Friday, Apr. 19, 2024

Ringside Chat: Koford’s Next Phase Begins With A Sneeze

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The contrast starts on the surface: the bright red and white patches on the coat of Adiah HP versus the bay shine of Hatsjie B. And Jim Koford explains that the differences continue in their personalities, with “Archie” as nervous as Adiah was bold. 

“I’m used to Adiah, where you’re like, ‘Woo-hoo let’s party!’ ” said Koford, 60, of Southern Pines, North Carolina. “Flying into the ring, and my friends are screaming, clapping, and I’m patting her. It is the opposite with this one.”

Adiah, the eye-catching Friesian-Dutch Warmblood mare (Nico—Marije Ant, Anton 343) Koford competed to three national Grand Prix titles, became a Breyer model.

But calming down his mind to suit Archie, Koford’s newest Grand Prix mount, has been the next great adventure of his career. After parting from his beloved mare, who graduated to an amateur rider, Koford stepped back from the competition ring to focus on his clinics and his family. 

Jim Koford and Hatsjie B won both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special at Tryon Spring Dressage I, held April 20-23 in Tryon, N.C. Shannon Brinkman Photo

“There are times in your life when you can really go for it—your career and your job are important—but I needed to sort of rest here for a little bit, slow down and spend time with the family,” he said.

After the passing of both his parents, his father a couple of years ago and his mother this winter, Koford looked to Archie to help him into the next phase of his life. The 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Charmeur—Pocket, Contango), owned by Christina Morin-Graham, had competed through Intermediaire in Lithuania before being imported to the U.S. Koford picked up the ride on him in September.

“I just lost both my parents, and so this definitely has been a different season for my life that way as well,” he said. “Going out like you do on Adiah, where you’re beating your chest, that’s not my personal mental space right now anyway. So actually, it probably is better that I have a horse that’s a little more understated.

“It puts life in a different perspective,” he added. “[Getting to work with Archie] really gave me something to sort of pull myself into and sort of gave me something to be excited about and focus on.”

The pair made their competitive debut last fall and moved up to Grand Prix this winter. At the Tryon Spring Dressage I, held April 20-23 in Tryon, North Carolina, they won both the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special, with a 69.67% and 73.82% respectively.

While Koford’s experience between the two horses couldn’t be more opposite, he loves them both.

“You love your children differently,” he said. “This is just bringing a different side. I’m really enjoying this journey as well.”

We caught up with Koford to hear more about Archie, life since Adiah, and his journey onward.

Can you tell me a little bit about this new horse? First, how do you pronounce his name?

When I got the horse and they gave me his passport, I went home to the barn, and out of curiosity, a day or two later, I Google searched his name. He was born in Holland, and it was an “H” year, so I thought it must have some Dutch meaning. I thought it was pronounced like “Hatchy B.” I don’t know what it means, but it’s nice, has a little ring to it. 

There was a Google entry that said “Hatsjie song.” You press the link for the song, and it’s all these little Dutch children standing there holding Kleenexes singing, “Ha-cho, ha-cho.” So literally his name is “ha-cho.”

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How did you get the ride on him?

After the Adiah mare that I had, I took a bit of a break. I just wanted to regroup and to sort of ride for myself, not do a training business anymore. My business is primarily doing clinics. I got all busy doing that. Then I sort of reached the point where I was sort of looking around a little bit bored. I got a call [about] this horse; [they] said they were looking for a jockey in Wellington, and did I want to give him a trial run and see how it went? 

He was quite challenging. But I’m always intrigued by some horse that’s not presenting in a typical fashion. I’m always like, “Alright, let’s see if we can make this work.” Just find a way to be clear and think outside of the box, and see if you can find a way to tap into what was obvious physical talent. But his personality—he’s very, very intense and very insecure. And when he got insecure, he got quite physical. I totally have to go outside of my comfort zone as a rider when I ride him.

It is such a good discipline because I just have to be so thoughtful and just not let myself escalate or get excited—ride every movement; try to get a 7 in every movement. Now is not the time to power up. [I have to think] just give him confidence in the ring so that he understands his job; give him the quietest, best, most confidence-building ride I can. He’s just such a talented horse. His sort of intensity is bigger than his experience. This is all sort of new to him, and I just want to keep it under wraps a bit, so he doesn’t get insecure.

It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to do the problem-solving and come up with answers.

It is so not my nature, because I’m goofy and like to laugh and talk smack with my friends in the warm-up, and I can’t do that with him. Maybe one day we’ll get there. But right now it is like, “Just stay with me, friend. Stay with me.” I’m just talking to him and just saying, “Don’t let anything distract you. Just stay with me.” 

It’s an amazing intimacy. The last couple of tests I did, I had such big chills. I was almost emotional when I left the ring because it was like, “Holy cow, what this horse has, it’s pretty special.” 

I think if I play it the right way, he has so much to give. I just can’t [use] my own sort of paradigm of thinking, training … I just put that aside. It doesn’t work. I’m trying to reinvent what I do. As a clinician, I’m such a problem-solver, and I’m always trying to troubleshoot and find ways with so many horse and rider combinations. 

Usually, to be successful in riding, you buy a horse that suits your personality and your physical strengths. This one is not at all what I would have chosen for myself, but it has been such an interesting, educational project for me.

It sounds like you had a transition period after Adiah HP, because that mare was so iconic in many ways.

Big shoes to fill. I don’t know how you follow up all that. And I’m so lucky that I’m still part of Adiah’s life. In the winter, I get to work with her every day in Florida, and then I clinic with her during the summer. 

I just wasn’t ready [to jump into the next one immediately], unless I could do it with the same sort of absolute joy. She was so fun just to travel with and to be with at a horse show. It was like your constant companion. She’d see the trailer pull up. She’d come trotting up from the pasture, going, “Where are we going now?” And couldn’t wait. “Get out of my way, we’re going somewhere.” Such funny, fond memories for the rest of my life. And so, this is completely the opposite of what I did do—and it’s amazing. 

Jim Koford and Adiah HP earned three U.S. Dressage Finals Grand Prix championships. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Did your time doing the clinics, away from competing, may make the heart grow fonder, too?

I would go to the shows [to spectate this winter], and I’d watch these 20-somethings and 30-something-year-old riders that are riding with such intensity, such amazing physicality, and this attitude of really going for it and really taking some calculated risks. I was just blown away with the whole new generation of up-and-coming riders. 

In my head, I know where I need to go. We’re not ready yet, but I’m really inspired. Being on the sidelines so much this winter, I’m really inspired by what I’m seeing in the up-and-coming generation of Grand Prix riders. To stay competitive, I started hitting the gym like crazy, watching my diet and just trying to train with the mental picture of where I want to be, because I think we can be. I’m going to try to ride to that level as long as I can.

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You said you took Archie to schooling shows this winter. And you did a performance in front of an orchestra? 

I did two of those. It’s called Divertimentos & Dressage. It’s a [fundraiser for Brooke USA], and the one I did in Tryon in the fall was with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra Live. Then we had one in March, and it was the Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra Live. That was an amazing experience, to have a live audience sitting 3 feet from the arena and to have a live orchestra on the other side of the seat. 

You said that you wanted to keep him at the local level a little bit longer, until you were truly ready for judges to see him. Was there sign that he gave you or something you noticed in your training? 

I showed at White Fences [Florida]; it was my only other show. He was showing me that he had an amazing reliability in the ring. Even if he got emotional, I could generally execute. 

I was going to go to this show in Tryon, and I was talking to a couple of my friends. I was teaching a clinic, and the owner and my friends were like, “Why are you riding the open division? Because you’re going to be riding under the same judges and doing the same test. Just do this USDF qualifier.”

I just went with my mantra: “Just get a 7.” I did the Grand Prix, and it went according to plan. And then in the Special, he was so confident. That test plays to his strengths. I could let him go more forward, and his natural enthusiasm brought the scores up.

Your career has taken you down many roads—from writing for Equus magazine to eventing at Rolex Kentucky and many more. That can be daunting, to take that leap and reinvent. What advice can you give to others?

If you just try to give your horses the best ride you can, it sort of takes care of itself. I don’t sit and think about, “OK, what is my next step because I’m trying to promote my career?” I’ve been really fortunate that I just ride whatever horse is in my barn, and we do the best we can. I have a bunch of good friends that I ride and compete with; it’s just fun. It’s not like I made a plan, “Oh, I want to go to Kentucky on this horse and run around.” I had a good horse, and that’s just sort of where we ended up. 

For instance, Adiah: I saw her, and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is the most amazing horse ever seen. I love her. I want her to be part of my life.” I take her back to the stables, and my friends are like, “What are you going to do with her?” “I don’t know, but isn’t she amazing?” Then I started up with her. I couldn’t have made a plan that I was going to buy some wild-haired, red-and-white horse and do all the things that we did. 

Just any opportunity that presents itself, give it a go. Everyone has to find their own way.

What is ahead for you for the rest of the year? What are your goals going to be for Archie?

I don’t have any clue. We’re doing this day by day, not to put any pressure on him [nor] any pressure on myself. We’re going to let him guide us and tell us where we’re at. I’ll just keep trying to develop him and bring him along. He’s 11 this year, so hopefully he’s got a long career ahead of him. I’m trying to be a little “daddy protective” over him. 

As I’m growing older, I do this because I love the horses, I love this sport, and it’s fun to compete. But it’s not like I’m driven by what color ribbon I got or what competition I qualified for. It’s so fun to still be able to be this! I’m 60 years old and still to be able to play it again! 

The hunger you have when you’re younger, that you want to make an Olympics or want to do this—that’s not what makes your life good or bad. I’m so fortunate to have a wonderful owner, a wonderful horse to ride, and a great career. I’m just going to plan to enjoy the ride. Enjoy the journey. See where it goes.

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