Jim Koford is building a reputation in dressage of riding crowd-pleasing musical freestyles. With his Grand Prix partner, Rhett (owned by Shirley McQuillan) he wowed audiences in Florida this year with his kur to the music from the Batman movies; known simply as The Bat Ride. At the recent CDI in Saugerties New York, Jim Koford on Holly Shook’s twelve-year-old dutch gelding Pharoah (by Olympic Ferro) thrilled the crowd and the judges with a grand prix freestyle ride that placed him second (71.6%) to Tina Conyot and Collecto. Pharoah was a small tour horse when Jim started working with him and his rider/owner Holly Shook in Florida this winter. When Holly took a job as Jim’s assistant, they both realized that Pharoah’s strengths really suited the grand prix, but neither of them had any idea that Pharoah’s grand prix prowess would come along so quickly. In June Pharoah competed in his first Grand Prix at the CDI in Raleigh, North Carolina. He then competed in July at Dressage in Lexington (VA) where he won both the Grand Prix freestyle and the Grand Prix Challenge. Jim had not planned on taking Pharoah to Saugerties, but with the $800.00 won by Pharoah at Lexington, Holly and Jim decided to use that money for entry fees for Pharoah at Saugerties.
In the CDI Grand Prix class, Pharoah and Jim finished second.
As Saugerties was only the third Grand Prix for the inexperienced Pharoah, it was also only the second outing for the new freestyle: Zorro. In an uncharacteristic wave of enthusiasm, the crowd at Saugerties literally started clapping and cheering as Jim and Pharoah started their one-tempiis towards the end of the ride.
“Saugerties was so fun because of the large crowd. When the music started, Pharoah just rose to the occasion. The whole ride gave me goosebumps, because Pharoah and I were so in synch with the music and each other. When I started the ride there was silence from the audience, but then the crowd started clapping during my one-tempiis and it was awesome that the crowd responded that way and my horse was so into it,” Koford remarked afterward. “Pharoah is dramatic and the music is dramatic. I think the audience got drawn into the story of Zorro as told by the music and the choreography. Pharoah is passionate about what he can do with his body, and I think the audience recognizes that he is giving it his all.”
Koford’s freestyles are designed by Tigger Montague and her Spirithorse Productions company. “I have a long relationship with Tigger as a freestyle designer. She has a real sense of my horses and me as a rider. With Zorro she captured Pharoah’s machismo, energy and ego. The music has so much passion to it that it inspires me and my horse. I wake up in the middle of the night and hear the music in my head,” Koford said.
Jim leaves the music selection to Tigger. “With Pharoah she was so insistent that she had found the right music, so I said ‘okay’, and it exceeded my expectations. She knows me and I trust her instinct.”
Tigger responded that when the inspiration for Zorro hit her she was working on another client’s freestyle. “And then it just hit me that Zorro would be perfect for Pharoah. I kidded Jim later that he seems to inspire me to find hero music for him of men who run around in capes and masks!”
The teamwork between designer and rider is evident. “Jim is really the best freestyle client a designer could want because he’s so willing to try new things, and he gives me the freedom to be creative.
Jim is not afraid of risks with either music or choreography. When we first started working together ten years ago, Jim would go into the arena and just free for all it with the choreography which drove me nuts. He was used to running to Walmart, buying some CDs and putting the music together at the last moment, and then riding his freestyles with an in-the-moment approach; ‘oh, this sounds like a half pass, oh I feel I could do a pirouette here.’ He called it his creative interpretation. I called it ‘winging it’. It took me a little bit of time to get him to ride the choreography as written and edited,” Tigger adds.
While Jim leaves the music choice to Tigger, the choreography is a collaborative effort. They discuss ideas for patterns, and what has become a trademark of the pair: very dramatic ending centerlines that are action packed. “The music is my guide with the choreography,“ she explains, “I let the music tell me the choreographic possibilities. I know many riders like the choreography first approach. But for me that is not interpretation of the music; that’s more like scoring a movie. I see freestyles as musical theatre: dance steps that interpret the music, that help tell the story. Once I have the ride roughed out I send the draft to Jim and he rides it. Always we are thinking of impact, how the music and the choreography will affect the audience and judges, and of course how well the choreography shows off the horse.”
On Becoming a good freestyle rider:
Jim describes himself as being a former “free spirit” in the freestyle, and didn’t treat it as seriously as he does now. He liked all kinds of music and just rode to whatever music he liked at the time. Now he sees the music element as being a key to his tapping into a good performance. “The Bat Ride and Zorro really inspire me and my horses. Now I prepare them by practicing the freestyle, and doing hill work and strength training so they are fit to perform these kurs.”
Tigger adds that she thinks finding a character for Jim to inhabit was a key to his focus and performances in the freestyle. “When we first played with the music from Batman, Jim and Rhett just completely changed in front of my eyes. He and the horse so connected with the music. I think it helps Jim as a rider to have a persona to inhabit for the freestyle. It gets him out of himself. And in a funny way it reduces the anxiety and stress of performance. He no longer is Jim, he is Batman or he is Zorro and therefore able to really go for it, not hold back and worry about making mistakes.”
The Dramatic Endings to Jim’s Freestyles:
Jim acknowledges that there is a lot of risk in his final centerlines with both Rhett and Pharoah. “I want to end a freestyle with ‘you will remember me ’as I head towards the judges. The beauty of the freestyle is that you can end strong, take choreographic risks. The importance of a strong freestyle makes a horse and rider stand out. It’s musical theatre, not just tempo.”
“I think freestyles have become formulaic”, Tigger adds, “many riders want the security and safety of the formula that freestyles have become. These riders are under so much pressure for good scores, great performances, that pushing the envelope isn’t something they want to risk. I totally understand that and appreciate it. I think the audience and the judges are more open to an ‘out of the box’ ride these days; a ride that transports them, draws them into the story. Terry Gallo’s new freestyle music from Avatar for Steffen and Ravel does that. I think this is one area of dressage where American creativity can really shine.
Jim and Rhett and Pharoah have made the top 15 list of Grand Prix horses for the Festival of Champions this year at Gladstone which Jim is thrilled about. He also plans to ride both horses at Dressage at Devon after Gladstone.