Ellen Whitaker - Barnsley's rising showjumping star
As international showjumping returns to Yorkshire, Chris Titley catches up with a rising star of the sport<br/>Photographs by Joan Russell
Not since the halcyon days of Harvey Smith and David Broome has the British showjumping world been as excited by a rider. The sport’s star-in-waiting is Ellen Whitaker, who has her eyes on a very big prize: an Olympic medal.
It may be her destiny. Ellen is from a showjumping dynasty – dad Stephen and mum Carol are both talented riders, all three younger brothers are involved in the sport and uncles John and Michael Whitaker are international legends.
But before the London Olympics, this Barnsley horsewoman is looking to a competition much nearer to home: the new Yorkshire International Showjumping Event (YISE), which takes place at the Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, over three days at Easter.
This is a chance for Ellen to bask in some Yorkshire adulation. ‘I always like winning in front of a home crowd at the English shows. We get very good support – the crowds are massive.
‘If it’s fantastic jumping in front of your home crowd representing your country, then representing your county it’s going to be even better!‘We were short of international shows in England anyway. To have one this end of the country is going to be terrific for Yorkshire.’
YISE is due to bring top class showjumping here each Easter weekend through till at least 2013. A total of �150,000 of prize money is up for grabs, from amateur championships to top International classes, Puissance and Grand Prix.
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Welcome to Yorkshire is supporting the event too.’We want to show the world that Sheffield – and Yorkshire – can host high profile, international events such as this,’ says chief executive Gary Verity.
You can understand his enthusiasm. This will bring the world to Sheffield – world ranking riders have been invited to compete from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, Egypt and New Zealand among other nations. That’s brilliant for a region which loves its horses, says Ellen.
‘There are loads and loads of riding schools and equestrian establishments in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Show is always absolutely jam-packed. I remember when they had the show originally in Sheffield – it was always busy. I wish the new show the best of luck. It definitely has my support. I think it’s a great thing.’
If showjumping is at home in Yorkshire, Ellen Whitaker is at home in the saddle. ‘I don’t remember not riding to be honest,’ she says. ‘There was a pony there when I was born and I don’t seem to have looked back since then.’
Coming from such a background, it’s hard not to assume that parental pressure was exerted. Not so, she says.
‘My parents never pushed us at all. In fact I think they’d have preferred it if we didn’t get involved with the horses – it’s so expensive and hard work and everything.
‘I did try a few other sports when I was younger. I played a lot of tennis and I used to have ice skating lessons. I was quite good at tennis and it got to the point where I couldn’t balance the two so I dropped tennis for the riding. I’ve always been completely nuts about it.’
Even though Ellen only turns 25 in March, she’s a veteran at her sport. She won most of the junior titles going and has gone on to take both team and individual titles, including the team bronze at the 2007 European Championships and Show Jumper of the Year at the Horse of the Year Show 2009.
She doesn’t hesitate when asked for her ambitions in the sport. ‘The Olympics. Obviously it’s the Europeans this year as well but the main aim is definitely the Olympics.’
Of the 40 horses stabled at the family farm near Barnsley, 12 are Ellen’s. She’s had her eye on two of them as potential London 2012 champions for a while now.
‘And I’ve just got a new one – Xemena – I think she could be a definite prospect for the Olympics. You go with the idea of winning a medal. So I’ll definitely make sure I’m prepared enough to give myself the best chance possible.’
Training a horse to world-beating standard can take years. It begins, she says, with the lineage. ‘They’re bred for it these days. We do quite a lot of breeding now and I’ve noticed when their mother and father are good jumpers, they’ve got a good bloodline, everything comes that bit more naturally.
‘From when you first break them in to taking them to a show they seem to pick it up a lot easier. Some surprise you and go further than you think, others don’t quite make it.’
You still need patience with the younger horses, she admits. And you have to take into account their individual personalities. ‘Every single one of mine is very different. They’re just like people. One of my horses, Locarno, is very laid back and brave – nothing bothers him at all. Ocolado is the complete opposite – he’s scared of everything.’
The riders have to be brave too. Ellen has been lucky: no broken bones so far. But she’s had her fair share of tumbles, particularly when breaking in a new horse. ‘I’ve had a few very nasty falls, mostly on ponies to be honest. It gets harder as you get older – it’s not as far to fall when you’re a kid and you bounce a bit more!’
Given that she’s travelling around the world half the time, Ellen rarely has time off. When she gets the chance she likes to go shopping and do ‘all the things normal girls do’. But she doesn’t mind the sacrifices, or the need to ride six or seven horses a day when she’s not competing. ‘I’ve always been crazy about it,’ she says simply.