, Dawn Wofford, who was integral in the compilation of the British Horse Society Pony Club Manual, I wore out a copy until the USPC had its own version.
Dad traveled to England on a regular basis. He became good friends with Warren and Dawn. In 1968, Warren returned to the US to conduct clinics and visit his mother at Rimrock. Mission Valley Pony Club invited him to
instruct and that’s when I became one of his students. A new season and chapter in our respective professional equestrian lives was about to unfold.
Around 1970, I traveled to England for some equestrian certifications and coaching, and of course, spent time riding and training with Warren and Dawn. What a 3-week adventure that was! And an epic tale on its own. Never a dull moment with a Wofford around!
The last time I was at Rimrock was in 1973, right before Dot passed away. Warren asked me to accompany Lord Arkwright’s son, John, who was traveling to the US. Warren had arranged a stay at the family’s Lake House and then we would finish up with a few days at Rimrock with Dot. Jimmy and a few friends would be there as well.
The highlights of that trip were twofold. JEB was there and taught me how to play billiards. And Jimmy taught me how to water ski. Yup, water ski.
Jimmy at the helm, the engine idled at the other end of the tow rope. Rick was helping from the dock otherwise I would have drowned. “Put your knees up to your chin.” Then I screamed at Jimmy ‘WHAT DO I DOoooo?’ Bruce and Carol were watching, so I had to nail my inaugural trip around the lake the first time.
The eloquent and profound instructions coming from our illustrious Olympic lord of multiple discipline arenas screamed right back at me.
‘JUSSSSST. STAAAANND . UPPPPP!’ And off he went, full throttle.
I had no choice but to stand up. Two successful trips around the lake was enough for me. I let go of the rope.
Jimmy circled around and threw the boat back into idle. ‘Wanna go again???’
He was surprised at my answer. I thought this must be what a horse feels like galloping through a Kansas downpour. All those little needles of water pelting my face and body. Poor horses.
The last few days I spent at Rimrock on my own. Dot was very gracious and it was a pleasant and peaceful visit. And the last time I would see her before she passed away later that year.
Send Her On…
In the mid 80’s I was teaching some young students at a private barn. One, in particular, was constantly plagued by her pony dumping her in front of the jump. After a short conversation about who was in charge, we started working on some ‘JIMnastics’ which worked their magic! Wentworth worked very, very hard to overcome her problems. She was determined to practice and become a great rider. When it was time, I called Jimmy and said ‘I have this talented young woman who would like to come train with you.’
‘Send her on.’
A quintessential question…
About ten years ago, on an early morning phone call, I asked Jimmy if he would write the forward to my book, The Riders Art?
“I don’t do those.’
Ohhkayy… Would you read the manuscript?
‘Sure, I can do that.’
A few weeks later, we spoke again. ‘Nicely done, I think it will be well received.’ Wow. I was feeling humbled and grateful for the Jimmy-Woff-Wofford thumbs up. So I took a deep breath and said I had another question to ask him and I’d like to include his answer in the book.
‘Why do you ride, Jimmy?’
His first response was just as he said on page 395, a wise crack. ‘I was born to ride!’ flew right out. Automatic. Flip and from the hip.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know that as well as anyone, but really, Jimmy, ‘why do you ride? What for?’
I wanted the ‘real’ answer, not the standard Wofford legacy answer. I wanted the deep down reason why he rode horses.
Jimmy took a beat and a breath… his second crack at the answer was what I was looking for. Wistful and humble in his delivery, very quietly, his soul revealed the truth.
‘I want to be closer to nature.’
Silence on the landline followed. I think I bowed my head in reverence to his response. ‘I really appreciate your…’ And then, he liked where this was going! Expanding on the answer, Jimmy galloped forward like he was eventing Kilkenny and not sitting in his office chair…about how much he loved horses, their rhythm, and the feeling of freedom when he rode!
‘That’s why I ride!’ A statement of fact and revelation.
Born to ride or not..
Whether we are born a Wofford, a Steinkrause, Michael Page, Xenon, Muessler, Chamberlain, Beezie Madden, Mclain Ward, Denny Emerson, a Davidson, Farrington, or a mere Johnson, why we ride is because our horses invite us to. Horses are our raison d’etre, our life lessons, heartlines, and legacies. They are our rhythm. And riding them, freedom reins, reign.
Among many other life lessons, the Woffords taught me, some more than others stand out.
For one, Dot taught me never to get a Mynah bird! Warren was my long-time coach and taught me the art of finesse, how to ride ‘forward,’ to WARE HOLE!? albeit english-hare-sized-after the fact, and not to fear saying no.
And Jimmy…well, he made me a better writer and coach.
The Best Times…
The last time I saw Dot we were walking up the winding staircase at Rimrock. I noticed some worn places on the carpet. They vaguely resembled the shape of hooves.
“Hey Dot, what are these?’
‘Oh, that’s where Jimmy used to bring Merrylegs up to see us.’ Her usual stoic demeanor cracked a smile and gave a wee glimpse into where all the Woffords might have got their sense of humor.
Because I thought he could use a laugh and a happy memory, last year, I emailed Jimmy a video of a little boy riding bareback in his p.j.’s on his pony around the family living room.
Then I called to see if he got the video.
‘So, Jimmy, did you get the video?’
‘It was great!’
“Was it hard to get Merrylegs up those long winding stairs?’
‘Getting her upstairs was easy. It was HELL getting her down! Gotta go, thank you, they are taking me to chemo.”
These are just glimpses of the best of times with the Woffords. Hard to accept, I have never been without at least one Wofford to look up to, to challenge me, to learn from, in real life. Hence the idea of a bracelet that says WWJWD or in my case, What Would a Wofford Do?
So, I’m going to do my best to do what Jimmy said. I’m going to carry on, take a good look around, practice the basics, keep reading the Masters, and re-read his books. Write a lot and maybe fish some. I don’t shoot things. And for sure, water skiing will not be on my dance card.
From every corner of my being, I will continue to thank ALL the Woffords for gracing me with some of the best horse and life experiences, the influence they had on the equestrian industry, and my family.
See you all in the heavenly warm-up ring. And Please… Come again!’ Forever more, and above all…
RIDE LIKE JIMMY IS WATCHING! Because he is.
© Feb. 24, 2023 by Silver Johnson All Rights Reserved Excerpts from The Riders Art and Glimpses of Grace.