The Lord of Yorkshire
Michael Whitaker is one of the pillars of British riding and an icon of world show jumping. Born in 1960, he won the famous Hickstead Derby aged just 20 in 1980 and since then has always remained at the top of the equestrian world.
- #olimpic games
- #european championship
Despite an impressive number of victories at the most important Grand Prix events (for example that of Aachen in 2012), Michael’s biggest ever regret is that he has never won either an Olympic event or at a World Championship. But, like a true champion, he does not give up: "The challenges that we face are always different and exciting, every contest, each competition is different. There are always new experiences with the horses and everything can change within the space of a week - explains Michael - In our sport one day you win and five days later you have a disaster, it's always the case. This is the most exciting aspect and it ensures that you never take anything for granted. For us horsemen, it’s very difficult to stay in shape all year round and the same goes for the horses. But the strongest motivation is that I love the sport, I love horses and the competition and I like staying at the top and beating the other horsemen. In the same competition, an 18 yo rider can win and even beat the most established champion but that's the nature of our sport, it's something that's absolutely normal and it's necessary that the new generation pushes ahead. When we were young, Nick Skelton, my brother John and I were the 'new arrivals' and we met exceptional horsemen such as Harvey Smit and David Broome. We had to fight with a knife between our teeth to show our mettle, for a place in the team. But this is even more exciting. In the course of my life, first I struggled to beat the champions, then my peers and now I have to beat these youths. It’s all very exciting, isn't it?
Today there are many young people who are very strong, who ride well, after all the riders all have a very similar style while our generation is characterised by particular and very different styles. This is due to the fact that today's riders have all been very well trained by excellent instructors and have taken lessons from an early age and this means they are very well prepared. I, but also my brother John, Nick or others, we made it alone, and that's why each of us has his own individual style even if we too have evolved to keep pace with changes in the sport. I, for one, have changed a great deal as a rider. Before, I rode more aggressively and 'attacked' the jumps. Today I couldn't do that any more. There are horses that are more sensitive and the obstacles are more prone to faults. I had to learn to be calmer, not to interfere with the horse and allow it to jump better. Any wrong move you make on the horse can result in you making a mistake and with the level that exists today, this is something you can no longer afford to do. What has not changed much for me is the work at home, the priority has always been and still is the physical condition of the horses. If they are fit, they are athletic and have fewer problems, they are able to respond carefully to the demands and to overcome any difficult situations. A horse in good shape runs less risk of hurting itself. The actual technical part hasn't changed much. At home we rarely jump. We work a lot in the countryside and the horses are often in the paddock".
The calendar is full with top-level international competition events: "Of all the top-class competition fields, Aachen is the most spectacular of them all. It is a stadium which is completely different from all others. 50 thousand people in the stands fill you with incredible emotion. The amazing thing is that you feel them all supporting you. Even though I am a foreigner and the audience is mostly German, I feel they are fans of the sport, not like in football where the fan is often 'against'. Of course, I would love to be able to finally win the Olympics or the World Championships. I have often finished second or third”. Michael was not able to participate in the London Olympics 2012 because his horse suffered an injury right at a time when the final registrations were due. He was however able to restore it to health just before the Olympics, so much so that he won the Grand Prix of Aachen but now he couldn’t no longer be put in the team. For the first time the British team won gold at home!
Michael Whitaker always takes part with new winning horses, showing he has an extraordinary "equestrian sense" in discovering new talent: "I like studying the horses and understanding them. I am fascinated by their personality, their way of being. I try to sense if they can jump high, if they are respectful. It is important that they have a good character and that they are willing to learn and progress. I try to improve constantly by observing the other horsemen. I watch them all but probably who I observe most is my brother John. Especially at the start of my career, I was lucky to be able to observe him up close. He was older and had more experience than me ... He was calmer, I was more aggressive. Today we are much more alike. There are many Whitakers ... It's hard to keep on top of everything, we have ponies, horses… Fortunately my wife Melissa takes care of the house and stable organisation. There are 22 Whitakers in total and we all live quite close to each other and so many of the guys ask for help and advice, especially from me. My son Jack seems to have the right attitude and I hope that he will grow and become a better horseman than me. With him I try to be honest, I say things exactly as they are. If things go wrong, if a race does not go exactly according to plan and he comes away disappointed, I always tell him that he should get used to it because this is what often happens in our sport ... And if a champion like Michael Whitaker says so, you just have to believe him…
“I live with my family in Nottingham, in Yorkshire – concludes Michael - My brothers John, Steven and Jan live nearby. Each of us has their own business interests, however, at times we go out riding together; I help my grandchildren and try to give them advice and we also exchange opinions. During competitions, however, I prefer to stay focused on myself. I observe their courses and I always give them my opinion but when it's time for me to compete, I put everything and everyone aside and concentrate fully on it. Between my generation and that of my grandchildren there has been a strong evolution in all areas of equestrian sports and in the rules of the sport and as such their riding is different from ours, especially with regard to the opportunity that the environment offers them today. Everything is better than in our time, the facilities, the competition grounds, the types of competitions and circuits, the sponsors, technicians and above all the horses. Today the quality of the horses is extraordinary, thirty years ago this was not the case. When you consider all this, you realise that the young people of today are well-equipped compared to our generations but on the other hand it is also true that the number of competitive and team pairings has increased significantly, just think of the great number of teams at the WEG in France, and therefore it is more difficult to stay at the top as the competition is very strong. It is also good to point out however that horses are very expensive and finding young ones with the qualities to become top class is not an easy task. Today riding has reached very high levels in every aspect and this is a good thing for the evolution of the sport but riders have to evolve and keep pace with the times. Professionalism, the technical aspects, management of horses, the knowledge and culture ... everything has to grow. Today no-one can afford to improvise. Today the top level horse trade is very strong. Anyone that can afford to buy a top horse is able to take on the large circuits and can jump successfully for one season but then this will decline without working towards self-improvement. Talent and a good horse alone are not enough. Everything must be invested that we can sum up in one word: professionalism”.