John Whitaker has inspired generations of riders, not least William Funnell. The pair sit down to discuss horsemanship, riding Milton, keeping motivated and years of friendship...
William: I have admired your quiet consistency with horses since I was a kid, so it made a big impact years later when you sent your horse Barry Bug for me to ride.
To go on to win the leading showjumper at Horse of the Year Show on a horse owned by you was a big thrill; I was in my twenties, I’d not done many internationals and had Comex as my top horse but nothing else, so I really felt like I’d made it. Was there a moment you thought, “Yes, I’ve made it”?
John: That night was a great experience for me, too, because I’ve never been on that side of the game – usually I’m on the horses’ backs. But, yes, aged about 18 when Ryan’s Son was seven and I had another seven-year-old called Singing Wind we went to Yorkshire Show. The first day was a big step up from what I’d been doing at the small county shows and it was a complete disaster.
On the way home I said to my father, “I think I’m a bit out of my depth,” and I was a bit reluctant to go back the second day, but my father talked me into it. I won the first class with Singing Wind, then the big class with Ryan’s Son and the third day won the Cock O’The North against David Broome, Harvey Smith and all the top riders. That was the point I thought, “I’m all right at this!”
My first memories of you, Will, were when you started riding for Cyril Light and believe it or not I thought you were really shy…
William: I was!
John: We’ve been good mates since. I remember your really good win in the Foxhunter final when you were 17.
William: Cyril never came to the big shows, so he sent me up to what I think was my first Horse of the Year Show in a little lorry with one horse, Once More. We left at 4am for the 7am warm-up class and I ended up in the evening jumping-off against Liz Edgar and won, stopping off for fish and chips on the way home. I thought, “This lot aren’t that good really – I’ve turned up with my one horse and won. This showjumping business is easy!”
Little did I realise how long it would take to win another Foxhunter final. But I’ve always admired your confodence, John – it’s something we all need, isn’t it?
John: These days you can walk the course and think, “Bloomin’ ’eck this is massive and I’m not sure my horse can jump it.” But I like a challenge – it is all about confidence, and success breeds success.
Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and keep having one down and you don’t know what’s going wrong, but there’s nothing really wrong and as soon as one horse wins a class, they all start going well. Do you analyse things much more than I do?
William: I think your strengths could be my weaknesses, yes. Whereas you would always sit quietly, perhaps I’d be overcomplicating things.
As a breeder and dealer I’ve never set out to achieve anything like you have, but as a young rider I used to study you in the collecting ring and I’ve learned a lot from the way you produce your horses – if you’re consistent, you don’t have to bully a horse.
I’ve never seen you lose your rag with a horse – have you always been so level?
John: I think losing your temper is a sign of weakness. Like you, I watched all the top riders, my predecessors, and tried to pick up the good things from certain riders and stay away from the bad things. A lot of what I do comes from feeling, and horses aren’t machines – you have to explain what you want from them and that sometimes takes a long time, sometimes you never get there!
People often take for granted that these horses want to jump, or can jump, but we should keep in the back of our minds that they’re not even really meant to showjump – to go in a big ring with huge jumps and thousands of people watching – yet we expect them to do it.
William: I remember seeing you and Michael at the county shows turning up to 1.60m verticals and thinking, “Crikey, that’s unbelievable, how can they do that?”
I was so lucky that you encouraged me in those early days and it was never any problem if I asked you questions – you always had a very simple way of putting things.
John: I wouldn’t say I’m a superstar, but there is a knack to turning back to big jumps. Some riders are absolute experts, like David Broome, who used to keep his rhythm back to his fences and he was magic to watch.
Nowadays, Marcus Ehning is especially good – he never takes a pull, he’s always on a forward stride. It’s something that comes with practice – and con dence.
Of course, it helps if your horse can jump a bit! But I do practise that with my young horses, teaching them to think for themselves and get them looking for the next fence.
William: When I won the Foxhunter final in 1984 it was on telly. Can you imagine that now? Even at South Of England or Great Yorkshire, the crowd would be seven or eight deep for the big class and you’d never even have thought about going into the ring and schooling round. You were always playing to a crowd at places like that, weren’t you?
John: People ask me how I got into showjumping and I remember as a kid watching it on BBC One at 9pm and thinking it was unbelievable. The next day, I would get out some bricks and a pole and start jumping – it all stems back from watching it on prime-time TV.
William: In terms of horses that you’ve had over the years, there are many I’d have liked to have ridden but I know I couldn’t have done a better job. It would have been lovely just to have had a sit on Milton though. I always admired how much time you gave him.
John: I had to adapt to Milton – you had to give him time to come off the ground whereas in general I like to push my horses into fences. He jumped in a unique way. His front legs came up out in front of him and you had to sit behind the movement a bit. After a few years, I didn’t have to think about it and he adapted to me a bit as well. We met in the middle.
William: You’ve achieved so many unbelievable things but two that stand out for me are winning the Hickstead Derby on 21-year-old Gammon – you’d never hear of that nowadays – then we have to talk about you hopping on Buddy Bunn in 2004 after I tore my groin on him in the Derby trial, and winning it. I don’t think many riders could get on a horse and do that.
John: What I admire in you though is your professionalism, you’re stylish, you think everything through and you know which classes to place the horses in. You’re very good at producing them and not bad at breeding them, either!
William: How do you deal with the highs and lows? I’ve seen you disappointed, but I’ve never really seen you down. After a bad round I get the impression you’re thinking it’s a challenge to make this horse as good as it can be.
John: Definitely. Both Michael and I are the same and it goes back to our father. He would always find something good to say and that’s rubbed off on us – we always try to get the best out of what we have. Often my son Robert or wife Clare will say, “Why are you wasting your time with that horse?” But I’m stubborn and that makes me more determined.
It’s worked both ways though and a few horses turned out to be absolute superstars when in the beginning even I didn’t believe it. Like Grannusch – jumping newcomers, you’d think he had no chance of even doing Foxhunter.
It can take you more than three or four years to make a horse and sometimes your hopes are too high, but horses can reach their best at 15, 16 or 17.
William: You more than any other rider have had horses peak in their late teens, what do you put that down to?
John: It must be the Yorkshire grass! But it’s a bit of everything – keeping them mentally fresh, physically sound, not over-jumping, not doing too much in the warm-up and not trying to win every single class at break-neck speed. Just trying to keep everything in their comfort zone.
Sometimes in a jump-off, you get carried away trying to win and do things that you probably shouldn’t do, but you’re there to try to win. But to try to win by half a second rather than five seconds, just little things like that.
Willim: Talking about fitness, I still enjoy riding at 54, you’re 10 years older than me?
John: I’m 66 this year.
William: Have you any tips on how I can keep going?
John: I wouldn’t follow my regime!
William: [LAUGHS] If I didn’t have a horse at the top level, I’d still enjoy riding the young ones; I just don’t enjoy falling off now, that seems to hurt a lot more. But I admire the fact that you still enjoy it and I see you riding as well as ever. Physically are you still finding it easy?
John: I have to confess after Christmas I was only riding two or three horses a day but I’m back up to five. I do feel a bit sti er when I get out of bed in the morning and I might walk around like a bit of an old man, but on a horse I feel good.
William: The horses you have now are as nice as you’ve had for a few years, aren’t they?
John: I have two or three good ones. I was away for three months at the end of last year on various tours and I tell you what, I really enjoyed it. I always have done, but now I feel I have nothing to prove, I can enter classes that I feel suit the horses and I can still beat them on my day!
If shows return to normal this year I could go back to five-stars and if I think my horse is good enough to do Nations Cups or maybe a championship, then yes I would do it. What are your goals, Will?
William: The world is still my oyster! It’s nice to do the big shows, but only if you are competitive. I have a nice Nations Cup horse in Billy Diamo but let’s see what happens – we have a plan but a couple of months ago we were thinking there would definitely be super leagues, Olympics, European Championships, now who knows?
We’re still running a commercial business, so it’s all about producing and selling them. So physically, and as long as I keep enjoying it, I’d like to keep going.
Looking back then John, what do you count as your proudest moment?
John: The one that stands out was winning the European Championships in Rotterdam in 1989. I’d been knocking on the door a few times with Ryan’s Son and then Hopscotch, so when I won – and Michael was second – it was a real milestone.
Winning a championship is not something many riders do so that was a good one, in those glory days with Milton.
William: For me, winning team gold at the 2013 Europeans with Billy Congo was right up there, and on a home-bred it adds an extra dimension. But as great as it is to achieve things myself, I get such satisfaction from seeing somebody else winning on a Billy horse.
Hickstead, though, has always been a great place to win, so to have so many seconds in the Derby then to end up winning four was great. But it would be nice to win another one – just to get that fifth one that nobody else has done would be pretty special.
● As told to Steven Wilde and Jennifer Donald
Ref: 11 February 2021
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