Other times, I would have said, “I’ll be lucky to be sixth,” and I was right about that, too. After ’72, I didn’t take advice against what I knew my horse needed to do. It wasn’t a question of being a hammerhead, it was a question of knowing my horse better than anyone else in the world.
What characteristic do you value most in a horse?
Intelligent athleticism. They have to be smart, and they have to be superbly balanced and athletic. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could find a horse that was a freight train and be very successful with him, but these modern horses have to have lightning-like reflexes and assess combinations and complexes at a high rate of speed. You watch the experienced horses, and you get the sensation that the horse has walked the course also.
[Karen O’Connor’s] Prince Panache was a stitch to watch, because he’d come galloping down to a combination, and he had slightly floppy ears, and suddenly they’d start to flicker. At six or eight strides you’d see him go, “Huh, that’s funny. That looks just like the barnyard complex from Luhmühlen two years ago.” Then, “OK, here we go,” click, click, click, and he was gone. He knew what it was going to be.
What characteristic do you value most in a rider?
Hard work. George Morris has just shared a book with me called Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, which is next on my to-read list. I will not tell you how many of my very, very successful students about whom I’ve at one time or another thought, “Gosh, I wonder if this kid is going to make it?” Then they would show up in the morning ready to work, ready to learn one more little thing.
The coach has to say, “Yep, I’ll come up with one more tiny thing that they can do, because it’s not my job to define the limits of their ability.” I’ve stuck to that for a lifetime, and it’s a good thing, too, because if I’d acted on some of my doubts, there would be a lot of riders who wouldn’t have reached their full potential. I’ve certainly learned over the years to never define people’s limits for them.
If they’re willing to work, I don’t really view my time in the arena, working with them, as work. How can you say that’s work? Work is standing in the security line at the airport getting frisked. But dealing with these wonderful creatures and people, are you kidding? That’s pleasure.
Which horse from your past do you wish you had the chance to ride again?
My first answer to that, always, is Carawich. He was my soul mate, he was my most successful horse, he suited me. I bought him untried. My stable manager gave me a leg-up that first morning, and I slipped down into the saddle, and rarely have I had that sensation: That horse fit me like a glove. My legs just seemed to fall in the right place.
Recently, though, I was thinking of a horse that I wish I could ride again: A homebred named Très Puissant who no one’s ever heard of, a half-brother to my brother J.E.B.’s Olympic horse. When Très Puissant was a 4-year-old, our stable manager told me to take the horse and longe him over some jumps.
Of course, being 14 at the time, I took him out in the big field and longed him over the jumps, but no one said how high. So I thought, “Well, he’s doing that easy, let’s just see how high he can jump.”
So on a rope longe line, he was just cantering over 6-foot jumps, just playing over them. He thought it was funny. Two years later, as a 6-year-old, he competed at Pebble Beach. I was going to college for my first year, and the deal was that if I made my grades, then I could have the horse. He was becoming very successful, and it was obvious how talented he was. And then he dropped dead of a cancerous carotid artery, so we’ll never know just how good that horse would be. He never came close to realizing his potential. He was a horse who would have been equally successful then as now.
If you could take your pick of any of the upper-level event horses currently competing, who would you choose and why?
I would’ve chosen [Tina Cook’s] Miner’s Frolic, but now you have your fingers crossed for him that he’s going to be OK, which it seems now that he is. Failing that, I’d also say Jakata, Piggy French’s horse. I was so impressed with that horse last year at the World Equestrian Games.
What was the most important lesson you learned the hard way?
Patience. Horses and riders develop on their own time schedule, and you can’t jam it, you can’t force it, you just have to let them develop at their own speed. When they do, the results are better. If you try to force things, you wind up breaking them.
As the author of countless columns and several books, how often do you find yourself writing?
I write two or three days per week for one reason or another. I’m always tinkering with my next column. I’ve just finished my latest book, Cross-Country With Jim Wofford, which is out now. At some point, I’ll write one more serious horse book, which I hope will follow on Training The Three-Day Horse And Rider in the same way that Bill [Steinkraus]’s book, Reflections On Riding And Jumping, followed on Riding And Jumping. You read Riding And Jumping, and you developed expertise. Then you came back and you read Reflections On Riding And Jumping, and it was a much deeper, much more nuanced, much more valuable book to the elite rider.
I haven’t started to put that in a rough draft yet. That may be my last book, unless I decide to do something autobiographical.
Do you have plans in the works for a full-scale autobiography?
None yet. I’ve got to wait until too many people die before I can publish that!