Jill Robshaw French, an equestrian and riding instructor who taught for many years at the Columbia Equestrian Center, died in her sleep following hip surgery Dec. 8 while undergoing rehabilitation at the Broadmead retirement community.
She was 90 and had lived at the Springwell Senior Living community after making her home in Manchester and Sparks.
Born in Derbyshire, England, she was the daughter of John M. Robshaw, a recycler, and Mary W. Wright, a homemaker.
“As a child she developed an intense fondness for animals, especially horses, which she rode across the Derbyshire countryside accompanied by her dogs,” said her son James Lewis French.
At the outset of World War II, she was sent away to a boarding school. Her son explained that many English children were relocated to keep them safe from the bombing raids that occurred in strategic city centers like Derby, whose Rolls-Royce factory made Merlin engines for Spitfire bombers.
Mrs. French attended Abbots Bromley Boarding School for Girls in Staffordshire. In 1948, she graduated from the Nepcote Lodge Riding School in Findon with excellent marks in stable management and equitation.
She was the subject of a 1958 Baltimore Sun Magazine cover story entitled “Woman Trainer.” In it she spoke of spotting an ad placed by her employer-to-be in a British weekly, Horse and Hound.
The ad was headed, “AMERICA,” and said, “Seek educated young lady capable of breaking and schooling horses. Must have show experience. Apply Skelton Farm, Hampshire.”
She was one of numerous applicants but she got the job and sailed to New York in 1956. Accompanying her was her yellow Labrador, Giles. She was met in New York and she later said that her first impression of America was the Lincoln Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike.
The job entailed training horses for Dr. Charles Iliff in Arnold. Dr. Iliff was a well-known Baltimore ophthalmologist whose office overlooked the west square of Mount Vernon Place.
“She underwent a rigorous evaluation over the course of a number of days.”
Mrs. French later took a job in Stevenson in Baltimore County with Lloyd Watner, the son of Abe Watner, an early Baltimore Colts owner.
While living in Maryland, she met her future husband, John Robert French, a childhood friend of Bill Tanton, the former Evening Sun sports editor.
Mrs. French went on to teach children and adults how to ride horses. She began at St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson and later had a farm on Western Run Road in Cockeysville. She also directed the riding program at the Columbia Equestrian Center.
One of her former students from Western Run Road, Andie Lux Yellott, recounted, “Mrs. French was a true legend. She launched me on a happy career of eventing. She was such a huge influence on my life, not just as a rider, but as a human being.”
John Robert French Jr., who is also a rider, said,” her teaching style revealed so much about who she was and what was important to her. She was tough as nails and she pushed her students to do things they never thought they were capable of.”
According to her son John, “If you ever fell off, she would insist that you brush yourself off and get right back on the horse. She wore her bumps and bruises as badges of honor.”
Her friend Wendy Hannum said, “I was working at Garrison [Forest School] and she was at St. Timothy’s and I got this call from Jill who said she was bored and wanted to go on a trail ride.
“When I got there, I noticed Jill was as big as a house … pregnant with one of the children … she looked as if that baby was going to come any minute. She insisted riding bare back and wanted to trot. … Days later — after the baby came — I learned that she thought that the ride would start labor and she was tired of waiting.”
Friends said she admitted to putting her two eldest sons down for a nap when they were toddlers before sneaking out for a quick ride in the Green Spring Valley.
In addition to the horses, Mrs. French loved dogs of all breeds and sizes and was an avid agility trainer with her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lily.
“My mother rode until she was in her 80s and if she fell, she would get right back on,” said her son.
Survivors include her three sons, James Lewis French of Baltimore, John Robert French Jr. of Wellington, Florida and Anthony Wilson French of Parkville; a daughter, Mary Jill Hough of Monkton; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson. Her husband, John Robert French, a retired St. Paul’s School for Boys English teacher who later taught at Howard Community College, died in 2020.
Plans for a memorial are pending.