Sunday, August 30, 2009

Craig Thompson: Eventer, Turkey Farmer, and One Bad Mo' Fo'

Craig Thompson slides accomplishments under his belt like he's going through the all-you-can eat buffet at the Golden Corral. He's a successful upper-level rider (he won the Area II Advanced Championships in 2008), coach (read his student's testimonials here), cross-country course designer, and event organizer (he founded Surefire and Maryland Horse Trials). He also spear headed the Professional Riders Organization (PRO), and, oh, he's raising turkeys at his Shadow Lane Farm in Aiken, SC. As if that wasn't enough he's charming, clever, and witty to boot. Yeah, he's one bad mo' fo'.

Q. Where are you from originally?

A. I grew up in central PA and went to college at Dickinson in central Pennsylvania; that’s where I started out. I based my professional career in Middleburg before moving it to Aiken two and a half years ago.

photo by Emily Daily

Q. How did you get involved in eventing?

A. Well, I always wanted to be a cowboy! But there are no cowboys in central Pennsylvania so I got involved in pony club. I watched Radnor and I thought that was the coolest thing-- I want to do that. When I was a Young Rider I got hooked up with Wash Bishop, he was the hot shot young riders coach at the time. Wash was the first person who made me feel like I could really be a professional and make a living. It’s all his fault.

Like everyone I sort of kept going. I’d go to Florida for the spring semester. I was never really interested in going to college or being anything other than horseman. My father was close to Dickinson and I could keep horses there. Also, the Dean had a daughter who rode so she understood leaving for a semester and that kind of thing. It’s her fault too.

photo by Sarah Andrews

Q. Do you have a favorite horse?

A. Well, I like all of them, that’s what keeps us doing it. There have been lots of good horses for me, and horses I learned from. Orion, who I took to Fair Hill CCI*** the past few years, is quite a good horse. I’ve had him since he was three. He and I are probably best friends. You can’t train a horse that long and not like them. He’s ten or eleven. He’s a bad mo’ fo’. He’s as intelligent a horse as I’ve ever trained with an eye that’s a little bit of a mad scientist. He’s always thinking and contemplating his next move. To grab a dog by the scruff of the neck, he’d love to do that. A dog, a small child. We have automatically waterers and we had to take his apart since he kept dismantling it. He’s a little bit like me as a mechanic: he can take it apart but doesn’t put it back together. He won’t be sound enough to keep as an upper-level eventer so I’ll take him over timber or into the hunter ring. That’s good for an eventer—brave enough for timber and nice enough for the hunter ring.

Q. Are you in a relationship?

A. My girlfriend and I have been together for four years and live together and run the business. She’s competed through the 2-star level and thinks of it as hobby. She won’t ride if it’s hot, cold out, or early in the morning. She’s way smarter than me.

photo by Emily Daily

Q. What about eventing makes you get up every day and do it again?

A. I would say the big picture is that I like to do lots of things whether its horses or outside of horses. [With horses] the quality of life is high. I ride horses on a beautiful farm and green grass and blue sky. If I had to do dressage every day I’d go insane. Riding cross-country is great, great fun. There are very few event riders who would say they do it for the dressage.

Q. What made you make the move from Middleburg to Aiken?

A. I had been coming [to South Carolina] for the winters for a long time and I’d get back to Virginia in April and it would still be winter. In 2006 I bought a house before moving back. The area is not unlike Ocala or Southern Pines— it’s seasonal and a great place to train horses. Last year we went North for the summer, a reverse migration. This year we decided to stay here. We own a farm, Shadow Lane Farm, here which I couldn’t do in Middleburg.

Q. What words would you use to describe your farm in Aiken?

A. Depends on the time of year. This time of year it’s quiet and peaceful. In the winter it’s bustling and overwhelming. This winter we hosted, for the second year, the Aiken Event Horse Sale, a bit of an experiment. We modeled it on the Aiken polo pony sales. We

hosted four clinics with Jules Anderson (known best for training Julie Richards, who went to 2000 and 2004 Olympics) and Natalie Bouckaert (now Pollard). We had an eventing camp, which was fun and hosted a couple ICP workshops (Instructor Certification Program). I’m a big believer in that you always have to be getting better. If you’re not improving you’re slacking off. By the time April 1st rolled around we were pretty frazzled. This time of year it’s sleepy and quiet and pretty nice. A farm always has to look for ways to make money and be useful. A farm always needs to be doing something.

My project at the moment is to raise 300 turkeys for Native Meats. It’s local, pasture-raised meats sold in South Carolina. The idea is to create a local food economy. I spend twenty years learning about horses, now I’m learning about turkeys! You’d think 300 turkeys would make a racquet but they’re pretty low-key. The horses don’t know what to think but they don’t seem to be worried. Farms used to do so much more, now they only do one thing. The time I spent going to England there were plenty of yards that were just eventers, but lots were also agricultural.

Above: Craig farming those turkeys!

Q. How would your students describe you?

A. Just like my horses: A bad mo’ fo’. I don’t know, I enjoy teaching and I try to get feedback from my students. One of the things that’s underrated is too much emphasis on 45 minutes in a riding ring. There’s not enough emphasis on the beginning, which is a calm horse. And before we get that we need a calm rider. It’s hard to think about a canter departure if you’re nervous. When you’re calm you can. I teach the mental game which is so successful. I try to talk about it because riders and students need to be aware that every top rider has had to develop a better mental game. Working on our mental game is free. You can work on it in bed at night or driving down the road. There will always be someone with a nicer horse, or one who’s faster to the jumps, but not someone who has a better mental game. I would hope they say I teach not just riding but also calm and relaxation. I hope they would say I teach it’s okay to make mistakes. The fear of mistakes is crippling. You’re better off making that new mistake than repeating the same old mistakes. It’s hard to get out and be brave enough to be wrong. That’s how we get better. And they would say I’m stunningly handsome and cool.

Q. How did you get involved in cross-country course building?

A. Well, I’ve always liked power tool and chainsaws and tractors. I got into course building with Morgan Rowsel, who builds the

courses at Jersey Fresh and helped him with a bunch of courses. When I started the Surefire Horse Trials I built pretty much everything myself with a bit of Morgan's help , same thing the second year when we added Beginner Novice and Intermediate. It’s a good way to spend a day. Building and designing [courses] go hand in hand. You have to have some clues on how to set up an exercise, which gives us clues on how to ride. Tremain Cooper, who designs Morven and Poplar among other courses, and I worked together. He helped me think about course design and that’s a good thing to have in a tool chest. You have a better opportunity to understand an exercise. Though course designers, like riders, have to be prepared to be wrong. Mostly it’s just something I play with at home.

Q. What about event organizing?

A. I started Surefire and Maryland Horse Trials from nothing, from the farm land. I did feel like as a rider I knew how I wanted it to run. I enjoyed it at the time don’t miss it a lick. Starting an event from scratch is incredibly time consuming, I would do it again if we owned enough land; I would want to do something unique and special. Like a $100,000 Advanced invitational.

Q. How do you do it all?!

A. Don’t take any of it or yourself too seriously. How’s that? That’s the answer.

Check back soon for Craig Thompson Part II:

What do Advanced eventers and cats have in common? Find out at Three Days Three Ways!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jim Wofford Part III: Black Labs, Fly Fishing, and the Civil War

What does Jim Wofford think is different with upper level riders today? And what's he up to when not being an eventing legend? Let's find out...

The one thing missing is they don’t practice their galloping and don’t get practice riding at speed. There’s an outcry about eventing being dangerous. If you don’t know what you’re doing--any sport is dangerous. They don’t understand those techniques as well as dressage or show jumping. My goodness, Bettina Hoy and Ingrid Klimke, they ride upper level dressage for fun. Everyone is aware that Mark Todd won two gold medals in eventing. But did you know that he was 15th in show jumping in 1988?

Below: Bettina Hoy. Photo by Emily Daily

That’s one of his least known, best performances. If you want to know why he’s the horseman of the century, that’s why. And he did it just to amuse himself. Bill Roycroft, the father of Wayne Roycroft (Wayne was Chef d’Equipe of the Australian eventing team and retired from the FEI committee), won Badminton on El Dorado, who was also 3rd at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The modern event riders don’t even understand what the silver backs in the sport are talking about when they tell them about galloping and jumping at speed. They think the eventing speeds are fast. It is not the speed that is making the eventing dangerous. It’s the going fast out of balance that is bringing danger into the sport.

Q. If you had decided to take a path other than as horseman, what would it have been?

A. Never entered my mind. I did try some other things. I was very active for about 30 years in the horse organizations. I had an administrative career. When I retired in ‘84 I tried a couple of jobs in the real world and it was not going to work. At that time, fortunately for me, eventing took off and after about three years I was making more per year doing clinics on the weekend than I was working five days a week. So I thought, this is crazy, and set up shop again at Fox Covert Farm.

Below: Jim Wofford fly fishing

Q. What about when you’re not with the horses? How do you spend your time?

A. I love to fly fish, and during the winter I do a great deal of duck hunting, usually with a Black Lab beside me. Like the one laying here with me, Nacho, listening to make sure I’ve got it right. We’ve just taken his daughter into the family; her name is Peaches. She’s locked in the garage right now because she’s a bandit.

I do a great deal of writing now. I write a monthly column for Practical Horseman. I enjoy that greatly. They give me enormous latitude in the topics. As long as it’s about horses they pretty much accept it. So that’s a great deal of fun. I’ve just floated two book proposals and the editor has agreed to look at both of them more carefully so I’ll be working on those. I’ve written sort of a book of reminiscences called Take a Good Look Around. I don’t have anything that’s autobiographical in nature. I like to write about things I’m interested in, and writing my autobiography really doesn’t interest me. I’m much more interested in writing about dogs and horses and fish and that sort of thing. That’s pretty much my life.

Q. What interests you about the Civil War Era?

A. I’m interested in all sorts of military history because of my father’s history as a career Army officer. There are two aspects:

I had several relations in the war. There were Woffords on both sides of the Civil war just as most family’s had who had been in the country 150 years. The farm we purchased near the village of Upperville was part of Battle of Upperville which took place on June 18, 1863. It doesn’t happen so much anymore but people used to stop and ask if they could run their metal detectors and find they would find belt buckles and buttons and things.

Below: The Battle of Upperville from Harper's Weekly.

The major characters of the civil war were so interesting, amazingly interesting human beings like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. The WWI statesmen were so dry and dusty and uninteresting, unimaginative. WWII characters were again interesting and fascinating: Patton and Churchhill.

That’s where my reading goes. Shelby Foote wrote a three volume history of the Civil War. He was featured in the Robert Burns TV program on the civil war. He was from Mississippi and spoke with a soft southern drawl. That’s program is absolutely wonderful, I believe he got the Pulitzer for his trilogy on the Civil War.

Q. Is there anything else you wish I’d asked but didn’t, or anything else you want to add?

A. I’m 64 and semi-retired and what that means is I don’t teach on a daily basis, I’ve rented the stables out and it’s occupied by a hunter-jumper, but I’m doing more clinics than ever. I teach as much per week at other people’s local facilities as I used to per day. So I’m still at it. I don’t expect to ever totally retire and not want to fool with horses and riders. I think the economy is going to be so weak for so long we won’t be able to entirely retire. I’m living proof if you do what you love to do you’ll never work a day in your life.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jim Wofford Part II: Carawich and the Upper-Level Riders of Today

...Last we knew Jim wasn't sure if he'd be able to ride in the World Championship. See what happens next!

.....I had already looked around the scene in the US. Anyone that had a four star horse had stars in their eyes since they knew they had a good chance to ride in the world games. The rules were every country could send 6 riders, a team of 4 plus two official individuals, plus, an additional 6 national riders. So there were 12 slots. That is why there was such a scarcity of horses since any rider that had a potential horse didn’t want to turn loose of it.

Above: Jim Wofford on Carawich, Badminton 1979

It was about December 21st and I had given up. I thought my chances were pretty much over. And in December I called Lars and I said, “Lars, I’m looking for a horse for one of my clients.” I was looking for a school-master. I described the rider and what they could spend. He said, “Yes, yes, I’ve got several. By the way I have just hung up with Carawich’s owner who said Aly is expecting.” I said, “Call the owner back and tell them Carawich has been purchased.” I never rode him until he got here. I bought him untried. I rode him in the 1978 World Championship and was 10th and on the bronze medal team. I was the Silver Medalist at the Alternate Olympics in 1980. We won Rolex in 1981. I am especially proud of that because, it was not the first event at Kentucky Horse Park, but the first one sponsored by Rolex.

Jim Wofford and Carawich

In the summer of 1981 we took him to Germany because the 1982 World Championships were going to be there and the USET wanted an advance trip to see the course and the footing. Carawich broke his coffin bone in his right hind. We had to ship him home and he was quite lame for some time, was 6 months in the stall. He did eventually recover. Then we retired him in 1984 and he is still here, buried in the South paddock.

Q. When was the first time you referred to yourself as a professional event rider when asked the question “what do you do?”

A. Probably not until after 1984. Notice the way I say that because in 1984 the Olympic games were still ostensibly for amateurs only. For those of us like myself who had to scratch around for a living we had to be careful how we structured our business. If we were declared a professional we could never ride in the Olympics again. We were very careful not to refer to ourselves as professional. I retired in ‘84 and did not refer to myself as professional until then. They changed the rule a few years after that. It seems like another world, it was just stupid. A total anachronism.

Above: Jim Wofford and daughter Jennifer

with The Piedmont Hunt early '70's

Q. How did you balance raising children with an international eventing career?

A. It was a little easier 30 years ago than it would be now. First of all there were not so many events. Typically we would go to three events in the spring and then Rolex and that would be the end of the spring season. There would be four or five events in summer and early fall and those of us with Advanced horses would go to one or two horse trials and go to someplace like Radnor. Our time on the road was nothing like what the professionals have to do now. In addition, the spring 3-day event took place much later in the year, the first weekend in June, and then the Fall Championships took place the weekend of Labor Day or after. We didn’t have to start training so early in the year. The ramifications of that is that no one had to move to Florida or Southern California, depending on where you were. Gail and I shake our heads and think we never could have done it. We were dedicated to keeping our two daughters in the local school. Gail would have had to live here alone with two girls or I wouldn’t have been able to prepare. It was a very different scene.

Below: Jim Wofford with Jack LeGoff 1981

The difficulties were that occasionally in those days the team would travel for quite a long time. I was gone three months before the 1972 Olympics and six weeks before the ‘68 Olympics. Then, let’s see, we were gone for five weeks in 1980. I went abroad one final time in ‘83 and was away for three months before Burghley. That’s totally out of fashion now. These riders fly back and forth across the pond like it’s nothing. Back then trans-Atlantic travel was quite a big deal. Now they go to as many events in three months as I would in a season, and ride ten times as many horses.

We had to do other things with horses to keep ourselves occupied. There was not enough eventing to keep you off the street. Mike Plumb and Mike Page both won the AHSA equitation medal. Kevin Freeman, Mike Plumb, and I rode steeplechase races. They both rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup and placed. I never rode in the Hunt Cup but rode a lot under rules, including 2nd in the New Jersey Hunt Cup.

Jim Wofford in the 1981 Blue Ridge Point-to-Point

And that sort of all-around exposure is very difficult for these event riders to produce, because there’s always another event the next weekend. Current eventers don’t even know that they are missing that. The upper level riders are phenomenally better than we were in dressage. In the last five years they have become better than we were in show jumping but that is because they go to Florida early in the winter, right after Thanksgiving, and they spend six or eight weeks at the horse shows and jump their young horses. Now they’re getting that end of the education that we were able to provide ourselves.

The one thing missing is…….

Find out what upper-level riders are missing in the the third and final portion of the Jim Wofford's Interview by checking in next week!

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