Jonny Hilberath – what makes a great dressage rider?

Rebecca Ashton interviews the German assistant coach, Jonny Hilberath

What is the difference between an athlete who makes an Olympic Team and one who ends up on the podium?


There are a few parts that make the success for sure. First of all you need the horse which basically has no weaknesses. Definitely it’s also a big mental thing for both horse and rider. You have to compensate the weaknesses in the mental condition of the horse as a rider.


Isabell and Fabienne at Aachen in 1991

For example, if you see Isabell, her way of being successful for the past 20 years is not a coincidence because she’s done it with so many horses. Apart from her knowledge in the saddle, it is also her timing and her feeling. That is definitely her strengths and what makes her outstanding.


Isabell and Antony at the European Championships in 2000

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Would Isabell be the greatest competitor you’ve ever seen, or were their others in the past that you would rate up there as well?

For the moment, she’s definitely the one to beat. She has several horses and she’s so mentally strong in the test and she reads her horse perfectly; she reads the temperature of the horse very well. She knows exactly what she has to do and exactly what she has to leave. I have seen her last weekend in Stuttgart and there is a lot of atmosphere there; 8000 people and it’s hot and she does it so well. She had two different horses, two different characters and both horses got the perfect ride.

And the latest sar – Weihegold

 Can you teach that?

You can for example, I at my age can give my experience to a younger rider which helps but at the end of the day, it’s learning by doing and she has had 1000s of rounds in the saddle and that is a huge difference. She’s done it from 17 years of age.…30 years.

Watching her say at Rio, she was so focused.

Yes, in a tunnel. It’s a passion. It’s not that you say I have 10 more years to ride and I’ll make the best out of it. She has so many young horses and she got a premium stallion at the last stallion selection in Hanover. He’s two and a half. She plans.

What would you as a coach leave your rider with as they take that ear piece out and are about to enter the Olympic arena?


Helen Langehanenberg makes an error of course at the Euros, Monica Theodorescu and Jonny are dismayed, it was funny because Helen was second last to go, and then came Charlotte Dujardin and she also made an error…

What I really like to say, in a way, is try to make the best ever test that you have done. If you have a good horse and you have a good ride, you will get a good result. If you focus yourself too much on I want to win a medal or I want to beat this or that, it blocks you in the head. You have to be a hundred thousand percent with your horse, like Isabell can do perfectly. Go in a tunnel with no distractions from the outside and just be with the horse. Because again, the timing; it’s a millisecond where you have to decide and it can make a mega impact so you have to be very much there.

Since you started in dressage until now, what do you think has been lost or gained, either good or bad in competition?

What you could say, which is not so good, but it is what it is, is the financial aspect. There are very, very few amateurs without a big financial background that do this sport. There are a lot of professionals or people with sponsors behind them. Even when you are a professional as I am, it’s very hard to make it, to find someone to help you finance it. And of course you need the truck, you need an extra groom for the show, the expenses of the show and all of these things. It’s a huge amount of costs that you have every time you go to a show. Compared to the amount of money you are winning, it’s a big problem. That is one thing when we talk about the shows and the sport.

What I really like is that we are much more educated when it comes to horses, to training, we are at a much, much higher level and standard than we were 20 years ago because we are much more into the horse, the welfare of the horses, the biomechanics of the horse; how and why the horse reacts for example. The right training methods, what the horse will eat, the whole package around the horse is so much better. I think that has brought us quite a bit forward.

If you compare the riding in the old days, for sure the horse was also different in those days, for example in Germany, we had those big Warmbloods which were a little bit slow and a bit heavy so the riding was a bit like that. We Germans are known for a bit of our tough riding but the horses have now educated us differently. They are so much hotter and fine and a bit more Thoroughbred so the riding has changed a lot.

Jonny and the glorious Wenckstern

next Jonny talks about training

How do you think your riding and training has evolved as a result? I guess it’s lighter now.

Absolutely. It’s a must. You have to be open as a person for that. That is important, also in life, you have to go forward and be willing to leave your own comfort zone. That’s a problem for many people, they think ok, I’m safe here and if I go out of that, maybe I lose a bit of face, but if you want to go on and go further and get better, you have to risk that in a way.

Everyone focuses on “Classical training” and I guess you could argue that was established a few hundred years ago and we still think it’s relevant, but we also have to evolve with the horse; most aren’t Spanish like the Baroque horses but most aren’t the heavy Warmbloods either, so how to you decide what to take forward with you and what to leave and evolve from?

If you see it like that, a horse is still a horse, it still has basically the same shape, four legs a head and all that, but for example, our modern horses, they have more elasticity, more possibility with the body, whether you jump a fence, or go fast, or collect. Through the breeding the horse has become a little bit more sensitive so when it comes to the physical fitness you need to care about the horses, but that’s why the riding and training has had to change. For sure there are many, many rules which have existed for 100 years before without a doubt, but nevertheless, we know much more about the horses, what is possible, what is not possible, what is non co-operating behaviour compared to what is just not possible for the horse. So we know much more and we humans, for example when it comes to our own fitness, it’s a different story nowadays. When I was a young man, no one was talking about the fitness of the rider. The horse had to run and do what I wanted, I could be totally overweight and it was fine. These things just don’t work in the top sport anymore.

It’s much more sport today, also for the humans!


Schultheis and the Thoroughbred, Pernod

You trained with such greats as Willi Schultheis. Do you think he would like what was going on in the competition arena today?

I don’t know actually because what I said before, you have to be open to change and to think about it. I could imagine he would, because he was a jockey, he was from the racetrack. He was a horse person and he loved Thoroughbreds, for example. He had a hand for fine art, you could say, so his style was very different because he had the horse very much uphill. Looking back maybe the horses could have been a little bit more through and over the back. I’m sure if he had gone through this process with us, so to speak, he would have changed. He was a fantastic man.

When you go to a big show, I sometimes think nine out of 10 times you can pick a German horse. Would you agree?

Actually I disagree because I think the riding and the training and the quality of the horses gets much more global. I have seen here very nice horses and in South Africa, very nice horses; wherever I go because for sure also through the breeding, it gets more global. But then you need to be able to train and ride these horses. But that is the point, people getting more and more out of the country for training to learn more and get more information.

Through the internet now you can also see much more. You can look at the big shows and get training videos so you can help yourself much more these days than it was 10 years ago. I believe that it’s getting bigger and bigger and the quality is going up.

You’ve said you need to know the limits of your horse though. Not every horse can do a Grand Prix test even though it can do Grand Prix movements. Do you think less people are trying to push those horses into that situation?

I think it will always be an issue because it belongs to us humans. In many different situations in life, you watch people and you think why is he or she doing that? Doesn’t she reflect on herself and see? I think you will always see horses in competition where you wonder whether it’s the best idea.

I guess that needs to be part of training too, doesn’t it? Being able to step back and critically assess yourself?

That’s the part of the guy who stays on the ground a little bit. Anyway, it’s a big, big thing that we have to work on, and take care of is the education of trainers. In Germany, there’s a big programme we created from the national federation, a trainers academy where we have a group of younger professionals that get a mentor on the side. I have, for example a trainee, a young professional, and we spend time together whether at the show where I watch him training his clients or I coach him on the horse. My trainee Max Wadenspanner has been a week at my place with four horses. That is a programme to strengthen a group of good trainers.

Is that a development on from being a bereiter?

You have to prove already you have trained a horse to Inter 1 or Grand Prix and that you also have clients. We pick them up in a way, to becoming good and proper trainers, but they’re still rather in a young age group.

next Jonny gives advice to riders coming to Germany from overseas 

What advice would you give riders from Australia for instance that were coming to Germany to train so that they made the most of their time there?

The best thing for sure first of all would be to find the right place! Because it’s not just important to find the best quality of trainer, but it’s also personal, you know what I mean? Especially when you come from a foreign country and you leave everything behind. They leave their home, their friends their family, their country. You have to have something to compensate that. When I get people asking to come to train with me, emails and phone calls, I am very, very careful with my choice, because it has to fit also for me. I know how much effort these people are giving to come over and I know wheat it means for them, so the match is very important.

If you are in Germany for instance, you really have to also steal with your eyes as much as you can. You have to go to the good shows. Even if you don’t compete, you need to watch to get a bit more of a professional attitude.

How shall I say this…different countries are known for their different mindsets. For example, Germans tend to be very focused, Australians might be a little bit more laid back, shall we say. I know you can’t generalise, but do you think it’s harder for “non-dressage” nations in that sense?

No. We all have a head and a brain so you can’t excuse yourself with that. If you know that, you have to care about certain things and you have to just do them.

Can you teach discipline?

You can teach it. You can tell people this and this and this must be done and done at this time, so people get the habit… even if you are Australian! (Jonny is laughing)

Talking about this and this and this must be done, what are your non-negotiables when it comes to training the horse? What do you expect from your riders everyday in their training? Sometimes you have to make compromises, but what can never be compromised?

Ja I can tell you for example one thing, I have no running reins in my stable. I think it’s a completely unacceptable weakness as a rider, especially as a potential international rider, if I can’t solve problems. In my stables also, we are never rough or rude to the horses. We ride without whips most of the time. I use the whip as just a support of my aids sometimes but never use it to punish the horses.

I will not have any harsh and rough riding in my place. I also really try to see and read any horse a bit differently. Sometimes people come to me to ride and train and they have only one horse and this poor thing gets worked everyday. But you know what, if you want the best from your horse, he has to have a day off even if the rider would much rather have another lesson. The horse is your partner and if he’s tired, he’s tired. What you want is secondary.

Again, I think it’s a bit because of my life experience, I’ve made many mistakes in my life so I can tell people don’t think about it, don’t try it, it’s rubbish! It won’t get you anywhere!

Why do you think people can be so quick to go to draw reins? Is there a lack of knowledge somewhere in their training?

Ja it’s also the belief that it’s a quick way, but it’s not. But many people also, it might take them a while, but they will find out!

You’ve said before that when many international riders come to train with you, you have to take them right back to basics. Is there any standout problem you see all the time – Oh my goodness, here’s another one – sort of thing?

No.  Let’s go back to Isabell. You watch Isabell riding, every single day on every single horse, she starts with the basics. It’s stop and go and softness and control of the back and the neck and that makes the quality. You see many horses which do the Grand Prix but it’s not a pleasant picture because you see open mouths and stiff necks, harsh riding and all this. Even when they do the tricks maybe without mistakes, but it’s not made to get high percentages. Never.

next Jonny talks about open mouths

That was exactly going to be another question! You see these open mouths/ tight necks. What’s the basic missing? Obviously it’s the back.

Absolutely. And the contact forward to the hand. It is the wrong pressure in the horse; the wrong tension in the horse also mental tension in the horse because the mouth is like a mirror to the brain. That is something that definitely has to be fixed.

Jonny competing Edelmann

So if someone came to your place, they’ve got their Grand Prix horse. I don’t know what you do with them, but say you ask them to ride a test through or something and you see that, what’s the first thing that you do to address it?

First of all you get the bridle off his head. You get them in a snaffle. “But I only ever ride him in a double!” Well now you don’t. Even take the lower noseband away. Just to see the basic of the mouth. Then I go step-by-step. I’m not a bit expert, so I try a different way with the riding. Most of the time, the mouth and tongue is a mirror for the rest of the body, so I am not so busy at that stage looking at the mouth, I am busy looking at the hindquarter and the back and the whole connection through the horse.

I know you mainly use a simple double jointed snaffle and when you use a full bridle, it’s a plain double with short shanks on the bit, for example. Do you think there are just way too many bits and “helpful gadgets” out there or do you think it’s great that we have all this new technology and help?

It’s always with life, you need to learn how to handle all this new technology! There are so many people who don’t really know what to do with them all. They see, “Oh he or she uses that so I will try it.” It can be dangerous. Again, I am not a bit expert, I get in a way crazy when the contact doesn’t work. I’m not trying with bits, I just try to ride better.

So you start with the German Training Scale; rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion etc and then you move onto lateral work to get the back. Do you keep your lateral work very simple, for example, just a whole long side shoulder in, or do you keep the horse thinking a bit with different combinations or patterns…or does it depend?

I do it longer so I can feel if it changes something in the horse. If I just do it for 10 or 20 metres, for example when you start with the lateral work, sometimes the horse is struggling with his balance, with the straightness, with crossing his legs so I use the lateral work to make the body more supple. It’s not to get the attention of the horse, it’s more a treatment for the body. At the same time, I get for sure more reaction to my aids, my leg, my reins or whatever, but I do lateral work for the horse’s body so I want to get a flow from it. So I will do it across the diagonal, letter to letter, 60 metres.

I don’t really do it for a short time. I can do that when the horse is in balance. For example, I might use leg yield to produce balance over the suppleness, so it depends always on the level of education of the horse. It really depends so much on the horse. If you have a slow horse who might move spectacularly, it would make him insecure to make quick transitions. I’m more for the long lines.

Do you do a lot of counter movements? I see that lacking especially in maybe lower levels. Riders don’t know what renvers is.

Yes. But it’s a bit out of fashion.

You’ve said before the whole point of training is to know the mechanics of the horse and to respond to that. Do you think riders have enough knowledge of this?

I think yes, because we are getting more information through magazines, and I think people are more interested in it. People want to be successful, but not everybody is successful, so people wonder what they can do to be better and so they go searching. They are more interested in their horse; whether their saddle is good enough and informing themselves about different things. So, in general I think it’s getting better but still I think the training is a big issue. I don’t say it’s too much bad or wrong but, for example, if you want to have real progress, it needs time. Having enough time, is the biggest factor. Certain things take more time, but when you get that, you catch up quicker. For example, I go to New Zealand for a three day clinic, sure I can give my ideas further, I can help people and it’s much better, but then I am gone and after a week they are left with, “What was that again? How did it go?” It’s gone. It’s lost. That is the problem.

Trainers in general now go more out of their countries to help, no question, but it is often very difficult to make a real change because there’s not enough time.

Do you think training is the main thing holding us back?

Yes. And also it’s the competition. You don’t see good enough riding. I know it for myself and I can see and hear it from my students, it helps so much to be in an environment where everything is on a higher level, because it brings you up and makes you ride better and you also look at things differently. That is a bit the problem when you are in a country where the sport is not big, you have to be extremely self critical if you are successful in your country because you can easily be ‘The King” which is dangerous. If you think of and plan an international career, you have to compare yourself to the top people.

What is your biggest tip to those training mostly on their own? Watching videos, being videoed?

Ja, what I think, what I can see for example when I see people on horses from “third countries” (he’s laughing again!) when it comes to dressage, when I see them warming up, oh that looks not bad; nice horse, not bad riding but then when it comes to the test, they are very weak because often there’s no structure or plan or how to ride the test. That is one thing I can recommend. Watch “Clip my Horse” from the good shows.

Can you expand more on having a structure to ride your test?

The whole package, for example how to warm up then horse, how long to warm it up, how I get my horse into the test. I see many people over riding the horse in the warm up, so when they finally go down the centreline, they are dead! They’re tired! Which is a shame because they are often nice horses but the riders are insecure and nervous. They need the right guidance, someone there to say, “whoa, calm down.” They need to believe a little bit in themselves.

You have to orientate yourself always to the top. Even if your horse can never have the most quality, the quality of riding and performance is important.

So watch a lot of Isabell!

She is always something. I have watched her for decades and I still think that. You can see her in the warmup and you think, “Oh this will be a difficult ride today” and then she goes in and you think, how can she do that?!

Isabell and Aleppo – a difficult ride today?

Is there anything you see in a young rider that you think, they will definitely make it?

Oh yes. It also depends on the horse, but you can see, even in the kids, if they are a natural rider, natural balance, good natural position and uncomplicated in their way of riding. Instinct. They know instantly when to give, when to push, you see that.

Can you over coach people? Where do you find the balance of really helping and letting them sort things out for themselves?

It is also a little bit to do with the personality. I think people ride how they are, from the temperament. The more laid back person needs more, and opposite for sure. If I get a new student and he’s not so much in my training system, I talk a lot because I want him to understand. But when I see that he understands more and the horse understands more, I go backwards, I talk less. What I want to do is to help any rider to help himself. Again, when you talk about performance, you have to know what will come up in the white rails and how you will manage that. So that is my goal for any horse and rider combination, that they are physically and mentally strong enough to do it without me.

Sometime you see horse, rider and trainer, especially the trainer, until the horse and rider move their feet into the ring, the trainer is constantly talking. Often the rider then can’t even feel their horse because they listen to the person who talks non stop and that can be in my opinion a problem. It can be overdone.

So it’s finding the balance.

Absolutely. That’s what makes a good trainer.

You talk about playing with the horses in training rather than drilling them. When you find, for example, a stallion who’s going to be a bit of a lad, how do you find that balance of play but you’re definitely in charge?

When I talk about playing, it means to cooperate, that is the point. I have to sit on something that is with me, and on my side, and I need to be able to trust my horse. Where I have a horse that I can’t ride or train relaxed, I don’t mean that the horse shall not have it’s attitude and temperament, but they have to cooperate with me.

So if we take a stallion for example and he has too much adrenaline, then I go completely back from my training, say if I was going to train a pirouette, and I might give him a gallop. Too much strength, we take a little bit of it away and then we quietly come back to the pirouette. So in that moment I show a little bit my strength, without being rude or strong.

next comes fitness for both horse and rider

You have fitness programmes for your horses

I try. We have now winter and it’s not always easy to get the dark period of the year a little bit interesting, but as much as our facility allows, we try to do that; cavalettis, lunging, paddock and hacking out, but it depends on the conditions because we have ice and snow sometimes, but we try.

And the riders. Are you very strict that they must be fit?

Oh yes. Especially when the breeches get a bit tight! Everybody has to do something about it. I recommend fitness.

Do you tell them?

It’s sport.

It’s your job as a trainer.

You know that is also, when people say, “Oh I want to go there and I want to become an international star”, then you have to fit into the whole picture. And not because everyone has to be skinny, that’s not what I mean, but first of all it’s aesthetics, it’s important what you see. You have to be fit enough to sit properly and be still. I don’t mean if you’re 2kg overweight, but it’s definitely something I’m careful about.

Do you have any particular sport?

One of my student’s boyfriend has a fitness and physio studio and we are connected to him. Actually when Brett (Davey) was with us, he had for a while a bootcamp group every week outside on the dressage arena on the loose sand they had to run and pull. Anyway, that is also something that has changed in the last years. The younger generation understands that they are sports people, not just sitting in the saddle, so they have to be fit. Things that are incorrect with the seat, for example, has a little bit to do with a weakness in yourself. And it’s not just if you can sit straight, it’s also you have to have the possibility to carry yourself as well, like the horse. You have to be strong enough to carry the middle of yourself in the proper way over the longer term. I can’t have that when people are puffing and they need a break!

And you’re not afraid to take stirrups away from German team members.

 Not at all.

Do you think there should be more of that?

Ja in general. It’s not a punishment, but a help for you to feel yourself and your horse better. And I do that, not everyday, but now and then because that is something that I have learned, when you sit on a horse’s back, almost to take yourself out of the saddle and look at yourself from the outside, because too many people are riding with too much emotion and with too much intensity. They ride themselves into stress, you could say.

I learned….after some decades! It’s much more effective if you slow down and check yourself, check the basics again. Sometimes really it helps if you take the stirrups away because it makes your seat pure, there’s no compensation, no tools that can help you there. Then sometimes the horse for me finds the solution because I feel different and better.

Are there any books you’d recommend or really, just watch.

Actually what I think is a fantastic book still is Harry Boldt’s “Dressage Horse” because it’s outstanding still with the photos. If you’re rather green in the advanced sport and not 100% sure how it should look like, read this book and look at the pictures. I have done it. It makes things sometimes very simple and clear.

But again, it’s learning by doing that is best.

You’ve got to ride, don’t you? At the end of the day.

 Yes. You’ve got to learn techniques. If you don’t have anyone who can explain things to you or who you can ask, for sure you read a book to learn about the technique. Often I think though if you buy books to help you solve problems, sometimes it’s difficult because you know there are so many million different problems. So I prefer to do it.

Wenckstern – my horses my teachers

In your career, you’ve learnt both from human trainers and the horses. What percentage would you say has been human versus horse?

It’s difficult to say. I personally believe I’ve learnt most on and off the horse. For sure I got great help from Rehbein, and certain people, but it was also rather a short period and they gave me a start up which was remarkable. But then until I got it right, I had to practice and my poor partner horse had to take sometimes a lot until I got it so I really have to award the horses, they made me.

Herbert Rehbein and Pike Bube

Do you have help now?

 Sure. I have not a trainer but I still ask my bereiter how I look. Do I look like an old sack? I try to check myself and sometimes I have to do videos so I see those.

How many horses would you ride a day now?

I depends because I ride at least four horses a day but then also when I have many clients from foreign countries and they are not there, I have to ride their horses so then it might be seven or eight horses.

Has there been a really demanding horse or one who has taught you an awful lot?

I had this Russian horse that I won the German professional championships on, Delikatess. When I think back now, such a sweet thing, he did Grand Prix when he was six. He was very, very heavy for me to ride because the horse wasn’t exercised the right way when I got him and he was also just used to going in a certain way. I think I would handle that horse much differently today.

My last big horse Fariano, which you know was a very, very special horse, I would just like to have one more time. He gave me horror rides, very bad rounds but then, not just at the shows, but moments when I thought, this is the reason why I’m riding. The feeling and what I want to have.

The last big horse – Fariano

Is there a horse in the past or present that you would have loved to have had a ride on?

Oh ja, many, many, many horses. I have to say though one horse is always in my head is Corlandus. He was a giant, 180cm or something, long, long legs, electric and for me, because I came from the eventing scene, he was like a big Thoroughbred.

There are still many good horses, for example Cosmo, he is a Ferrari. He is something.

What makes you so good as a trainer?

My honesty. I am not complicated when it comes to my person. I can cope with everybody and I want to cope with problems. I take anything that is in front of me.

What do you want to be remembered for in dressage?

You want to write my obituary!!

Haha. No! I know it’s not all over yet!! But you’re an important contributor to dressage!

Really, what is my goal and what I want, you know they say, “Oh, the horse should be happy,” but I don’t know if the horse is happy to be ridden at all, you know? But I just want to see horses feeling good whatever they have to do and at whatever level so I can say, first of all I have done good work, and secondly in a way the horse if possible, enjoyed what it did or learnt something or felt well. The welfare of the horse is important. I just want to be a person of harmony, in life in general. We have a saying in Germany, I want to look in the mirror and see my face and it’s ok.







3 thoughts on “Jonny Hilberath – what makes a great dressage rider?

  1. I enjoyed reading this – and will take some of the advice to improve my riding (first of all to have a look at the almost forgotten Harry Boldt book)
    Thank you in deed!

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