The Stables

Showjumping Legend: Ryan’s Son

No horse show, when they were shown on mainstream television, was complete without a spectacular round from John Whitaker’s Ryan’s Son. He’s been the subject of countless articles in the media and although he died in 1987 he is still fondly remembered in countless books on show jumping and even some 20 years after his death on a number of Facebook pages, such as Show Jumping Nostalgia, which was established in 2010, The Golden Age of Show Jumping which was established in 2013 and of course on John Whitaker’s own fan club page.

Ryan’s Son certainly wasn’t pretty standing barely 16 hh he resembled a cross between a Clydesdale or Shire and a Thoroughbred. He was actually by the Thoroughbred Ozymandias out of an Irish Draught mare. He had the body of a cart horse, the heart and courage of the Thoroughbred, huge feet, a ewe neck and had too much white on him, sporting a long broad blaze and two long white stockings behind. But oh boy could he jump!

Ryan’s Son holds the distinction of being probably the reason John Whitaker became the tremendous sportsman he still is today, instead of delivering milk for the family dairy.

With BSJA winnings of just 50p John was given the horse by Malcolm Barr, who would later become his father-in-law. The horse and teenager hit it off immediately, becoming the team to beat on their local Yorkshire show circuit. Unfortunately a dreadful round at the Great Yorkshire Show, in front of friends, family and former school friends, saw them clock up an embarrassing 20 faults. John reportedly told his father he was not going to ride at the show the following day. Fortunately for him, his father didn’t listen. The reluctant teenager and his exuberant horse went back to the show and in true story tale fashion, went on to win the class beating such luminaries as Harvey Smith and David Broome. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the modern days when horses are bitted and bridled with all manner of contraptions Ryan’s Son always competed in a twisted snaffle with long cheek pieces, one of which I seem to remember from watching him jump was broken. Even though the horse had a tendency to ‘hot-up’ John didn’t change his tack, instead choosing to turn his horse out in between shows to give him a chance to unwind.

Before Milton and other such luminaries Ryan’s Son was the biggest money-winner on the circuit, a distinction he held for 10 years. But the thing he will be remembered for the best was his habit of throwing an enormous buck after the last fence. I’m sure he knew he had done wall and was showing off to the audience. Disconcerting for John I’m sure was the fact that whenever the audience clapped he bucked. If the spectators clapped after a particularly difficult combination Ryan’s Son would throw in a buck or two, endearing for the audience but a nightmare for his rider who would have been attempting to set him up for the next fence!

John campaigned Ryan’s Son around the world gaining Olympic silver at Los Angeles, the European Championship silver, and bronze in the World Championships.

But one moment that must be one of John Whitaker’s favourite was capturing the prestigious King George V Cup when Ryan was 17, something that had eluded them so many times before. The pair were the last to go in the jump off and did a faultless round. I’ll never forget the sight of John Whitaker wrenching his hat off and flinging it in the air.

Despite a triumph in the Hickstead Derby this course was their bogey ground. In the early days of their partnership Whitaker exasperated by a series of stops by Ryan’s Son, broke a branch from a hedge and slapped the horse. It was this same venue that was the scene of the terrible end of Ryan’s Son. In 1987 the 18-year-old Ryan’s Son banked the big white parallel failed to snatch his legs in time and tipped up. To those watching it did not seem a bad fall, and Whitaker and Ryan’s Son walked calmly out of the ring.

But three hours later, with the vet in attendance, Ryan’s Son collapsed suddenly and died, presumably from internal haemorrhaging caused by the fall. The journey back to Yorkshire, without Ryan’s Son must have been utterly horrific. What a dreadful tragedy that he didn’t go on to have a long and happy retirement. John, of course, went onto have an incredible career, but Ryan’s Son remains for many the wonderful Irish gelding with a big heart who was the horse that played such a big part in the career of John Whitaker.


Born: 1968
Major wins include:

Midland Bank Great Northern Championship
The Bass Grand National
Everest Double Glazing Championship
King George V Gold Cup
Hickstead Derby
Jumped nine double clear rounds in Nations Cup competitions
Royal International Horse Show winner
Horse of the Year Show
He was the leading national money winner four times (1976, 1978, 1979 and in 1983).
In 1980 he won the Irish Horse Board’s prize for the best horse bred in Ireland
In 1981 Ryan passed the £100,000 winnings mark
1984 Ryan became first British show jumper to win more than £200,00.

Image credit: Wikipedia