Currently there are three generations of Whitakers jumping in the UK and Europe — from tiny tots on ponies, to competing cousins, sibling rivals and even some married couples!
The eldest of the Whitakers needs little introduction, the evergreen John Whitaker MBE, Olympian, winner of countless championship medals and just about every major international class that you can name. At 66, he is still competing at the top level and shows no sign of slowing down or, heaven forbid, retiring! Born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire (320km north of London) he grew up on a farm with his parents and three bothers.
John first met his wife, Clare Barr, when they were teenagers and they married in 1979. The couple have three children, and all three have followed in their father’s footsteps — Robert, Joanne and Louise.
I recently had a fascinating afternoon talking to Robert, who earlier in his career had great success on European Pony, Junior and Young Rider teams, collecting six team golds and one individual bronze medal. He then transitioned seamlessly onto horses, representing Great Britain on numerous senior teams since his teens.
Robert was initially based at his parents’ yard in Yorkshire, until he met fellow showjumper Kate Jackaman and moved into Kate’s yard at the home of her parents. Robert and Kate married, and they set up a yard near Gatwick, Sussex, south of London. It is ideally situated for travel to Europe as well as having several show venues quite close by — including the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead. Robert and Kate have two young daughters, aged five and eight, both of whom are showing great promise in the saddle.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
As I chat to Robert in the kitchen of his welcoming family home, I ask him how it feels to be the son of arguably the best showjumping rider in the world. “When I was younger,” he says, “I was aware of how good Dad was, especially in the Milton era as they had so many fans. I always knew he was popular and famous, but it was just normal life for me. When I was on ponies, I travelled to quite a lot of shows with him and sometimes took my own 14.2 (148cm) to compete.” I ask Robert if he ever rode Milton: “Yes, I did sit on him in. I can’t remember if I ever jumped him, but I was only eight or nine when he was at the peak of his career.
“Mum played a huge role in my development as Dad was away so much,” Robert continues. “She is still really involved with the pony scene to this day; she is very successful at picking the teams. Mum always chose my ponies, so with Dad’s help and Mum’s knowledge we bought younger ponies and produced them ourselves.
“I think that it is important to ride as many different horses as possible, as you must be versatile in your riding. Most riders must adapt their style to each horse that they ride. That’s why my dad is so good, he can adapt to any individual horse in a very short time. I still find it hard to grasp how it can sometimes go wrong for him one day and then he will come out the next day, put things right and not think about the day before. He never over-thinks anything. I have to be more focused, try hard and believe that I can do it.”
I ask Robert what he would do if he wasn’t a showjumper: “I really don’t have any idea as I don’t know anything else! I don’t have much time for hobbies either. When you have horses, it is 24/7. I do enjoy watching National Hunt racing and I follow football. I am a Manchester United fan.”