‘I have a lot of brilliant memories’: top course designer Bob Ellis to take a step back

Legendary showjumping course designer Bob Ellis will be taking a step back after a distinguished career spanning more than 40 years.

Bob has designed courses across the UK’s major international and county shows for decades, plus the London 2012 Olympics, European Championships and in 33 countries around the world.

This week marked the last time he would design at the Great Yorkshire Show and October will be his final Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) as he plans to cut down on course designing from the end of the year.

“There comes a time in everybody’s life when it’s got to be,” Bob told H&H.

“I have a lot of brilliant memories, the places my career has taken me to have been amazing. I’m getting no younger.”

He added that all being well, he plans to do Bolesworth, Windsor, Olympia and the three Hickstead meetings next year, but not as designer.

“I’ve been doing Horse of the Year Show on and off from 1975 and this year is my 44th consecutive Royal International,” said Bob, 72, adding he would like to stay involved with British Showjumping.

“I will certainly miss a lot of the camaraderie. I’ve made so many friends; riders, course builders, judges, but I don’t intend to stop coming to the shows. I’ll be there for days out with the grandchildren. It will be nice then with no pressure.”

He added he also plans to spend more time following his football team, the Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Bob has designed from Brazil to New Zealand, with Mexico and South Africa favourites abroad, and Hickstead, Windsor, Olympia and the South of England among his favourites at home.

His fondest memory is of Britain winning team gold at the London 2012 Olympics.

“When Britain won the team gold in London I cried — we all cried — that was some moment,” remembers Bob.

But his career started from humble beginnings.

“When I was in my early 20s I went to ride for Stephen Hadley and he had just put up an indoor school. He decided to have some shows and somebody needed to build the courses, so I was designated course designer,” he said.

“I used to build a course for the unaffiliated shows on the Wednesday evening, then go and fetch a horse out and ride round it to see if it was jumpable.”

He knew renowned course designers Jon Donley and Alan Ball via the showjumping circuit and in 1975, Alan asked if he would go with him to HOYS as an assistant. The following year, he went to the Royal international and the rest is history.

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“I start with a graph with the measurements of the arena on,” said Bob, explaining how he goes about designing a course.

“If you haven’t been before, that gives you an idea of the size of the arena, where the judges are, where the sun goes down or comes up, these are the sort of things you need to know.

Then I just doodle — put some fences down and try and get some routes, the ways you want to go and add some fences to it, it sounds simple! Some days you can rattle plans off one after another and other times you can look at a blank piece of paper for about five days.”

He added he tries to go to a show a day early to visualise where fences will go and which lines will work.

“It’s not an exact science and you are dealing with animals so anything can happen, and usually does somewhere along the line!”

And advice for aspiring designers? “It is hard work to start off with as you start by picking up poles for little or no money, but the rewards come if you work hard enough.”

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