Ernest Dillon FBHS in conversation with Danny Anholt FBHS

‘His Philosophy of Show Jumping Training’

Danny opened the evening to welcome 58 of us sounding extremely professional, (ever considered a career in broadcasting Danny?), with grateful thanks to the committee and in particular to Jude Murphy for her hard work and inspiration in setting up the zoom evenings. Our attention was drawn to the fact that Jude is married to a wizard who has been most helpful with the technology!

I asked myself what to expect as I keenly anticipated this interview?

Would it be about “The Importance of Being Ernest”, Ernest who passed his BHSI at 20yrs and his Show Jumping Fellowship in 1990, having started out as a city boy from the bomb sites of Liverpool along with Peter Charles, both later developing a passion for horses and show jumping.

I suspected not but of one thing I was sure, that Ernest has always enjoyed a strong sense of self belief which in turn gives his pupils confidence.

I wondered if I would be blinded by the science and theory of complicated maths of heights, widths, distances and timing but of course I should have known that it is the ‘KISS’ method that Ernest prefers!  (Keep It Simple Stu…pid/dent).

Danny’s introductory question opened with a frequently used Ernest quote:

“If you do it right it’s hard to get it wrong” Explain?

There followed a brief history of early years working hard for a month to earn a half hour lesson with Cyril and Dorothy Johnson FBHS (1954) who tested him to see if he would give up. As he persisted Cyril took Ernest under his wing and mentored him until he died.

This experience opened his eyes to the fact that working with horses is hard and has to become a ‘way of life’ and that ‘The Welfare of the Horse’ comes before our own.

There were no short cuts or poor standards as we sometimes see nowadays, time was taken to get things right before moving on therefore it was hard to get it wrong.

What is Right or Wrong? Lars Sederholm told Ernest “Correct is correct because it works”!

This has proved to be true more often than not hence the quote.

After achieving his BHSAI examined by Col. Froud, following training at Burton Hall by Colonel Dudgeon and his Rough Rider Frazer McMaster, the Colonel asked Ernest what he intended to do next? He received very sound advice.

‘I’m going to be a Show Jumper Sir’ ‘No you are NOT Sir’ ‘I am Sir ‘,’No Sir, you are not, you are going to become a Horseman. You will go and learn about dressage, hunt in Ireland and go racing and even Show Jump’. Much of the racing was spent biting the dust but the passion for show jumping came later at 21, after he had experienced many other disciplines and found he could leave the ‘Lego bricks’ up and wanted to take himself as far as he could in Show Jumping.

Ernest emphasised a feeling I have long held, that riders shouldn’t specialise too young before experiencing many other horse sports and indeed most top riders have ridden in a variety of sports.

Next Danny remarked that Fellows should be mentors to aspiring future Fellows and asked:

What does the Fellowship mean to you, should you encourage BHSIs to go for it and why?

Ernest replied saying he had wanted to be a Fellow since he was 12yrs old which had baffled his careers officer and it had been the quietly kind but firm push from Pat Manning FBHS during his time at Fulmer, riding dressage, that had convinced him to take it.

Some consider it a ‘Club’ but of course that can’t be so or how could Ernest be one!

We should not be afraid of the Fellowship Exam and he would encourage more to take it provided they have an unshakable belief in themselves, their education, knowledge and the ability to stand up and speak with passion to 500 people. Be unafraid of making a mistake but be able to talk your way out of it and beyond.

Feel, Speak and Act like a Fellow and you will become one!

Danny emphasised the value of the process of growth and the journey one makes on the way to the Fellowship.

He went on to say how much many of us had recently enjoyed listening to Charlie Unwin speak about values in sports psychology and how many more of us were using it to help our pupils.

What are your values Ernest, as a Trainer and a Coach and what do you expect from a student?

Ernest would never want a student to worry about getting something wrong so long as the effort was being made.  He recalled how he may have been set back 5yrs by being undermined by ‘old fashioned ‘attitudes.

  “Some tough love is good but never damn people for making a mistake.”

He believes riders need to know they are better than they believe they are and in so doing he can expand their comfort zone.  He’ll raise a fence behind their back and encourage them to ride it as they have the cavalletti, after all the horse doesn’t see a huge difference and before they know it, they’ve jumped a 90cms oxer!

If he thought he had knocked a rider’s confidence he would be very sad as they usually tell their friends how much more self-belief he has given them and their horse too.

He’ll always tell them realistically how good they and their horse are and help them to self- reflect honestly without getting too intense about it.

He will encourage fitness and balance to ride effectively while being aware of the possible interpretation that they might be ‘fat’ and then have a complex regarding weight.

So Ernest’s values that encompass his beliefs in coaching are:

To be Approachable, Realistic and Honest and Consistent.

To reward effort and correctness, improved balance and fitness.

To encourage self-belief and self- confidence, the thought that they are better than they think and to be honest to themselves in their expectations


Always to be straight and truthful.

Aim to expand their comfort zone to progress.

The next question from Danny was ‘How do you think people learn?’

Ernest said that people learn in different ways either by watching, reading, listening and/or doing. He considers himself to be an all-round learner, he watches top riders like Marcus Ehning and Carl Hester on you tube and listens to people teaching to see if there is something he can learn and he reads widely.

Never become Learned always be a Learner

Learned people, he says, can be most superior, talking down to people.

We all remember the four good words that form the basis of a lesson plan:

Explanation     Demonstration   Repetition     Execution 

These words really cover the different ways people learn.

Ernest finds it hard to understand the method of ‘Grasshopper Teaching’ which he comes across.  When the instructor hops from one subject to the next never finishing one thing first so the rider never fully understands or experiences the feel they need to develop.

If we listened to ten lessons from Ernest we would hear ‘The training scale’ as the basic guide to horses working correctly and hear the same things said in different ways.

Each lesson would concentrate on one thought at time be it rhythm and balance, straightness through a turn or lengthening and shortening the stride.  There will be plenty of repetition but always to the point.  Avoid micromanaging every last detail but rather allow the rider the freedom to ride!

The lesson is pointless if you don’t finish what you started.

Danny and Ernest ran through the definitions of job titles!

Teacher, Instructor, Coach, Trainer, Mentor.

A Teacher is all of the titles pulled into one and this is what Ernest considers himself to be.

An Instructor instructs how to do something you don’t yet know about. So they have to tell not just ask how it feels!

Later on a coach can advise what a rider is already doing well make small adjustments, discuss and listen more than talking.

A good lesson on that level is a ‘quiet’ lesson.

A Trainer is a very good rider who ‘trains’ horses.  A coach may help a trainer to improve the training of the horse.

A Mentor is a reliable, supportive, knowledgeable person, and readily available long term, in whom the rider has total confidence and can call on at any time. Able to draw on other professional advice when needed.

The term ‘Coach’ came from other sports when we developed the UKCC and while it has its place we are, above all, ‘Teachers’ because we impart knowledge and improve understanding.

The Demonstration

We were treated to a video of Marcus Ehning – ‘Every Show Jumper’s Show Jumper’-warming his horse up on a loose rein in trot with a natural stretch over the top line relaxing and carrying itself. The tranquil confident attitude to his riding was passed on to his horse without interference in the rein contact. He sat quietly in balance with soft elastic and flexible elbows. Changes in canter and alterations within the stride appeared seamless and easy.

As he moved onto jumping fences he allowed the horse to work through his whole body so he could use his strong top line muscles in order to have the hangtime in the air to clear a fence.

There was no collection and absolutely no wiggling of the bit to position the head because the horse needs the freedom to stretch and open through flexible shoulders, withers, back and hind legs in order to push off the ground.

Horse and rider were always calmly communicating in line with the training scale, they remained in rhythm and straight, able to maintain seamless control and adjustability through an ‘allowing’ hand the rein contact totally accepted by the horse.

As the fence height increased, we watched Marcus on another horse, little changed as he allowed the horse to come up underneath him having approached in rhythm and balance with no ‘looking for a stride’.  The position of the rider was pointed out by Ernest as the horse took him to the fence, well in front of his leg, in a canter with enough impulsion to compress the hindleg and come up through the withers still quietly working together in a relaxed way.

For me this was a highlight of the evening it is such a pleasure to watch really good riding and reminded me of the Montreal Olympic year 1976 that I spent working for Peter Robeson who also had amazing calm, balance, and feel down the rein.

Next came a video of Scott Brash jumping in the ring under huge pressure at the vey top of his game but it was a superb example of staying ‘Cool under pressure’ and he made it look easy which is a sure sign of excellence, winning a Gold medal in 2012 and the Grand Slam at the young age of 28yrs.

Some questions were taken from the participants which Ernest answered in a depth that matched his years.

He spoke of the disastrous consequences of short cuts in training, horses take time to learn with repetition and their bodies need time to strengthen.  Impatience doesn’t pay off.

If the first 4-5 years are taken slowly avoiding ‘young horse classes’ then the usability and longevity of a sound horse will be increased.

In Europe they do far less with their young horses than in the UK.

The drawbacks of social media were discussed concerning the reputation of equestrian sport and also the often uninformed ideas that spring up from horse owners asking for advice from anybody who has the time to respond, whatever their credentials.

“All we can do is keep teaching correctly and doing it right” said Ernest.

Where is Show Jumping going?  It can’t be any more technical, it cannot be as big as in Mexico where 1.80 heights and 2m widths with deep cups and big poles broke horses.

Now to reach the top of the sport you will have to be even better at horse management so horses are fitter, stronger and more sensitive because a Show Jumper can never hit a fence. It must be a ‘super athlete’ very well trained, flexible and strong.

Ernest explained a handy exercise he likes to use for experienced horses and riders which he has put on the F&I facebook page with his young daughter riding most effectively. It is great for developing jump off skills, challenging and fun. It Improves spatial awareness, sharpness of reactions, the ability to control the shoulders and maintain balance in a turn. It’s important to be effective first and the pretty picture can develop later.

Can you teach a rider to ‘see a stride’?

Ernest would rather talk about ‘judging a distance’ and related it to driving a car keeping the distance from the car in front.

Seeing a stride dictates too much to the horse when he should take off.

Horses have eyes, a brain and the ability to judge height and depth.  Horses will lock onto a fence as many as 7 strides away and loose jumping they are well able to judge distance.

The rider’s job is to keep out of the horse’s way, sitting still, supporting with the leg and hand, so he can jump the fence. Ride in rhythm, straight and in balance with the horse in front of your leg and wait for the horse to jump. Use your peripheral vision to judge the distance and rely on your eye with confidence leaving the last 6 strides to the horse.

What do you look for in a horse and rider seen for the first time?

A sound horse – is this his normal way of going? Watch in all three paces for ten minutes.

Observe how they warm up, if they are pulling the head in ask them to ‘indulge me by trotting on a longer rein’ rather than saying ‘don’t do that!’.

A first lesson is rather like a first date! You have to work out how each other think and if you are going to get on well.  Make a quick assessment of how they relate to their horse and how it progresses in the first 15 mins.  Make a plan and do it.

What can we learn from studying the History of Equitation?

‘If nothing changes nothing changes’ The SRS has ridden the same way for 500 years.

“That which is most important has changed the least – The Horse”

In Show Jumping the technicalities of the sport have changed but fundamentally the horse still jumps the fence.  There is not a huge difference between riders across the disciplines at the top level, they are all sitting on horses training them to perform as best they can.

Ernest read Xenophon’s’ book when he was just 13 and I took it on holiday to reread a few years ago. All he wrote then is what we still do now. The Norman knights took time training their war horses as we do our dressage horses today, (their lives depended on their horse) so we’re not reinventing the wheel just lubricating it.

Danny reminded us of 3 of Ernest’s values from earlier,

Consistent – Correctness – Patience.

‘Doing it right so you don’t do it wrong’

What was the last thing you learnt?  ‘Not to become learned!’

What do you enjoy watching? ’I’m an avid watcher of Show Jumping, Dressage, Eventing and Racing, which I love. Looking at how to gallop and awareness of balance on take-off.

Everyone in Equestrianism must learn from each other.  I love listening to everyone’s ideas and attending seminars because if you pick up just one thing it can carry you on for a long time.

Ernest sat on and was eventually Chair of the Training Advisory group for ten years and in that time we had some excellent seminars from Riding Masters whose words have stayed with him ever since:

Michelle Robert “Do you think your horse is Blind or Stupid?’ ‘No, then why do you ride him as if he is?’

Bert de Nemethy and Rodrigo Pessoa

Robert Hall “Make him jump a bit without going faster”

This produces elevation within the stride. Controlled forward impulsion, even rhythm in all paces, correct bend in all movements. Ernest learnt these things over 40 years ago and it’s important that we get them out of our heads and into other peoples’ heads which is why Ernest has written his book.

Danny finished by asking Ernest to write a letter to the 13yr old Ernest, what does it say?

“First get a proper job!  No that’s wrong.

Don’t be arrogant –

Listen more –

Be more patient –

When somebody older than you says something, don’t argue with them, take a deep breath, wait and think before answering and give some thought to your answer

And ‘To thine own self be true’ meaning don’t kid yourself or lie to yourself. It doesn’t work.

I spent too long thinking I knew better than the older people that I had been fortunate enough to learn from.  They were able to put me in my place without the need to speak!”

Many wise words Ernest from a lifetime’s experience.

I’ve seen Ernest develop his skills and grow over the last 50 years as he popped into my life every now and then. I’ve always enjoyed his coaching and its achievable challenges but above all I think he has ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and I believe that is why riders are drawn to him.

Thank you, Ernest, your appearance has really changed very little since the ‘70s but the honesty in your letter to your 13yr old self has impressed me deeply. I know you would have paid scant attention to it then but ‘It takes Time’ doesn’t it!

I think I’ll read both your books now.

Report and thoughts for the F&I Association written by Nikki Herbert BHSI