Ryan’s Son: the ‘carthorse’ who won medals and put the Whitaker family on the map

  • He may not have looked the part but Ryan’s Son was the horse that set the Whitaker bandwagon rolling. Jennifer Donald asks connections about the “carthorse” that scaled showjumping’s heights

    “HE has the body of a carthorse but the engine of a thoroughbred,” uttered the straight-talking Harvey Smith after watching the mighty Ryan’s Son.

    John Whitaker’s distinctive partner of 14 years took him to the Olympics, Hickstead Derby glory and won a host of championship medals.

    But the Yorkshireman’s first impressions of this 16hh bay gelding with a broad blaze and two long white stockings certainly didn’t match his world-conquering aspirations. Little did he know that Ryan’s Son would help shape showjumping history. Without him, John says, he’d still be a milkman.

    “He had massive feet, a ewe neck, feathers on his heels and a long back,” remembers John, who was 17 when he first set eyes on a four-year-old Ryan’s Son at an unaffiliated show at Shay Lane Stables near Halifax in 1972.

    “My father came up to me and said, ‘I really like the look of Ryan’s Son.’ I replied that it was only because he looked like a carthorse – he’d worked with that kind of horse on the farm all his life, so that was his thing. But he said, ‘No, he’s a good horse, I like him’.”

    Donald Whitaker tried to negotiate the purchase of the four-year-old, whose breeding was uncertain but believed to be by the thoroughbred Ozymandius out of an Irish Draught mare, but they couldn’t agree a price and John admits he “wasn’t that keen” anyway.

    But a few weeks later, they came across Ryan’s Son again at another local show near Scunthorpe and by this time a local dealer friend of the Whitakers, Donald Oates, had bought the youngster.

    “But when he got to the show, Donald realised he couldn’t ride because he’d got piles!” recalls John with a chuckle. “He said to my father: ‘Do you think your boy John would ride Ryan’s Son for me today because I can’t ride because of my piles.’ That episode probably changed all our lives.”

    John took the reins for one class, “a newcomers or something”, and the first thing he said to his father when leaving the ring was, “You have to buy this horse.”

    “It was just the feeling he gave me and the way he came off the ground. He had a lot of spring and I’d never felt that before,” says John. “I’d basically never ridden one as good as that. I could feel he was far better than average.”

    But of course, by this time, Ryan’s Son’s asking price had risen even higher than the £600 Donald Whitaker had offered first time around.

    But fate once again played her part.

    “I’d been riding a horse for Malcolm Barr [the father of John’s future wife Clare] which did quite well. We sold it for a good profit, so Mr Barr said if you see anything else you like, I’ll reinvest,” says John. “So Mr Barr stepped in to buy Ryan’s Son and my parents put some money in to show willing and that they believed in the horse. Everything ended up just falling into place.”

    ACCORDING to John, the new partnership clicked straight away.

    “He just suited me,” he says. “Although he looked like a carthorse, he was sharp and sensitive and a bit on the hot side. But through my years on ponies, I’d had similar types, so I knew how to ride him.”

    John nursed him through the grades, making a name for himself as a formidable opponent on the local circuit. Just three years later he and the seven-year-old Ryan’s Son earned their first call-up to the British team for a Nations Cup in Poland. This involved a tortuously long journey behind the Iron Curtain in a horsebox driven by Ryan’s former owner, who happened to be a truck driver and had offered to make the trip.

    “I walked the course on the first day and one of the fences was an oxer of walls – something I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since – but I thought, ‘This international jumping is serious,’” says John.

    In those days it was also compulsory to jump the puissance class at shows such as this, so a seven-year-old Ryan’s Son jumped the Nations Cup, the puissance and the grand prix, which would be unheard of nowadays. But the night before, his former owner was in the bar betting with Axel Wockener – now best known for coming down the Hickstead Derby Bank backwards on his horse Glasgow – that Ryan’s Son would beat Axel’s horse in the puissance.

    “He jumped 2.10m and the bet was won,” says John.

    The turning point for this budding partnership came soon after at the Great Yorkshire Show.

    “It didn’t go too well on the first day. We were up against the likes of David Broome and Harvey Smith. On the way home I said to my father, ‘I think we’re out of our depth here’,” remembers John. “But all the way home, my father was trying to persuade me to go back. The turning point in the conversation came when he said, ‘We’ve nothing to lose because we’ve paid the entries’. So I went back the next day and won both classes, then I won the Cock o’the North on the last day with Ryan’s Son.

    “Beating those kinds of people, who I looked up to and admired, especially on your home turf, is really special. So that was a massive milestone in my career.”

    “I LIKED everything about ‘Ryan’. He was an easy horse to look after,” says Clare Whitaker (née Barr), who worked as a groom for John before they married in 1979.

    “Ryan used to kick the door a lot, especially if he didn’t get put in the lorry. He didn’t like being left at home.

    “We had him at home a lot at my dad’s and I used to hack him out, but he hated the pigs at the next farm and wouldn’t go past them. He was sharp to ride, but he was pretty chilled at home. I remember him as cobby, but he got more blood as he got fitter.

    “He set us up, everything we have now is because we had him to start with. One of my favourite memories is winning the Derby [pictured above, with Clare on the right] – it’s such a good class to win.”

    The horse stayed sound throughout his career, except one winter when he went to back to Malcolm’s for some downtime.

    “He came in one day crippled lame and it turned out he’d chipped his pedal bone galloping round the field,” recalls John. “A piece about an inch long was cut out – it was a good job he had big feet – and we’ve still got that bit of bone at home.”

    John Whitaker riding Ryans Son at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

    John Whitaker riding Ryans Son at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. (Photo by Alvin Chung/Allsport/Getty Images)

    AMONG Ryan’s Son’s tremendous list of accolades over the next decade, winning team silver at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the first of John’s six Olympic appearances, remains a treasured memory.

    “That was unbelievable,” says John, who was 29 at the time and was joined on the team by his younger brother Michael, Tim Grubb and Steven Smith.

    “I had to jump for less than eight faults to get a medal, to beat the Germans, and Ryan’s Son was pretty good on most going but out there it was like dirt – it really didn’t suit him.

    “They were enormous courses, too – well, they certainly felt enormous at the time. I had an early fence down and I still had the most difficult part of the course to come. He wasn’t happy and he was bucking in between the jumps, but I managed to get round clear the rest of the way with just a time-fault, so five faults in total and we got a silver medal. That was an amazing moment.”

    Ryan’s Son proved to be a team stalwart over many championships and Nations Cups, where he jumped nine double clears and many more flawless rounds for his country.

    Jumping on home soil at Hickstead for the 1983 European Championships, John and Ryan’s Son had been part of the silver medal-winning team and were sitting in 13th position individually coming into the final day.

    “I thought I had no chance but he jumped clear and pulled us up from 13th to get the silver behind Paul Schockemöhle and Deister,” recalls John.

    “Another moment that stands out is the substitute Olympics in Rotterdam where he got individual and team silver again. It was a bit of bummer to get such a good result there, because it never really counted. But he was a great team horse.”

    Malcolm Pyrah, John’s team-mate for many years, remembers Ryan’s Son as a hugely reliable “common-bred horse”.

    “John always rode him well, producing him from scratch. He was always a good horse, but he tried his heart out for John,” he says.

    Ryan’s Son’s reputation soared during an era when showjumping was still at its most popular and the pair became household names. Fans swarmed ringside to watch the unmistakable bay, whooping with joy at his party piece – an exuberant kick of the heels.

    “In those days you got massive crowds at places like Wembley, so there were packed crowds every time he jumped and they all loved Ryan’s Son, especially with his buck at the end,” laughs John. “You could guarantee he’d buck every time he went through the finish – sometimes even between the fences when he was too excited. The crowd loved it. People always asked me why he did it. I really don’t know; perhaps it came from me pushing him through the finish and then relaxing. He never got me off; I was always ready for it. But he wasn’t trying to get you off, it just became part and parcel of every round he jumped.”

    INDIVIDUAL honours came, too. One of the highlights came late in Ryan’s Son career at the Royal International.

    “The King George was the one class I was always trying to win. I finally managed it with Ryan’s Son in his 18th year,” says John, who won it from last draw in a tense jump-off. “That year I had Milton, Ryan’s Son and a top speed horse called San Salvador. I just cleaned up with those three horses.”

    The pair triumphed in the Hickstead Derby in 1983 and finished second a further four times, but in 1987 the venue would be the scene of one of the most devastating moments in showjumping history.

    John takes up the tale: “Every time he jumped the Derby, he struggled a bit to jump fence two well and used to put his legs down in the middle of the oxer and pull them out again to clear it. That year when he did it again, I think he caught himself on one of the uprights before he fell.

    “I led him out of the arena and back to the stables but he wasn’t himself. We had a few stressful hours trying to find out what was wrong with him and tried to get him to recover but it turned out he’d ruptured something internally and he passed away. It was tragic.”

    A wave of devastation was felt throughout the showjumping world at the passing of the 19-year-old superstar, whose longevity, bravery and athleticism won the hearts of a nation. But his incredible legacy lives on.

    “It was unbelievable to get Ryan’s Son, but just as he was nearing the end of his career, I got Milton, so I consider myself a lucky person. We were lucky to find each other actually,” says John. “Harvey’s description of Ryan’s Son was perfect, but that horse changed all our lives – my family’s, my brothers’ – it just put us on a different level. He’s a massive part of the Whitaker dynasty.”


    This exclusive feature is also available to read in 15 July issue of Horse & Hound magazine

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