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William Whitaker: Striving for perfection

Wednesday, 01 November 2017

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson. William Whitaker and Utamaro d’Ecaussines at the European Championships in Gothenburg. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

World of Showjumping meets the 28-year-old British rider William Whitaker, and discovers a laid back perfectionist with goals set high, but with both feet firmly on the ground. 

Born at the original Whitaker-yard in Yorkshire, where his famous uncles John and Michael came to the world before him, William now shares his time between Belgium and the UK. “I am based with Ludwig and Jasmin Criel near Antwerp in Belgium, where I have been for about a year now. They own the majority of the horses I ride, it is only Fandango that is owned by my wife and her parents,” William tells. “We have about 16 horses there at the moment. Before I moved to Belgium, I had a stable at my dad’s yard in England and rode horses from a few different owners.”

When a door opened in Belgium, William decided to take the chance. “I was thinking about how I could improve again – from where we lived in the north of England to Calais, it took twelve hours just to get there. Where you can get in twelve hours from Belgium – it totally changes your perspective! One thing just led to another – I got chatting with people and an opportunity came up. Their aims matched mine and so far, it has been great,” William tells about the partnership with the Criel-family.

28-year-old William is a married father of two and balancing family life with a career in showjumping is not always easy. “It is tough at the moment. I am most of the time in Belgium and my little girl Bella, who is now five, goes to school in England. So, there is a lot of travelling going on. My son Oliver is three and goes to pre-school. It is not ideal at the moment, but I go home as much as possible and they come to me. While we get totally sorted, I think this is the best option. Eventually I think my family will move to Belgium,” he tells. 

William Whitaker. Photo (c) Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping. “I think my biggest plus is that I am quite laid back. I have been doing this for a long time now and I know what the sport is about," says William Whitaker. Photo (c) Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

Needless to mention, William's days are busy but being brought up at a family farm he is no stranger to hard work. “It has always been busy! There is always something to do,” he says. “I think you are never really finished, when you think about it – you go and have some dinner, go to bed and start again in the morning – that is how it is. I ride all day every day, really. We have a great team at the yard and it all works well. I just ride, eat, sleep…” he tells about his daily life. On the rare occasions of time-off, William likes to take tiny breaks from all things horsey. “I like to relax with my friends, but most of the times that is at the shows because life at home is really busy,” he says. “I try to go to the gym – I think it is good to get away from the stable and the horse people – all you do is talk about horses and it is good to get away for a couple hours every week. The gym clears my head a bit, so I can re-focus and come back.”

Does a Whitaker really have another career option than riding we ask William? “I was brought up at a farm, with lots of animals, cows and sheep and I always enjoyed farming. My dad is the youngest of the four brothers; John, Steven, Michael and Ian. It was a little bit different for me – my dad rode until he was 25, then he kind of got busy with other things. I started to ride when I was eight or nine and competing at the age of ten – for a Whitaker that is really late,” he laughs. “I think some of my first memories is going to Olympia for a sort of a Christmas treat and I remember watching John and Michael winning and the crowd going wild… And I thought ’I would like some of that myself’,” William recalls.

“We always had ponies at home, so that is how I slowly got going. I had a few lessons at the local place and was lucky enough that the first pony I competed on ended up being one of the best ponies in England – just by chance. We bought it off a neighbour, for little money and it ended up being a great pony. So, I had success early on but from pure luck really – just from having a good pony. We did not have the money to go out and buy super ponies. That cheap pony turning out to be a good one sort of got the ball rolling for me,” William explains. 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson "My goals for this year were the European Championships in Gothenburg and to make the team Barcelona," William tells World of Showjumping. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

“As my pony career came to an end, it all just went on and I am still on that same path now. I never stopped to think about it, really. Maybe everyone has stopped a few times to think if this is really what I want, when you have a bad day… but that never lasts for very long – you always just get back at it,” William tells about his career choice that came by naturally leading him to work for his uncle Michael for six years where he got his international breakthrough when winning the 2007 World Cup in Mechelen on Arielle. Before working for Michael, William went to the States for a four month period, together with his cousin Louise, to ride at the stables of Aaron Vale and Andrea King.

Always looking for ways to improve himself, William keeps setting goals for the future. “Well, I want to go to the Olympics and my life goal is to win gold there,” he says. “At the beginning of each year I try to set goals for myself. My goals for this year were the European Championships in Gothenburg and to make the team Barcelona. I achieved those goals and that is great – it also shows that Utamaro and I have grown together. My goal for next year is to make the team for the WEG, then I am looking forward to Tokyo in 2020.”

“I mean, we have always had great riders – but we might have been short of horse power,” William comments on the current state of the British showjumping. “I think we have been spoiled the last couple of years with things like the London Olympic Games, great horses like Big Star, Hello Sanctos and Tripple X. Those horses are gone now and are difficult to replace. We are in a transition period and the younger horses are just not ready – that is why we did not send a team to Gothenburg; it did not feel fair to push the young horses at that stage. We thought, if we push them too early, we won’t get a good thing at the end – if you like to put it that way. It will always be tough to make the team, but that is what the sport is all about and it keeps the standard high,” he explains. 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamson.
William and Michael Whitaker. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamson.

And when William does make the team, which is more often than not, there is usually another Whitaker on it as well. “Quite often, really,” William laughs. “Most times there has been a family member on the team with me. It is great – it is like having your family there supporting you! For me, I am very close with both John and Michael and I really feel like they care about my performance – whether they do or not, I do not know – but that is how they come across!” he laughs. “They try to beat me and I try to beat them, but it is good to have family around you!”

Always striving for perfection, William is well aware of his own pros and cons. “I think my biggest plus is that I am quite laid back. I have been doing this for a long time now and I know what the sport is about. Like in Barcelona, the first day was a disappointment – having three down in a team event where it really matters, it is tough to take and it got me down. For the rest of the night I was really sick about it. But it is a part of the job, and you just got to forget about it and look to the future. I think being able to stay relaxed is one of my bonus points,” he analyses. “On the other hand, I am a bit of a perfectionist – sometimes it can be good, but sometimes it can be a bit of a pain. I just want things to be so perfect, even when sometimes they don’t need to be. With horses you deal with an animal, so things are sometimes better if not perfect. Coming to terms with that is sometimes difficult for me. A lot of that has improved from experience, and I have learned during the years,” he says. “There are many riders that I look up to apart from those in my family. I am always watching and trying to learn. It is good to come to these shows and just watch – the standard is so high.”

At the end of the day, it is simply the love for the sport that keeps this young Whitaker going. “I just like horses. I like working with them, every day. And I love to win as well – that is what we do it for, it is what makes it worthwhile. Not only for me, but also for those who need to put up with me when it is not going right!”


Text © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen // Pictures © Jenny Abrahamsson and Nanna Nieminen

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