Life lessons: Legendary showjumper John Whitaker *H&H Plus*

  • John is one of the most decorated showjumpers in the history of the sport, winning more than 20 championship medals including team silver at the Los Angeles Olympics. The 64-year-old is married to Clare and is based near Huddersfield in his native West Yorkshire.

    David Broome and Harvey Smith were my idols growing up. When I started competing at the bigger shows, they were at the top of the sport, so they certainly inspired me. They were both brilliant in different ways, so I used to watch and learn what I could from them – and many other top riders over the years such as Hugo Simon and Nelson Pessoa. Even now, sometimes when I’m riding I’ll think, “How would Hugo Simon solve that problem?”

    At a show one day, David advised me, “When you think you’ve done enough work on your horse, do another 10 minutes,” and I think about that tip quite often – never cut your work short.

    My parents, Enid and Donald, were hugely influential, too – they encouraged my three brothers and me to never give up and remember there’s always another day. My father always tried to take the pressure off and give us confidence – he never made us feel like we had to win at all costs.

    You could have nine fences down out of a course of 10 and he’d say, “By gum, he jumped that one fence unbelievably.”

    In my younger days I was always changing the bits on my horses. My father suggested I should adjust the feed instead, and it worked – sort things from the inside out.

    Confidence of youth

    I wish I’d known when I was starting out that you can’t win every class. When you’re young you think you can win everything and when you don’t it’s disappointing.

    Even now, I find it really hard to make myself go slow – for example if I’m in a class just to train a horse.

    In the back of my mind I’m thinking I should be trying to win. But learning to be a good loser does come with experience – you need to be resilient, leave your mistakes behind and crack on again tomorrow.

    Confidence is a massive part of this sport and success breeds success. Everybody has bad spells, but you learn to ride the storm, go back to basics – and not panic. That’s the difficult part.

    Before I enter the ring, I try to stay focused, psyche myself up and tell myself I can win. I don’t think you’re any good if you don’t get some kind of nerves – it’s just about being able to control them – and I think the bigger the occasion, the better I ride. When I was young, I found big shows like Horse of the Year Show daunting so I used to say to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not the end of the world, go out and do your best.”

    I’m not particularly superstitious but, if I win a class, I tend to keep things the same – the tack, the warm up routine, how many jumps I do, keep wearing the same tie, my Great Britain underpants…

    Don’t forget anything

    I got to a show once and discovered I didn’t have any of my kit in the back of my lorry – or any horses either! We’d all thought the others had taken care of it, so we arrived to discover an empty lorry. So that’s my top tip – don’t forget anything.

    I reckon I ride better now than I did 20 years ago. I don’t win as much – I probably don’t take the same risks and I don’t have the same horsepower – but my position, control and balance is better than ever and I think that’s just a natural progression rather than something I’ve worked on.

    I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had so many good horses, but it would be nice to do what Nick Skelton did – to find a horse like Big Star to end my career with a final blast.

    I would be happy to have any of my old horses in my string right now – Ryan’s Son or Hopscotch, but I wish I had Milton above all others. He was simply outstanding and filled you with confidence; having him was the fairytale.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020