There wasn’t much that went right in Jim Koford’s build-up to the International Horse Sport Champions Cup CDI.
But sometimes the best laid plans going awry can still lead to success, as Koford rode Rhett to the top of the Grand Prix for the Special (67.48%) and into second in the Grand Prix Special (66.47%) behind Susan Dutta on Cur-rency DC (67.02%) on March 24-27 in Loxahatchee, Fla.
“It was an unusual preparation, and for some reason it worked, but I hope I never have to do it that way again!” Koford said.
First, Rhett got his head caught in a fence while turned out 10 days before the show. “For the week before the show, I’d hardly been able to ride him because his head was bent left. I pretty much just hacked him,” said Koford. A team of veterinarians, chiropractors and acupuncturists helped Rhett find his center again just before the show, and Koford decided to ride in the Dressage Under the Stars Finale two days before the CDI.
There, Rhett let the excitement get under his skin, although he and Koford ended up winning the series. “It was a fun thing to do, but he was really strong and throwing in changes everywhere; it wasn’t the ideal show experience,” said Koford.
To top it all off, Koford, 48, developed a cold before the weekend and was feeling off himself.
“I went to the show thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I hadn’t done anything I normally do before a show,” he said. “That’s why I have so much admiration for my horse. I was anxious, I had a cold, and I couldn’t breathe, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Jim, I’ve got you covered.’ He had every excuse to be silly and unfocused, and he just took his job very seriously and picked up the pieces when I wasn’t so good. He was wonderful—waiting and listening and active. It was just fun. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
The IHS Champions Cup was the finale of the Florida winter season for Koford. He did four CDIs this winter with Rhett, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood (R. Johnson—Madette, Hendo). “Every show got better, and his training felt more solid,” he said. “The confidence in the ring is what really grew. I was able to ask for piaffe more on the spot and tighter pirouettes. I just feel that he’s so much more secure at this level now. I can go in the ring with a smile on my face, feeling ready to go, instead of that sickening feeling of not being quite sure what’s going to happen when you go down the center line.”
An Accelerated Learning Curve
Time spent in Germany at Michael Klimke’s farm set the stage for their success. Koford won the inaugural $25,000 Anne L. Barlow Ramsay Annual Grant from The Dressage Foundation in 2009—a grant that provides money for U.S.-bred horses to compete in Europe. He spent three months training with Klimke that fall. After returning to the United States for the 2010 Florida season, Koford then shipped back to Klimke’s farm to work as an assistant trainer, taking Rhett with him.
“When you’re here in this country the opportunities to ride a Grand Prix horse are few and far between,” Koford said. “There, I was working piaffe and passage on five horses before lunch. It just gave me so much experience with those movements. Before, I was always so happy just if I got a piaffe and passage—I would just do it, and it didn’t matter so much the details of the quality.
“Even from the perspective of watching riders in Europe, I learned so much. I could see what makes a 9 half-pass, what makes a solid piaffe-passage tour. I was able to create such a clear vision of what I’m striving for, how to get there, and what I need to deliver in the ring to get bigger scores,” he continued. “It was an amazing accelerated course on why my performances were competitive at a regional level but not on any sort of international stage.”
Koford was most struck by the level of engagement and scope of power that the European riders get from their horses. “When every inch of my body is saying ‘Back off,’ Michael would say, ‘Now is when the good stuff happens.’ I’d say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t feel like I’m in control,’ but you have to do it that way. Rhett, who is so big and powerful anyway, was fooling me into thinking I had enough when it wasn’t enough. My go-to feel became different. I was able to ask for more and really create bigger and more brilliance, with more power and expression, not to back off and be cautious,” he said.
While his time at Klimke’s was invaluable, as the winter approached, Koford knew he had to listen to Rhett, who was telling him he wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of spending months inside. In November, Koford decided to ship him to Florida. “From a management perspective, I think it was the right thing for my horse. I had planned on staying over there, but he was starting to get cabin fever,” he said.
In Florida, Rhett was able to spend time turned out and show outdoors. Koford plans to return to Europe, but he’s not sure whether he’ll go this summer or wait until the fall. “I’ve been commuting between Germany and Florida for the past two years, so my house is rented out, and I don’t even really have any roots,” he said. “I’m teaching clinics here and there to pay the bills, jumping in feet first and learning as much as I can. I’ll just see where that road takes me.”
It’s All Coming Together
Arlene “Tuny” Page is also tentatively planning a trip to Europe this summer. When Alina showed off her newfound confidence in the ring at the IHS Cham-pions Cup CDI, winning the Grand Prix for the freestyle (67.53%) and the Grand Prix freestyle (72.65%), Page knew they were on the right track.
“Things are starting to come together,” Page said. “Last year, she was very green in the Grand Prix, and when they’re like that, you have to go out there and ride the movements so carefully. You have to help them through certain things and support them. But then they learn it’s a different kind of job than the small tour. This winter, it’s been much more about creating a lot more ease in all those movements, self-carriage and willingness, and an understanding of the movement without so much support from the rider. That’s starting to come really nicely.”
Page and Alina, a 13-year-old Danish Warmblood (Michellino—Alberte Lindebjerg, Diamant), showed in three Florida CDIs before the IHS Champions Cup, but Page, Wellington, Fla., concentrated on the Grand Prix Special in those. For their final weekend, she decided to ride a new freestyle for the first time, which resulted in a blue ribbon. Page was just hoping to get a qualifying score for the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Festival Of Champions (N.J.) later in the year.
“There’s a first time for everything, and when you go in for that first ride of a freestyle, you’re a little not sure. That said, she handled everything in it just fine, and the only overt mistake was 100 percent pilot error,” Page said.
Marlene Whitaker designed the music, which is a medley of Simon and Garfunkel and Carpenters tunes. Page, 54, plans to tweak the music and choreography a bit, but she was happy with the overall ride.
As Alina continues to mature at the Grand Prix level, Page is looking forward to showing off the harder movements in her freestyle.
“Eighteen months ago, she couldn’t really do the one-tempi changes, to the point where Oded [Shimoni, who trains Page] and Robert [Dover] were like, ‘Hmm. I don’t know.’ She could get very strong and just get very hard to ride. And lo and behold, they’re probably one of her best movements now. She does them beautifully. That’s something we highlight, doing it on the centerline for God and country to see her straightness,” said Page.
“And after this winter, I can safely say that her piaffe and passage will be her highlight eventually. She really started to show that this weekend. Earlier in the year, the weakness was being able to maintain the rhythm throughout the entire piaffe-passage tour, and that was solid this weekend. That’s the piece that we’ve been pushing to get into place. That’s something that takes time, and I’m thrilled she was so confident to go and do that this time.”