‘The best feeling in the world’: John Whitaker on his half-century competing at HOYS

  • It is just over half a century since the legend that is John Whitaker first rode at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), having watched from home as a child and dreamed of competing here.

    In 1971, aged 16, he jumped in what is now the pony showjumper of the year class, on a skewbald pony called Crazy Horse.

    “It didn’t go that well!” he said. “But I’ve been coming ever since.”

    At that time, the pony Foxhunter final was held at Hickstead rather than HOYS, and John also jumped in that.

    “We qualified in Sheffield and my father got the map out and said ‘That’s a long way, we’d better set off in good time’,” John said. “So we left three days before, to arrive in good time, ride the pony – we got there an hour before the class.

    “It took us three days to get there – the lorry broke down, everything went wrong – went into the big ting, with the lake and the fountain, and the pony took one look, spun round and wanted to go home. I got round, I think with seven faults, and we put the pony back on the truck and went home.”

    John remembers watching HOYS, held at Wembley as it was then, on the BBC.

    “I remember it was on prime-time TV, at 9pm, and next morning we’d get our ponies out, put a plank up on bricks and keep putting more bricks on,” he said.

    “I loved watching it and not in a million years did I think I’d get anywhere near what I’ve done; I would not have believed it.”

    Asked what it is about HOYS that keeps John coming back, such as this year soon after the Global Champions Tour leg in New York, where he took a superb five-star win, he said: “It’s where it all started for me.

    “It’s still a great show. It’s good to support shows like this in your own country but it’s great to be here and jumping. Two weeks ago I was in New York – and it takes you a bit longer to get home from there!

    “I don’t think there’s one in particular but I’ve got so many good memories from here. It’s great to go in that ring and get a cheer, and if you’re lucky enough to win a class, that’s the best feeling in the world.”

    John reflected on the changes in the sport from 51 years ago, when Harvey Smith and David Broome were among his idols.

    “I used to watch them all, and try to pick up bits from them,” he said. “I still do that now. I watch the young ones and try to pick things up from them.

    “But even 20 years ago, you could win on not such a good horse; Harvey and others used to win on average horses, but you can’t do that these days

    John added that showjumping, both in the ring and all the work at home, is still a challenge for him.

    “One thing about this sport is that you lose more than you win, so you’ve got to get used to losing and get over it,” he said. “I’m still competitive, I still enjoy it and I can still do it. It’s not just going in the ring, it’s finding a new horse, finding young horses and bringing them on; it’s a challenge, and when it comes off, it’s worth all the hard work.

    “I walk around like I’m a bit old, and I probably look it but I think my body has designed itself to get on a horse and feel all right – when I get on a horse, I feel perfect.”

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