John Whitaker: This can’t be good for the sport’s image *H&H Plus*

  • At my first show of 2020, a friendly steward pulled me up for carrying the wrong whip. I had absolutely no idea that British Showjumping (BS) had changed the rules on 1 January, deciding to adopt similar rules to racing and making it mandatory to use one of the floppy type of whips.

    Somebody kindly lent me a whip; I didn’t think I’d need to use it, but of course my horse decided to be a bit awkward that day and crashed into a fence. I tried to get his attention by giving him a tap with this new whip, which had no effect whatsoever. So I gave him a slightly harder smack and that certainly grabbed his attention because the noise scared the living daylights out of him, me and – judging by the way it echoed round the indoor arena – half the horses in the county, too. I’ve never heard such a loud crack in my life!

    I absolutely support horses’ welfare and riders should never abuse the whip – I’m pleased to say you rarely see it in showjumping – but if you do occasionally have to use these new whips, it will do the horse no harm. But to the general public, they look big and sound bad and that can’t be good for the sport’s image.

    As well as various spurs and spare bits, I normally keep three whips in my ring bag – some riders actually have many more – because you tend to use different whips according to which horse you are riding.

    Now we’re down to one whip, my bag is certainly a whole lot lighter, but one whip doesn’t necessarily fit all – for example, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 I rode the 17hh-plus German stallion Calvaro and he barely even knew I was on his back. I needed big spurs, a big stick and a big bit just to get him round.

    The new whip rule is just one of a raft of changes made by BS recently, relating to bits, boots, spurs and horses competing HC (non-competitively). Perhaps before they make these sorts of changes, they should put forward their proposals to the wider membership, or at least a core of experienced members for discussion. Some of these recent rule changes have seemed unnecessary, so inviting feedback would be a really positive move.

    Time for a cuppa…

    My wife Clare went shopping for milk the other day and, in these times of panic-buying, it had all sold out, but it reminded me of a time at Leewarden show in the Netherlands. We used to arrive the day before and in those days they ran a cattle market on the showground before the horses arrived, transforming it overnight for the jumping. So there were still cows around when we got there.

    We wanted to make a cup of tea but we had no milk. So my father said: “All those cows are out there – go and milk one.” So I duly went off, returning with a jug full of milk, only to find that when I poured it in everyone’s tea, it curdled. Of course, the cows had newly calved so I’d got a jug full of colostrum. It didn’t go down well with my thirsty family, but we did laugh about it.

    A great character

    I was very sad to hear about the recent passing of Kevin Bacon. Kevin was a brilliant horseman and a great character. He was based in Europe for many years and we happily spent hours listening to his stories during the evenings at shows.

    One that stands out was when he was in his native Australia trying to break the country’s high-jump record.

    “I got the height all right,” he said in his Aussie accent, “but I came down the same side as I went up!”

    He was also a really good blacksmith and very good horse dentist, and he spent his later years travelling all round Europe doing horses’ teeth. I’d recommend reading a brilliant book, Kevin Bacon: Australia’s Extraordinary Horseman, which is full of his incredible achievements and the wonderful things he used to get up to.

    Strange times and out-of-date food

    Everything seems strange at the moment with the coronavirus lockdown. We spent four weeks jumping in Vilamoura, Portugal, in February and if we’re lucky, our next show might be back at Vilamoura in October.

    These are difficult times, but my daughter Joanne is looking after us by bringing her mum and dad all her out-of-date food – well, just her dad because her mum won’t eat any of it! Still, it’s the thought that counts. Stay safe everyone.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020