Equestrianism: Whitaker junior riding high

Ellen's uncles are equestrian legends, and now she is ready to jump at her chance too

"Of course, you want them all to do well," Ellen Whitaker laughs as she ponders her place within a unique sporting dynasty. "I couldn't think of anyone better than one of my family to be second to me..."

It could be a South Yorkshire equestrian-based soap opera. The Whitakers: a far from everyday story of sporting excellence. It is a surname which transcends show jumping. John and Michael have ensured that in amassing Olympic, World and European Championship medals and, in John's case, an MBE.

And while John and Michael are, respectively, 52 and 47 and still ranked one and two in the UK, the younger generation are on the advance. It is doubtful whether any set of relations could be more mutually suppor-tive yet so fiercely determined to defeat their kin.

Ellen, who will be 22 on Wednesday, remembers her first Hickstead Derby in 2004. She had turned 18, the age at which you are first allowed to compete inthe competition, and recalls walking the course, which included a near-perpendicular 10ft 6in bank, thinking how "scary" it was.

She jumped clear on her horse Locarno 62, who was then an inexperienced eight-year-old. "I thought I'd probably won," she recalls. "I knew my uncle John was just after me, although he was on a horse he'd never ridden before. But he was clear as well. In the jump-off, I went first and ended up doing a quicker time than him, but I made a mistake and had one down. Of course, he jumped clear and he won. But if there was anyone who was going to beat me, I'd rather it was Uncle John. He's a complete legend, isn't he?"

Seek the inspirational figures in the career of the country's leading lady rider, ranked sixth overall, and she speaks of Liz Edgar, from past years, and Meredith Michaels, the world's leading lady rider now, but mostly of her uncles. As a girl, she would watch John and Michael compete at the Horse of the Year Show. "The lights would dim when they announced the winner, and then they'd be in the spotlight as they rode down the course. I used to dream that would be me one day," she says.

It is a remarkable family tree. The paterfamilias of it all was the late Donald Whitaker, Ellen's grandfather, a non-riding farmer, who had an intuitive eye for a good horse and who encouraged his four sons, who all became riders, but most notably John and Michael.

The next generation include Ellen and her cousins Robert, son of John, ranked fourth, and William, son of farming uncle Ian, who is ranked seven. Not to mention two younger brothers, Joe and Thomas, who both possess potential. It is possible the Whitakers could become the only family in history to comprise an entire Great Britain team at the Olympics. Last year's European Championships in Germany was the last opportunity for the nation to qualify for Beijing. The team featured John, Michael and Ellen, along with David McPherson, and they did so by taking bronze. That Whitaker trio, plus William, are due to compete in April's British Open Show Jumping Championships*, which features international show jumping classes, including the Puissance, where riders face the famous wall – often 7ft high.

Though she agrees that Whitaker blood has conferred its benefits, she is determined to establish her reputation on her own merits. "John and Michael have had great careers, and made a fantastic name for themselves," she says at the family home, near Barnsley. "But they worked hard to make that name. I'm going to have to do exactly the same. I can't live off what they've done."

She lives off sponsorship and prize money. Her photogenic looks have ensured that leading equestrian companies, such as the clothing manufacturer Caldene, employ her to endorse and model their products. She is articulate and gregarious and, given further success, will doubtless succeed in projecting her image beyond show jumping.

Ellen is only a half of a potential medal-winning partnership at Beijing. The rider has had the imposing bay Locarno 62 since he was five and she was 15. She feared she might lose him last year when the horse's previous co-owner (with her father Stephen) wanted to sell him. In the event, Dawn Meakin, a show-jumping enthusiast, bought the shares, which allowed the pair to continue. They have since turned down an offer of €3 million (£2.29m) for the horse. "Locarno seems to go well for me," says Ellen. "For the Olympics, I couldn't have a better horse. He's very good at handling pressure, and I think that I am as well. He's quite capable of winning gold."

Her principal motivation is medals, rather than remuneration, though she adds: "The prize money's better these days and I've got a good team of owners, people who enjoy the sport and want to invest, and sponsors. It can make you a good living. Both of my uncles are millionaires out of it. The prize money at the Olympics is not great, but they say a gold medal at the Olympics is worth a million pounds, don't they?" She smiles. "I guess that's a bit of a spur-on as well."

* Ellen, Michael, John, Robert and William will compete at the British Open Show Jumping Championships at the NEC, Birmingham, on 3-6 April. For tickets: britishopenshowjumping.com, or call the box office on 08700 100216.


Ellen is the daughter of rider and trainer Stephen Whitaker and niece of equestrian legends John Whitaker MBE and his brother Michael. Both have represented Great Britain at many Olympics. The horses John, 52, has partnered include Ryan's Son and Milton. Michael, 47, made his international debut at 16 and, at 20, became the youngest winner of the Hickstead Derby in 1980. John's son Robert and nephew William are also highly ranked, while Ellen's younger brothers Joe and Thomas are up-and-coming jumpers too.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot