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January 19, 2017

Throwback Thursday: That Time Jim Wofford Swam A River

“Do I remember? You kidding? You don't forget stuff like that,” Jim Wofford told me when I contacted him about a remarkable photo I found in a Chronicle issue from 50 years ago.

The story about the 1967 Myopia Horse Trials in Hamilton and Ipswich, Mass., in the June 23, 1967 issue looked like any other, with a short report, results, and a page of photos. But one of those photos made me do a doubletake. It was a photo of a pretty substantial river, with a horse’s head and the torso of a rider above water.

The caption was a bit funny in its understatement: “James Wofford crosses the Ipswich River on his Atos, sixth in the open division.”


Jim Wofford and Atos swimming across the Ipswich River at the Myopia Horse Trials in 1967. Photo by McClary

“It was the national championships, and they had had torrential rain the week before, and the Ipswich River did flood like that,” Wofford told me. “We were supposed to have a water jump in and out of the river, and then a third of the course was on the other side of the river. Then we’d have another water jump on the way back across. Usually, the river was about knee-high.

“Then they got so much rain, so they just took the flags off the jumps and said, ‘Get from here to there.’ In those days, we all just shrugged and said, ‘The river’s flooded, what are you going to do?!’ I just pulled my knees up as far as I could get them, and away we went.”

Interestingly, the event report made no note of the swimming portion of the cross-country phase. It did, however, note that endurance day involved 12 ½ miles, with a steeplechase of 2 miles and a 3 ¾-mile cross-country course. It was “a valuable opportunity for the coach of the USET’s three-day squad to make evaluations of horses and riders to be considered for the [1968 Olympic Games].”

The report read: “Though an excellent and demanding course which made good use of existing terrain and provided a variety of situations, the cross-country test did not prove very severe for the horses entered. Only three horses were eliminated—Miss Robson’s Syncopate, Brad Smith’s Roman Brandy and Foreign Affair, ridden by Mike McCormick. And it was clear that none of these horses were prepared for a test of this level. Roman Brandy is very inexperienced; Foreign Affair lacks three-day experience; and while Syncopate has been most successful in one-day intermediate horse trials, the horse was over its head at the advanced level of a three-day event.”

Wofford has a bit of a different memory of Foreign Affair’s day, though. “Mike McCormick’s horse lost its footing and got swept downstream and tangled up in some brush. They had to get a boat and lead him back out with the boat,” he recalled.

In 1967, Wofford had just bought his famous horse Kilkenny, and he won the open advanced division with him, also placing sixth with Atos. “Atos was only 15.3, so there was definitely some time when he was actually swimming across the river. Kilkenny was 17 hands, so he kind of tiptoed across,” he said.


Kilkenny and Wofford on their way to the win in the open division at Myopia Horse Trials in 1967. Photo by McClary

Kilkenny would go on to be Wofford’s mount for both the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games and for individual bronze at the 1970 World Championships (Ireland), but it was Atos—a 15.3-hand Appaloosa—who helped Wofford on his way achieve his U.S. team goals.

“He was a horse I brought back east [from Kansas] with me,” Wofford said of Atos. “Someone had bought him off the Indian reservation and he was a terrible bucker. Finally he wound up in the hands of a lady named Trudi Peet, who was an artist in Aspen, [Colo.]. She got him kind of tamed and she sold him to Bill Bilwin, and I bought him because I didn’t have anything to ride. Considering that my mother had a Thoroughbred breeding farm, that’s kind of hard to believe, but there was a period there when my brother [Warren] had taken all the horses with him, so the cupboard was bare.

“I needed something to ride to try out for the [USET] Talent Squad in 1965, so I rode him,” Wofford said. “I had a fall with him in 1965 at Geneseo and he was hurt in 1966, and then he placed at Myopia. He was pretty good for a roan Appaloosa.”

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