Life lessons: Top showjumper Michael Whitaker *H&H Plus*

The Olympic showjumper on learning from Harvey Smith, looking for the first fence and why, despite a tack room full of bits, he turns to his vulcanite pelham

  • In a career spanning over 40 years, Michael has won 15 championship medals, including team silver at the 1984 Olympics and four team golds at the Europeans. He has claimed some of the world’s most prestigious grands prix and the Hickstead Derby title four times.

    There were so many great riders in my younger days to watch and learn from – Eddie Macken, David Broome, Malcolm Pyrah and Caroline Bradley – but my mum said, “Watch Harvey Smith, his legs don’t move.” And she was right – he sat in a really good place and was actually a very stylish rider. Horses always went well for him and he set a great example to me.

    I grew up watching Harvey jump in Yorkshire, then I’d see him and David Broome at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), Olympia and Hickstead, and they became my idols. David was winning a lot but he never looked like he was in a rush in a jump-off – he would never flap about, everything looked under control.

    I say the same to my son Jack now when he goes off to shows – go and watch all the top riders whenever you can, to see how they do it. A lot of kids now just jump their class and go, but the best lesson you can have is to watch and learn.

    The importance of rider position

    When I was young, I wish I’d appreciated the importance of my position in the saddle. Up to the age of about 16, all I was thinking about was going in the ring and winning – it didn’t matter how I looked as long as I did it. But as I got older and things became more difficult I realised how much sitting in the right place at the right time can help the horse. The reason the American riders do so well most of the time is because they sit in exactly the right place.

    A tip Harvey taught me was not to jump too big or too much in the warm-up. You need to go into the ring full of confidence, not having just had a crash or a stop, so you mustn’t overjump your horse.

    I’ve also learnt not to lose patience with a horse. We’re all guilty of it, but you need to breathe in, count to 10 and start again – sometimes you can fall out with a horse, but you give yourself a lot more work trying to put things back together again the next day.

    Where do I start?

    The last thing I try to remember when I go into the arena is where the first fence is – so often, you can have a complete blank about the course and a few times I have thought, “Oh bloody hell, where do I start?” But usually if you can see where the first fence is, it all falls in to place!

    I have every type of bit in my tack room but I tend to go to the same ones time and again – snaffle, double bridle, vulcanite pelham or hackamore. But the vulcanite pelham with tongue port is the one I use the most. It’s actually not very strong with a rounding on it so if a horse messes with its tongue or its mouth, I put it on and they accept it really well. It cuts out a lot of problems.

    I wish I had Warren Point, with whom I won team gold at the 1985 European Championships, on my yard now. He was so fast against the clock and unbelievably careful. He liked Hickstead and Aachen, but he was also good indoors and won the HOYS grand prix, too. He had soundness problems at the end, so his career was cut short, but I’d love to see him reach his full potential.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020