Obituary: Dawn Wofford - Olympic showjumper who formed a triumphant partnership with Earlsrath Rambler in the Fifties and Sixties

She boasted the sport's profile with her lively personality and fluent style

Sally Jones
Monday 10 August 2015 18:00
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Dawn Wofford, nee Palethorpe, who has died aged 79, was a glamorous figure in international showjumping throughout the 1950s and early 60s. She later became the Pony Club’s first female chairman.

To viewers watching on their black-and-white sets, she and her great horse Earlsrath Rambler battling against Pat Smythe on Tosca were British showjumping. A member of the high-profile generation that included David Broome, Alan Oliver and Colonel Harry Llewellyn, she won a string of titles all over Europe and boosted the sport’s profile with her lively personality and fluent style.

Wofford’s father, Captain Jack Palethorpe, was a member of the pork pie and sausage dynasty and a fine all-round sportsman who cut a dashing figure in sedate Worcestershire society. He loved ice hockey, skiing, yachting, polo and hunting, while his beautiful wife, Valerie, 25 years his junior, was a car fanatic and held the hill climb record at Shelsley Walsh near Worcester. Their two daughters, Jill and Dawn, were bold, fearless children who enjoyed a sporty childhood at the family’s gracious home, Knoll Hill, near Kidderminster, which boasted a tennis court and indoor swimming pool. Wofford soon excelled at both sports.

Both she and Jill rode Captain Jack’s polo ponies before they could walk, using the safety stirrups he had invented. He took both girls hunting with the Albrighton Woodland Hunt as toddlers, instilling a lifetime’s love of the sport.

Wofford became a member of the Pony Club when she was only two and competed at all levels, finishing runner-up in the Leading Junior Show Jumper of the Year event in 1951. She was renowned for her attention to detail in both her training and her stable management – and although she often travelled without a groom, her horses were always immaculately turned out. In 1954 she won the Ladies National Championship and was Leading Showjumper of the Year on her first Open horse, Holywell Surprise. She then began her historic partnership with Earlsrath Rambler. “Earlsrath Rambler was a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Wofford later recalled. “You simply couldn’t afford great strings of horses like some riders have at their disposal today, so we became known as a pair.

“Showjumping seemed to have a much higher public profile than it has today, probably because it was on television more, and the leading riders got asked for their autographs wherever they went.”

The pair won the Aachen puissance in 1955 and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at the Royal International Horse Show in both 1955 and 56, the same year they won the Grand Prix at Rotterdam and went to the Stockholm Olympics as reserves for the British showjumping team.

Romance blossomed with Warren Wofford, a reserve – with his versatile horse Hollandia – for both the US showjumping and three-day event teams, and the son of Colonel John Wofford, the first president of the US equestrian team. When they announced their engagement, the British chef d’equipe sent Dawn a terse telegram: “Congratulations. Get Hollandia.”

She did indeed “get Hollandia”, as a prized wedding present from Warren when they married secretly in 1957, both aged 21, then settled at Rose Cottage Farm, near Ullenhall, Warwickshire. Their daughter, Valerie, was born a year later, and Wofford continued competing, winning the Grand Prix in Madrid and Dortmund, and the puissance at the Royal International. In 1960, after Rambler’s retirement, she rode Hollandia at the Rome Olympics; and the pair took silver at the European Women’s Championships later that year.

Far from missing the limelight when she stepped down from international competition to care for her growing family, Wofford simply moved on to the next phase of her life, breeding and training young horses at their new home, Outhill Farm near Studley. Warren became a stockbroker, but he and Dawn remained in great demand for their equestrian expertise, as dressage judges and committee members. As their three children, Valerie, John and Bruce, began learning to ride, the Woffords became closely involved with the Pony Club and founded the West Warwickshire branch.

Wofford rose through the ranks, chairing the national showjumping committee from 1985 to 1991, before becoming its first female national chairman until 1997. Under her chairmanship, the Pony Club became independent of the British Horse Society and a charity in its own right. She also helped to rewrite the Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship, widely considered the ultimate text book on riding and horse management.

Horses were not her only passion, however. After struggling with reading and writing during her schooldays because of undiagnosed dyslexia, she trained as a music teacher at the Birmingham School of Music and developed a lifelong love of opera and music. She was also a canny bridge player and crack shot, once killing two rabbits with a single shot from her bedroom window. After Warren’s death from cancer, Wofford took up hunting again in her sixties, roaring cross-country on her two hunters, Fiddler and Chaz, this time with the Croome and West Warwickshire Hunt.

Until shortly before her death from the bone cancer myeloma, she hosted numerous Pony Club activities at Outhill, including an annual four-day summer rally for fledgling riders. “I absolutely love the thrill of getting the young riders going, getting them kicking on and having fun,” she explained. “It’s so rewarding.”

Wofford is survived by her children Valerie and John, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Her younger son, Bruce, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005.

Dawn Wofford (nee Palethorpe), international showjumper: born Kidderminster 23 May 1936; married 1957 Warren Wofford (one daughter, two sons); died Studley, Warwickshire 12 July 2015.

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