The Horse Rider’s Journal met two genuine old-school legends, British brothers Michael and John Whitaker, when they came to the JBK Horse Show in Denmark. Here they talk about growing up, sharing wins and their lifelong passion for horses.
Photography CAMILLA STEPHAN Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.7
The Whitaker family is the foremost family of British showjumping. Brothers John and Michael have both been top-ranking world riders, and now several of their younger relatives are taking the equestrian world by storm.
John Whitaker, born 5 August 1955 in Yorkshire, England, is one of the most admired riders in the world and the oldest of four brothers. He began riding at the age of six on the family farm and started competing just two years later. Now at 58, he has over 35 years of experience in competing at the top level in showjumping. He has represented Great Britain in a whopping 20 Olympic, World and European Championship competitions, with no less than three Olympic medals, five World Championship medals and 13 European Championship medals to show for it. Truly the victories that equestrian heroes are made of.
His love for the sport started when he was very young, John explains. “I loved watching horses and ponies on the television; equestrian sport was quite big back then, more so than now. My parents bought me a pony, and us four brothers encouraged each other. I guess I started it since I was the oldest. Our parents where glad because it gave us something to do; we were living on a farm then. My mother was a good rider, not at a high level, but she taught us how to sit straight, and clean the saddles – not something we where too keen on doing.”
At 18, John teamed up with the horse Ryan’s Son and over the next 14 years the pair enjoyed great success. A crowning moment came with their team silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympic Games – a victory shared with brother Michael who was also on the team. Riding Marius Silver Jubilee, better known as Milton, John represented Great Britain countless times and the pair rarely had any faults. Milton entered international competition in 1985 and their partnership spanned nearly a decade until Milton retired in 1994 at the Olympia Horse Show. By then, they had won two World Cup finals, two team gold medals at the European Championships and individual silver and team bronze at the World Championships in Stockholm in 1990. Milton was a true superstar who loved the limelight and would perform spirited leaps in the show arena, making him a crowd favourite second to none. “When he took off, you felt that you’d never come down,” John remembers. The great Milton, who was the first horse to win over a million pounds in prize money, died in July 1999 and was buried on the Whitaker’s farm.
It seems obvious to us now that showjumping was John’s calling. But was there ever a point when he considered an alternative career? “I don’t know what we would have done,” shrugs John. “Farming perhaps – it’s in our blood; even now I also have cattle and we make our own hay. But our path just sort of took us to showjumping. Sure, we both wanted to ride, but we never dreamed it would be at this level. We were both lucky that the time was right, meeting the right people and having the right horses. I’ve been fortunate to have had many good horses.”
In September 1993, Michael, John’s younger brother by five years, took over as the world’s number one in showjumping for the first time. He was no novice either, having started riding his Shetland pony Hercules from the moment the stirrup leathers first fit.
By seven, Michael was competing in the show-arena, and in 1980, at the age of 20, he became the youngest winner ever of the prestigious Hickstead Derby. He also has a distinguished record in the European and World Championships. He has won both the King’s Cup and the Hickstead Derby four times. He has competed in five Olympic Games, four World Championships and 12 European Championships, taking home three gold, seven silver and four bronze medals. And he has represented Britain at the Nation’s Cup an incredible 170 times and taken home 34 wins. And, still going strong, Michael became the first British showjumper since 1997 to claim Europe’s most prestigious class, the Aachen Grand Prix, last year.
Michael says his most memorable career moment was winning the European Championship with the British team at Rotterdam in 1991. “John came first and I came second,” he says. “I would have preferred it if the result had been the other way around! But yes, that was a great moment.”
John adds: “We’re competitive. If Michael has done great, I always try to beat him. But if I can’t win, then I of course don’t want anyone else to beat him either.”
John, when you and Michael are not competing, what do you like to share a laugh about?
“We often joke about our hairstyles. I like to say I have more hair than Michael, even though he’s five years younger, but to be honest I don’t think I have… Also, quite often, people can’t tell us apart, so when ever I do something bad or wrong I tend to say Michael did it. We use that. A lot.”
Are your riding styles similar too?
“As a child I had a very excitable pony, so I learned to sit back. Michael on the other hand had a very slow pony. I think it influenced the way we still ride today.”
How was Michael as a child?
“With four brothers sometimes it can be a little difficult, but Michael and I were always quite close. As a child, he just wanted to jump – no schooling or riding in circles and no warm-up, just jump.”
Which qualities do you admire most about Michael as an adult?
“His enthusiasm. He can’t get enough. Even though he’s five years younger it’s impressive how he can’t get enough; he’s unstoppable and just keeps on going. I think he’s even keener than me and he really likes winning. We’re similar in these ways and many others.”
So Michael, what would you say are John’s three most notable qualities?
“He’s calm, a winner and very determined.”
Are these the three aspects he would single out himself?
“Maybe not calm, even though he always appears calm. Other people always see you differently. I’m often asked if I ever get nervous, because I never appear nervous.”
Describe John’s style as a rider.
“Unique, because he’s self-taught. Apart from Marcus Ehning, I don’t know anyone who has been able to ride that way. I honest to God don’t know how he did it.”
How similar are you two?
“John and I got on very well as children and still do: he’s very easygoing. We’re both quite competitive and we have worked hard to get where we are, and we have had to make the best of the horses we’ve had. We have a very similar sense of humour, so we laugh at the same things, and we laugh quite often. I’m more outgoing than John, I would say. He very seldom swears, he doesn’t gossip and never speaks ill of people.”
While John and Michael have competed internationally, their two brothers Steven and Ian are also accomplished horsemen.
Now following in John’s and Michael’s footsteps are John’s son Robert, niece Ellen and nephew William. Born into a highly successful family, the Whitaker Juniors inherited the talent of their relatives and have all successfully established themselves in the world of professional showjumping. Fortunately, there is no sign of either one of the brothers hanging up their boots yet though. Michael is still very much giving it his all and John goes to 40 shows a year. And just a few hours after the interview, he makes the audience go wild when he adds yet another international Grand Prix win to his long list of achievements. •