Ride of my life: John Whitaker

  • Career highlights: Born 5 August 1955. Married to Clare and has three children, Louise, Robert and Joanne.John’s partnership with Ryan’s Son lasted 14 years. Ryan sadly died of injuries sustained in a fall at Hickstead in 1987.
    Ride of my life: Los Angeles Olympics
    Horse: Ryan’s Son
    Breeding: Foaled in 1968 by Ozymandias (TB) out of an Irish Draught mare
    Career highlights: Major wins include Midland Bank Great Northern Championship; Cock of the North; the Bass Grand National; Everest Double Glazing Championship; King George V Gold Cup; Hicksted Derby. Winner at Royal International Horse Show, Horse of the Year Show and Olympia. Leading national money winner four times (1976, 1978, 1979 & 1983). In 1980, Ryan won the Irish Horse Board’s prize for the best horse bred in Ireland. Jumped ninedouble clear rounds in Nations Cups.

    John Whitaker recalls his ride at the Los Angeles Olympics

    Ryan’s Son was quite simply the horse ofa lifetime. It was Ryan who put me on the show jumping map, he started it all, and the 14 years we were together were very special. He was a brilliant horse, with his own personality and style, and the crowds used to love his bucking and kicking.

    We’ve had many highlights and special memories throughout our career, but the rounds that stand out most for me were at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where we earned team silver for Britain.

    The course for the team competition was perhaps not as difficult as we thought it would be. Course-builder Bert de Nemethy seemed to ask the riders more questions than the horses. Although the track was big, it wasn’t as big as in previous Olympics, but it was more technical.

    I was last to jump in our team. My brother, Michael, opened with eight faults riding Overton Amanda, Steven [Smith] was disappointed with score of 19 on Shining Example, and then Tim [Grubb] gave us a real boost when Linky jumped clear.

    We needed a good round to discard Steven’s score, but I had a bad start when Ryan slipped in the collecting ring. Ryan could cope with most extremes of going. He loved mud and deep ground best, and he didn’t mind it hard either. But he hated ground that moved, and the sandy surface at Los Angeles was quite loose.

    Ryan was still unsettled when we started, he was tapping early rails, and then we had the fence after the water, one part of the combination, and both parts of the double down for 16 faults. I felt that we should have done better, but it wasn’t a disaster. Although the Americans had a strong hold on the gold medal, we were still in contention for silver or bronze.

    Between rounds, David Bowen helped me with Ryan. We spent alot of time working him slowly, trying to settle him and I took my spurs off before jumping again.

    As last man to go in our team, I knew exactly what I had to do. Ronnie Massarella [chef d’equipe] said that I could afford one fence down, but not two. His final orders were to ‘go in there and enjoy yourself; just make sure you jump a clear’.

    I felt as though we were in the ring forever. Ryan jumped the first two fences well, then dropped his hind legs into the middle of fence three, but pulled them out.

    We stayed clear until number eight, a big water ditch with criss-crossed poles. Ryan jumped left to the higher side and a rail fell. The worst part of the course was still to come, so I tried to compose myself and concentrate on the remaining fences. The time was also tight, so I pushed on.

    Ryan was spot on at the combination, which was a big oxer to a triple bar, and oxer out. The spectators were cheering and clapping and Ryan bucked, as he always did to the crowd at the end of a round.

    He thought he had finished, but we still had the last difficult line of fences to jump. Somehow, we both managed to keep our concentration and left everything standing to finish on 4.75 faults to earn team silver. It was certainly a very special round on a very special horse.

    Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound (20 March 2003) for allthe latest news and reports.

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