‘I’m 68, but I can still do it’: John and Michael Whitaker discuss longevity, mistaken identity and sibling rivalry

  • Brothers John and Michael Whitaker have spearheaded an incredible era for the sport of showjumping.

    They’ve amassed 36 Olympic, world and European medals between them and enjoyed glittering careers that have spanned nearly 50 years – and they’re both still at the very top of their game.

    So to celebrate these two legends of the sport, H&H invited the brothers to join us on episode 141 of The Horse & Hound Podcast. We started with a trip down memory lane and the brothers revealed how this incredible journey began and the influence of their parents, Enid and Donald Whitaker, on their riding careers.

    Michael’s first pony was a brilliantly named Shetland called Hercules, who used to “run off at high speed if he didn’t want to do something” and the pair teamed up to do the milk round every morning.

    “It was a proper old-fashioned milk float and Michael used to go out and catch the pony at 6am and by the time we got the harness on, got the milk which we’d loaded the night before and did the milk round, it was time for school,” recalls John.

    They used to hack to shows in the early days – covering many miles to get there.

    “We did gymkhanas, handy pony, we just used to do everything. We were both really good at it and we used to earn more money from that than anything else,” says John, who remembers being inspired after staying up late to watch the likes of Alan Oliver showjumping on TV.

    “We’d have a plank of wood resting on some bricks, then we’d progress to jumping barrels.”

    John and Michael Whitaker in conversation: ‘If I can’t win, I’m very happy if he wins’

    So what’s it like competing against your brother?

    “We just treat each other like any other competitor – if he’s winning, I’ll try to beat him and if I’m winning, he’ll try to beat me,” says Michael. “But if I can’t win, I’m very happy if he wins. Although at a big class at Olympia or somewhere, if I was winning and John beat me I’d be slightly sick!”

    “I think it’s helped us both though,” says John. “If your brother’s in the lead, you think, ‘well, I can beat my brother’. But if one of us isn’t in the jump-off we’ll help with some advice. It’s like that throughout the family I think, even with my own kids. I would always try to beat them, just to show them!”

    John an Michael Whitaker are joined by Nick Skelton and Geoff Billington on the British Olympic team

    John and Michael Whitaker are joined by Nick Skelton and Geoff Billington on the British Olympic team

    “But like at the Los Angeles Olympics, working together with your brother on a team, that’s very rewarding,” says Michael.

    The brothers are often mistaken for each other.

    “I rarely go to a show when someone doesn’t call me John!” says Michael.

    At one show, Michael was running late so John once took the reins on one of his brother’s young horses and was in with a chance of winning before someone objected that it might be the wrong Whitaker in the saddle.

    “I jumped two rounds before anyone realised I wasn’t Michael!” says John.

    ‘It rubs off watching good young riders – winning is much tougher now’

    On the subject of longevity, John says: “People ask me when I’m going to retire but as long as I’ve got a good horse and I’m capable of having a chance of winning, I’ll keep doing it. I’m 68 but I feel like I can do it, so I’m doing it.”

    “It hasn’t been easy, we’ve worked hard for it,” says Michael.

    “I’m working harder than ever,” says John. “Finding the next good horse has always been the challenge. Our father instilled in us never to give up and just keep trying. That’s what we’ve done.

    “It rubs off watching good young riders. You have to change with the times. Winning is much tougher now, the sport is so professional, there are so many good horses and riders, everywhere you go.

    “Another Olympics isn’t out of the question, but I just feel we’ve been there and done that and I’m not sure if I really want to put myself through that kind of pressure again. If I thought I had a really, really good chance of winning it, I would, but I’m not just sure I feel like that at the moment. I can’t see myself doing and Olympics after Paris, anyway – 2028. That might be a bit of a long shot!”

    To hear John and Michael Whitaker talking more about the famous Whitaker family, top horses Milton and Monsanta, and riding at the Olympics, tune in to episode 141 of The Horse & Hound Podcast – listen here or search “The Horse & Hound Podcast” in your favourite podcast app.

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