When 15-year-old Clare Barr met an up-and-coming young show jumping rider, little did she realise that almost three decades later the two of them would be at the head of a dynasty which looks set to stretch well into the new millennium.
Clare, now 43, lived in Harrogate in Yorkshire, and first met John Whitaker when her family bought a show jumping pony for her sister from his parents.
Clare took part in other forms of equestrianism, however.”I rode show and working hunter poniesand hunted, but I wasn¨t that interested in show jumping myself,” she recalls.
Clare¨s connections with John strengthened when one of her father Malcolm’s horses began to nap out hunting.
“He thought that some show jumping might sweeten the horse up and decided to send him to one of two riders – John or Graham Stephenson [the father of one of Britain’s leading young show jumping riders, Jackson Reed-Stephenson] Dad picked John and so did I!”
The young couple started going out when Clare was nearly 16.”I was still at school at the time, but we saw each other when we could,” she says.
Clare and John married in 1979 and moved into the farm that is still their home at Upper Cumberworth in West Yorkshire. The propertyhad been bought four months before.
“When we moved in, it consisted of a farmhouse, a wooden building, six stables and eight acres. Everything’s still there apart from the wooden building!”
Heyside Farm has grown since, though, and now has 100 acres, 36 stables and indoor and outdoor schools.
“We didn’t want to get into debt, so we bought what we could afford. We thought that it would be better to get a decent house and add the things we wanted when we had the money,” recalls Clare. “It must have been the muddiest place in the world when we moved in, though, and we couldn’t afford an indoor school for two or three years.
“It was always our theory that Ryan’s Son loved jumping in the mud so much because it’s all he ever saw at home!”
Now, the whole business runs like a well-oiled multi-national company – with Clare as managing director.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day, although winter is perhaps more “normal” than summer. I almost prefer the winter, because we see more of each other. John travels to international shows, but on the weekends he’s at home, we usually go to a show as a family.
“In the summer, I feel like I spend my whole life packing and unpacking lorries and everyone seems to be going constantly in different directions.”Clare is very much a “hands-on” person.
“I really do everything. We don’t have people to help in the house and the only things I hate doing are ironing and driving tractors, in either order! Imanage to fit in everything else, though.”
“Everything else” includes all the paperwork involved with such a huge operation and Clare also deals with John¨s fan club.
“We get constant requests for pictures and autographs from all over the world and we make sure that we answer them all. At the moment, John is enormously popular in France and a huge amount of letters are coming from there.”
Clare will be even busier in the future, as she recently emulated her father and husbandby gaining election to the BSJA board.
“I was already on the pony selection committee and the head of that, Sheila Elstone, persuaded me to stand for the executive. She felt that “pony people” didn’t have a voice and we both believe that it’s important to look after the youngest people in the sport.”
With the board responsibility has gone a place on the BSJA rules committee where, again, Clare will make sure that the pony side gets plenty of consideration.
“Although my two eldest children, Louise and Robert, are now full-time on horses, I love the pony scene and I still go to watch for pleasure. I also chef d¨equipe some pony teams when Katrina Moore can’t do it.”
Louise and Robert are currently going through a purplepatch, winning at almost every show they visit, but the Whitakers’ youngest daughter, Joanne, has different priorities.
“Although Joanne does show jump, she much prefers mounted games and is also very academic, so much so that she’s now a weekly boarder at school.”I would imagine that she’ll end up like me – riding for pleasure – and it would be nice to have one member of the family doing something completely different; at the moment, she’s determined to become a supermodel!”
Louise and Robert, however, are single-minded in their determination to keep the Whitaker name in lights.
“Louise is like her father. She’s totally laid back and doesn’t worry if things go wrong. She loves producing young horses, but I feel sorry for her in a way, as she’s not very big and the horses which suit John and Robert might not necessarily be ideal for Louise.
“Robert is more like me. He shows his emotions more, has a terrific will to win and is desperate to do things the right way.Since he was very young, he’s used a system whereby he follows well-known riders around at shows asking them questions about show jumping. They’re all used to him now and most riders will help him.
“He puts himself under terrific pressure to live up to the family name, but the older he gets, the better at the job he becomes.”
Clare has strong views on the value of training for all riders.”Someone said to me recently that I must have watched more horses jumping practice fences in moreplaces than anyone else and the thing that always stands out is the lack of basic training.
“For instance, many riders jump a fence and carry on round the corner without even thinking about which leg the horse is on.
“Since they first started jumping, we’ve drummed it into our children that you keep your horses balanced to help them land on the right leg and, if things go wrong, you sort it out before charging off round the collecting ring.
“Sadly, many riders I watch don’t seemto even know which is the right leg. We’ve also had riders who’ve been competing for some time arriving for training and not knowing what the word “diagonal” means.”All the Whitakers- John included – have lessons from newly-appointed BSJA coach Lars Sederholm.
“Lars has been helping Michael [Whitake] for some time and he’s brilliant. John is quite happy to have someone on the ground helping him – one thing about show jumping is that you’re never too good to learn.”So what does the future hold for this branch of the Whitaker family?
“John certainly has no plans to retire and as long as he’s fit, enjoying jumping and people still want to watch him, he’ll carry on doing it.”In the long-term, it would be nice for us both to be able to go as owners to watch Louise and Robert at major shows. We’ve also established a breeding programme and weve got horses to ride at home from the ages of four up to 20.
“We make a good living from the sport, but we don’t have the money to pay the silly prices currently being asked for a promising young horse and, with that in mind, we decided to try breeding our own.”Sometimes, when it’s 11 o’clock at night and I’ve still got a list of jobs to do before going to bed, I think that it might be nice to be an ordinary family. But what on earth would we do then? We’d end up getting bored and going to the pub every night.
“At the end of the day, I love my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”