If anybody wondered whether, aged 66, John Whitaker was still able to cut it at the top then such doubts were quickly dispelled at last weekend’s London International Horse Show. In an event featuring some of the world’s best riders, he had landed his first victory by the second day of competition at the Excel and came within a whisker of going on to win the FEI World Cup, one of equestrian’s most coveted prizes.
In the end, he was narrowly pipped into third place in the latter event, but only after beating an Olympic champion and four of the world’s top ten. The performance helped to explain why the grandfather-of-four has no intention of hanging up his boots anytime soon, even after five decades at the top.
‘I still think I can ride well and at most shows I make money,’ says Whitaker, who competed at his first London International Horse Show in 1976. ‘So I just think I might as well keep going as long as I can. I don’t feel intimidated by my age – to still be going at this age, being able to compete against all these good young riders and be able to hold my own is one of my proudest achievements.’
John Whitaker is defying the doubters to prove he still belongs at the top level of showjumping
Showjumping, with its glamour and razzmatazz, now attracts the offspring of some of the wealthiest people on the planet, including Springsteen, Jobs, Gates and Spielberg to name a few. Whitaker, a straight-talking, hard-working Yokshireman is still perhaps the sport’s biggest icon and the last of a dying breed. He grew up on the family dairy farm and from the age of 12 would deliver milk on a horse-drawn float until he was old enough to drive. He has lived near Huddersfield for his whole life and still relishes the graft. Every year most of Christmas is spent looking after horses and livestock, as his staff take time off. He cannot recall when he last took a day’s holiday but it does not seem to bother him.
The Whitaker family is one of the most successful dynasties in equestrian sport. There are 14 family members competing at international level, and many of them have been on British teams at youth and senior level. John is the most senior brother Michael featured on a number of teams with him, and himself won 15 championship medals, whilst Steven rode internationally and is now based at the original family farm in Huddersfield with his son William Whitaker. Michael’s son, the 20-year-old Jack Whitaker, competed at Excel last week.
Whitaker has fond childhood memories. ‘We were and still are farmers. My uncle used to milk the cows. We would collect the milk in the morning, on the milk float pulled by a horse. My mother used to do the deliveries that were further away but Michael and I would do all the local ones before school. Every morning, in all weathers, and I did that from until I was 17.’ After school they would ride their ponies, practising what they learned from avidly watching showjumping greats like Harvey Smith and David Broome.
Whitaker, 66, impressed at the London International Horse Show, placing outside the top three
The Yorkshire farmer made his debut in 1976 and spent two decades in the world’s top 20
In 1979 Whitaker married his current wife Clare and bought his own farm, 10 miles from the family farm. As well as 40 horses, he keeps a herd of 50 beef cattle. ‘It’s in my blood – we are Yorkshire farmers really, as much as showjumpers. We make our own hay and the cows keep the land a bit healthier, I enjoy doing it.’
In five decades at elite level, he has competed at nearly 2,500 international competitions worldwide, with just shy of 100 major wins and 24 medals at Olympic, World and Europeans Championships.
He is currently ranked 93rd in the world, but for more than two decades he was never out of the top 20 riders. In order to stay amongst the elite few who are allowed to compete at prestigious shows with big prize money, he must keep performing well almost every week.
Whitaker (L) hails from a showjumping dynasty. (Pictured: brother Michael (R) and children Louise (2L) and Robert (2R))
‘I wouldn’t want to do it if I was riding bad horses and I like competing at the big shows like London. Jumping in World Cups and Nations Cup classes is the kind of thing that keeps me going.’ The British team selectors still rate him too, he was recently selected for the team at the FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona.
Finding good horses is one of the biggest challenges he says but he relishes it. The excitement that comes from finding and training what could be his next equine superstar. ‘What has changed is, there are so many good riders around now. 30 or 40, even 20 years ago, there were only about 10 riders who could win. Now every single one of them in a class of 50 could win. The standard is high and the standard of horses is so high. That’s the next problem, a good horse now costs millions and everyone is looking for them nowadays. I can’t spend that so I still have to buy them young and bring them on. To stay at the top, you need a decent number of good horses.’
He cites Milton as the best of those horses. The memorable grey had a unique jumping action and with a lesser rider he may have amounted to nothing but Whitaker is renowned for his horsemanship and innate ability to get the best out of any horse. Some believe he is still the greatest ‘horseman’ of all time. Milton gave Whitaker a milestone victory by winning the European Championships in Rotterdam in 1989. He also became the first ever showjumping horse to win a £1million in prize money. ‘Now you can win a million in a year, but that was a big deal at the time’ he says.
Whitaker pictured with his favourite horse, Milton, and Princess Anne at the World Equestrian Games in 1990
He has no plans to retire just yet and is out to teach the young up and comers a thing or two
Despite participating in six Olympics, (most recently in Rio 2016), the medals he might have deserved, have eluded Whitaker. As well as his team silver in 1984, he won team and individual silver at the alternate Olympics in Rotterdam, when Moscow was boycotted. Whilst it was still a huge achievement against the world’s best riders, it will not be written in equestrian lore. Instead there were a number of near misses. ‘I think Seoul would have been my best opportunity to win a gold medal in my entire career. Milton would have been in with a really good chance but the owners didn’t want him to go because it was so far for the horse to fly. It was a big thing to fly horses in those days – now you do it every week.’
Competing in Olympics and World Championships is not something that Whitaker puts in his life plan these days. He just focuses on the day and enjoys what he does. Whether that is training horses at home and working on the farm, or competing at big competitions like London. He also thinks his riding is as good as it’s ever been and he never stops learning. Just as he watched the likes of Harvey Smith as a youngster, he still observes riders half or even a third of his age today.
‘I’ve always watched other riders and I think it rubs off without you realising it. The sport has changed so much in my time of doing it and to stay successful you have to move with the times. The courses are much tougher and the times are much tighter. I probably don’t take the risks I used to because I probably think about it too much today. I analyse it all a bit more whereas before I would just get on with it. But I still try to win and I know I can win.’
Right now, he has two good horses competing at top level. ‘Unick du Francport is my World Cup horse and he’s got a few more years left in him. I’ve got some good young ones coming through and as long as I don’t start falling off, or taking the wrong course every week, or lose my marbles, I still want to keep going – and winning too.’
NICK SKELTON: JOHN IS SO STUBBORN… THAT’S WHAT GAVE HIM THE EDGE
‘I watched John in the World Cup. He is amazing and is still as good as anyone. I have travelled the world with John for 40-odd years and one thing that stands out is he never gives up. His top horse Unick du Francport wasn’t easy when he took him on but he has made it into a good horse. Only once in my life have I seen him retire, he will go on to the bitter end.
‘He is bloody stubborn and I think that’s what gives him an edge. You tell John Whitaker he can’t do something and he will go out of his way to prove you wrong
‘I remember a time at the European Championships in Italy, it was the night before it started and the team was announced but John had been left out. He wasn’t too happy, so he went up his room after a few drinks and threw his riding boots out the window. The next morning, his niece Ellen hitaker’s horse was lame so she was out and they had to put John back in. He had to go back to the hotel and climb on the roof to retrieve his boots.
‘He wouldn’t have expensive horses and he has done well in spite of that. He’s as tight though. I think he’s bought me four drinks in 40 years! I’m looking forward to the next decade because I might get a fifth.
‘John is as good as any of these younger riders today. With the right horse, he could definitely make the British team.’