my own goal /Michael Whitaker

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The Independent Online
One of the world's most famous show jumpers, who is riding in the Olympia Championships, recounts the time a horse took control of him rather than the other way round, and put him in his place "ONE of the great truths about showjumping is that you can beup one day and down on your backside the next. Knowing where to start with the mistakes is the difficult bit but I learned the lesson pretty early in my career. I was 15 and riding for the first time in the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley. I was nervous enough as it was and John, my brother, gave me last-minute instructions about the course and how I should ride it.

Things seemed to be going pretty well and it looked as though I might get round without mishap, which is all I could expect really. Getting close to the end I came to the combination. My horse, Chatterbox, decided he wanted nothing to do with this at all.

Just before he should have been jumping it, he veered away and went towards the boundary boards. There, he stopped, I was thrown off and ended up minus Chatterbox outside the ring, dumped on my bottom and sitting next to the course builder. I was asked if I wanted to go back. I decided against.

At least I wasn't among the spectators. They laughed. Actually, everybody else laughed too. People could barely look at me for days afterwards without chuckling. John wasn't annoyed. He didn't say anything to me. He couldn't speak without laughing at me.That taught me, in front of all those people for the first time, that you have to go along with it. There would be no point in bursting into tears or anything like that.

It might have helped in the end, because when I went back to Wembley the next year I won three events. The incident has stayed with me but you keep getting reminders in this sport even when you think it's all going well.

Only a couple of weeks ago I was in Glasgow. I was feeling all right and Everest Two Step, whom I was riding, seemed in good shape. The competition was indoors, where water hazards are unusual and he wasn't expecting it. He stopped at the water's edge but I didn't.

I went flying over the top and ended up sitting in the water, soaked from head to toe while Two Step was perfectly dry. I could only get up and walk slowly back, drenched. Everybody thought it was hilarious and you can only join in. It was on the telly and I see they've shown it several times since. I suppose it will be on regularly.

All this merely underlines the fact that horses are not machines. Like people, they have moods, they need rest, they can't be expected to be always at their peak and they have to be treated as individuals. If one kept making mistakes at an indoor water jump, for instance, you would need to work at getting him over it.

Two Step is a very careful, conscientious horse, but he can be spooked, perhaps because of that character. In helping him to cope with water indoors he will need sensitive handling. It would be pointless doing anything else, you'd just end up in the water again.

There are some who do something, think they can get away with it, then try it on again. They suppose they've got you where they want. In cases like that you have to be firmer if you want them to respond in the future. Otherwise, they'll always be the boss and you would never hope to win anything.

My horses at Olympia all seem in good form, but you always have to expect the unexpected. I reckon to bring on one or two more horses each year. With the number of competitions there are today you need five or six. They can't compete every week, they need to be handled properly. Everest Elton, who won last Thursday night, for example, is only eight and must not be worked too hard. Never take a horse for granted, otherwise you can be sure of ending up alongside the course builder."

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