**T-Bird jumping into the water at Pine Top Horse Trials. He never did anything halfway…
Working Student Chronicles Part I
After I finished my first three day event at Bromont in 1995, I landed at Jimmy Wofford’s farm. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This northern Virginia nook of countryside was, and is, incredibly beautiful and special. To call the countryside an “emerald paradise” sounds trite. It is more than that. The green, rolling landscape is endless pastures crisscrossed by stone walls, old and new, and dotted with horses and cows. Besides lots of beautiful Black Angus, I was introduced to the Belted Galloways there as well, which I have referred to as “Oreo” cows ever since.
As working student, I lived in the cottage on the farm and worked with a girl who had been there for a of couple years already. She was soon headed out to start the next chapter of her life in a few weeks, but she showed me the ropes in the meantime. We started chores everyday at 5 a.m. The horses were fed first thing and turned out before bringing the tractor and manure spreader up from the shed at the bottom of the long, gravel driveway.
The last time I was a working student, at Fare Well Farm, it took a while to befriend the resident tractor, “Old Blue,” so I hung back a little before initiating a relationship the second time around. Jimmy’s tractor, bright red, was a souped-up version of “Old Blue,” and even more foreboding was the bucket attached to the front like the gaping jaws of a great white shark.
It was a tight squeeze to drive all of that into and out of Jimmy’s “U” shaped barn. It wasn’t a straight shot into the aisle because of how the paddocks swept into the driveway, squeezing it tight, making the entrance into the barn convoluted.
After a month, I conjured up the nerve to retrieve the tractor from the shed and bring it up to the barn first thing in the morning. It was still dark outside, but the lights were on in the barn. Very carefully, balancing the gas pedal with the clutch, I positioned the tractor to clear its entirety into the barn. In addition to the tricky angle, it was also going up hill, which made it even harder to negotiate.
I thought I had it set up really well, but hitting the gas before it stalled out, I smashed one side of the bucket through the cinderblock wall of the barn, straight through the glass of the barn door nestled behind it. I will never forget the look on my partner’s face. She stood there with her mouth wide open, hands on her hips, stunned.
I wanted to throw up.
Shaking her head, she said, “You better call Jimmy right now. Trust me. You don’t want him to find out when he pulls in the driveway. It will be a lot worse.”
Shaking, and on the verge of tears, I went to the laundry room in the barn, where the phone hung on the wall. I dialed Jimmy’s number at a quarter after five in the morning. My voice quivering, I told him what happened.
The only thing worse than impending screaming is unexpected silence.
He didn’t say a word.
Not for a while, anyway.
When he did finally speak, his voice was flat. “I’ll be right down.”
I learned in short order Jimmy is only a couple inches taller than me. When he confronted me in the aisle, our eyelashes were almost touching and I could feel the stale, hot air swirling out of his nose as he fumed. If his intention was to intimidate me, it worked.
I was scared shitless.
He stared at me, deadpanned, his lips pressed into a thin line.
Without blinking, he said, “You only get to do that once.
Do you have any idea how much it’s going to cost to fix that?
Next time, it’s on you. Understood?”
I nodded, holding my breath.
Whispering, I said, “Yes. Yes, I do. I’m so sorry.”
I backed up slowly and disappeared into the ether before another verbal resurgence occurred, but I did catch a few clipped expletives under his breath before departing.
Despite having arrived at Jimmy’s and scrubbed all sixteen of the barn doors of my own volition in the first week, I would argue that I seemed to be off to a shaky start.
It wasn’t long after that, Jimmy introduced me to one of his longtime star students as “The F.N.G.”
I was like, “Huh? What’s that?”
Jimmy doubled over, laughing his ass off at his private joke.
He said, “You’ll just have to figure it out.”
That acronym was my nickname for the next six months.
(At least now you can Google it!).
Slowly I made friends with the tractor… because I didn’t have a choice, really. (Necessity is the mother of invention). My partner was moving on before the next girl showed up, and pretty soon, I would be the expert on the tractor.
Scary thought, right?
Alas, the new girl showed up from Arkansas with her bay thoroughbred mare, Cloudy. She was a little hot, built like three different horses put together, and she could and would jump all day long. She was a fabulous mare and she and Tracy got along like peas and carrots.
What also stands out just as much from that time was Tracy’s boyfriend. He came to visit a couple of times while she was there. He was a tall guy and seriously built. Being shortlisted for the ’96 Olympics in Shotput, this guy was so ripped he had to cut the sides of his boxer shorts so his legs could fit in them. I’m sure everyone wants to know if he made the Olympic team that year.
The answer is I don’t know.
(Some people are cut out for the working student life and others aren’t. It’s a total grind and you either love it, or you can’t wait to get out. Tracy didn’t love it, so when her commitment was up after a year, she left in a hurry, and never looked back. I, on the other hand, stayed for five years.)
That first winter we had a massive blizzard. They were calling for snow, maybe even a lot of snow, but this went way beyond their expectations. Tracy and I woke up to go take care of the horses in the morning, but we couldn’t open the screen door on the cottage’s front door because the snow was so high. We had to dig our way out.
When we finally stepped outside, we sunk down into snow up to our behinds. Struggling to walk through it, we decided the best offense was to get to the paddock fence and try scaling the second board all the way to the barn.
It was a long commute that morning.
When we finally reached the barn, via the fence, we were hot and sweaty, and still had to dig out the handles on the barn doors because the snow drifts had covered almost the entire thing.
In preparation for the impending forecast, we had parked the tractor and spreader in the barn the night before. The two barn aisles, parallel to each other, were connected by the indoor, and we drove back and forth through the indoor to muck all of the stalls. In those first few days, we turned paddock mates out in the indoor together for 30 minutes at a time to stretch their legs.
The biggest problem, besides not being able to turn the horses out, was the fact we couldn’t take the tractor and spreader out either. We ended up having to dump the manure in a corner of the indoor, and after five days of doing this, we had to use a second corner too. The indoor was getting pretty full being a manure pile as well as a paddock for every horse in the barn.
Tracy and I didn’t see another person for five days. Finally, a student who had shipped in prior to the blizzard for two weeks of training managed to drive down the paved road that had been plowed, park, and walk down the stone walls that lined the gravel road the farm sat on (which hadn’t been plowed).
That was an even longer commute to work.
It was another two days before they plowed our road and people could drive to the farm. Once Jimmy could get in, he plowed a lane in the driveway for vehicles (and people), and also plowed a loop in the paddocks for the horses.
The first day the horses went out they were happy to stretch their legs. They couldn’t move very fast because they had to leap like dolphins breaching the surf to get through the snow. However, it didn’t take long for tragedy to strike. Sure enough, one of the horses got kicked below his stifle and his leg was clearly broken straight across. It was a grotesque sight and one I will never forget.
Even worse was the fear emblazoned on the unlucky horse’s face. They surely know. The vet managed to get out and euthanize him, but it took a few more days before a truck could pick him up. The whole thing was horrible and terribly upsetting for all of us.
After the snow came the flooding. We arrived to the barn one morning to find the entire indoor had four inches of water floating on the top of it. After a week of very little turn out and no riding because of the blizzard, we ended up hauling to Morven Park every day with multiple rigs to get everyone schooled while the indoor slowly drained.
After Tracy left, a girl from California showed up as well as a girl from Arizona. I’ll never forget meeting the young girl from Arizona. She had just graduated from high school. She pulled in from her across-the-country road trip and I walked up to the barn to meet her and the woman who made the trek with her.
Very cordially, I introduced myself to the young girl and then leaned over to the lady with her and said enthusiastically, “Oh, you must be her mother! So nice to meet you!”
Welp, she wasn’t her mother.
It was her horse’s owner.
Horrified, she schooled me on the biological fact that no one ten years older can possibly have a child that age.
Whoops. Duly noted.
I had been there for a year or so when Jimmy called me into his office. He handed me a phone number and said, “This could be your next horse.” A lady had called him looking for a rider. She had an eight-year old thoroughbred who had stepped up to the preliminary level and she was looking to sell him. A mother with young kids, she had evented the gelding a bit herself, but he was a lot of horse and needed more time and expertise than she could give.
The horse was also extremely talented and she knew it.
We arranged a time and she brought him over to the farm. He danced around tied to her trailer while I threw tack on him. I grabbed my eggbutt snaffle, but before I put it on him, the owner protested.
“That won’t be enough,” she said, with a very concerned look on her face.
She had brought a bridle and I don’t remember what bit was on it, but there were a lot of straps and reins, and probably a chain on it too. Jimmy intervened and said he wanted to see him in a snaffle first to evaluate him.
Out to the arena I went on the “buzzy” sixteen-hand bay thoroughbred. I picked up a trot.
He did not touch the ground.
This horse floated.
No matter the gait, this horse was on a mission. He had somewhere to go and he was always late getting there (in his mind, anyway). I picked up a canter and I realized exactly what the owner was talking about. I couldn’t hold one side of him.
This horse was strong.
Sometimes we say a horse like this “has no mouth,” but that wasn’t exactly true of “T-Bird.” The difference for Turf Trimmer was he had a lot of flexibility in his way of going, and that included “in the bridle” as well, but he was incredibly strong despite that.
When I started jumping him, I couldn’t see a distance at all because he ran past it every time. Standing on the rail, the owner gasped over and over. She finally put her hand up and said “Enough. I don’t think this is going to work.”
I was sweating and my arms were burning with fatigue. I was with the owner. This wasn’t going to work. This horse was so brave that he crossed the line of having little to no self-preservation.
Jimmy turned around, facing the owner and said, “It’s okay. Yes, he needs more bridle. But I needed to see him in a snaffle first, and despite it all, he is incredibly smart.”
My eyebrows went up at that. I wasn’t so sure. We had skimmed across the top of quite a few.
Jimmy continued. “I think we should give it a try. Jenn can ride him.”
When Jimmy turned his back to the owner and faced me, he whispered under his breath, “This is a good, good horse. He is s…l…i…c…k.”
I had my doubts about all of it, but I was not about to turn down an extra ride, crazy or not.
I was all in.
Turns out, Jimmy called it. Turf Trimmer was slick alright. I had never sat on a horse like him before that, nor would I after, even though I had some very good ones follow much later.
He is the only horse I wish I had met later in my career.
T-Bird never met a jump he didn’t like. Not once. His bravery almost crossed a line into being “too brave.” I made the mistake once of starting my watch heading into the start box. I put my reins into one hand to hit it, and when I did, T-Bird leapt through the air, and in one stride, jumped out of the box. Except he didn’t quite clear it.
Talk about a hard rub before leaving the box. (That’s called turning a negative into a positive!).
The timer, who had already yelled, “Go!” stood there slack-jawed. Not sure what the etiquette was after jumping out the back of the box, I wheeled T-Bird around and we jumped back in and took off.
Yes, it’s because of horses like T that they changed the configuration of the start box to include a gap in the back. Mr. T never liked to be boxed in anywhere. This included the halt at “X” which oftentimes preceded the “Hi Ho, Silver!” that followed.
There was never a dull moment with T-Bird. Our first three day together was at the North Georgia one star. Warming up for dressage, T-Bird was pulling my arms out from the get-go. I was water-skiing around the arena.
I learned a valuable lesson on showmanship day that. Sweating and complaining, Jimmy grabbed T-Bird by the reins and with a clenched jaw he said, “Listen to me. You sit up there, with your fists closed, and you smile like you are having the ride of your life. Do you understand me?”
White as a ghost, I nodded profusely. “10-4, roger that.”
I did what he said and T-Bird landed in the top-3 after the Dressage. That night, a huge storm rolled in and we were all faced with a very wet cross country day. It poured all day. I was drenched after Phase A. The good news was all of the horses didn’t really get hot and needed very little cooling off in the ten-minute box since the rain was doing the work for everyone.
By the time I got on cross-country, I was sliding all over my saddle. If you’ve ever ridden in sopping wet conditions, you know what wet leather on wet leather feels like and it does not inspire confidence. It feels like you’re riding a greased pig. My boots collected the water like little fishbowls. I could feel it sloshing above my heels.
T-Bird and I were having a bang-up round in horrible conditions until two fences from home. It was a small log pile. After swinging around in the saddle with the reins sliding through my fists all the way around the course, T ran up under the jump and twisted horribly across the top of it. The torque flung me off like a mosquito getting flicked off a person’s arm after it bites it. The ground was like a slippery-slide and I just kept on going once I hit it.
Making matters even more fun, T wouldn’t let anyone catch him. A quintessential thoroughbred, he galloped all over the place, still full of piss and vinegar, even after all he had done that day.
Running after a loose horse with sloshing fishbowls in your boots is no easy task. I finally managed to catch him and remount in order to jump the last fence, but my competition was over. Another valuable lesson from Wofford at the end of the day, “I’ve never met anyone who won falling off, Jenn.”
Roger that, Woff.
T-Bird and I went on to compete at the two-star and advanced horse trials level. He was the toughest, soundest horse I’ve ever ridden in my entire career. After his career at the upper levels, he went on to introduce numerous kids to the one star level, and later, at the novice and training levels. He never lost his flare despite the years.
T-Bird might have been brave enough for everyone in the room, but you still had to be a little brave as a rider to put your foot in that stirrup.
Much later, when I was on my own, my working student competed him preliminary at the age of 18. After one event, I received a letter in the mail from USEF. It was a warning letter that T-Bird had tested positive for a drug. I showed it to my vet because I had no idea what the drug was. She said it was a preservative found in joint injections.
Exasperated, I said, “But the horse has never had a joint injection. Not in his entire life!”
(How many upper event horses can claim that?)
She added there was also a possibility it could be found in some types of hay.
Hmmm. Go figure.
**Next time: More working student shenanigans at Wofford’s.