The Magic of Ian Millar

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As Captain Canada announces a partial step-down from international competition, his love for the horse and the sport remains stronger than ever, and he looks forward to sharing his knowledge and passion with the next generation.

By Margaret Evans

He stared, glued to the grainy black-and-white television screen. It wasn’t the story of the cowboy heroes and villains that grabbed his attention. It was the horses. The bays, blacks, greys, pintos, and palominos. It was their speed and endurance and talent and extraordinary beauty. Seven-year-old Ian was transfixed. A passion kindled, murmuring in his soul. Maybe he knew somehow that those horses galloping across the screen in the mid-1950s were his destiny.

Ian Millar would become an icon of the show jumping world with extraordinary talent and numerous awards. He is a ten-time Canadian Olympian, winning his first Olympic medal at age 61 in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He has competed in more Olympic Games than any athlete in history. He has won ten medals (including two individual gold and two team gold) in ten Pan American Games, more than any show jumper in history. He became the first show jumper to win back-to-back World Cup finals (1988 in Gothenburg, Sweden and 1989 in Tampa, Florida). He is a twelve-time winner of the Canadian Show Jumping Championship and a three-time winner of the coveted International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta. He was made a member of the Order of Canada (1986) and awarded Ontario’s Athlete of the Year (1989) and an honorary doctorate by the University of Guelph (2005). Together with superstar gelding, Big Ben, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2012, he was inducted into the Jump Canada Hall of Fame.

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“When I was coming along, there weren’t so many trainers. We basically learned from watching others,” says Millar. “Which is why, possibly to this day, I learn extremely well from watching.” Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

In spring 2019, after over 50 years in the grand prix ring, Millar announced that he would be stepping down from team competition and competing in major games. He will continue to focus on coaching riders, developing young horses, and competing nationally and internationally as an individual.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1947, Millar began riding in Alberta where his fascination for horses was enriched by a deep respect, admiration, and love for them.

“I remember when I was ten years old in Edmonton, Alberta, and I was with my first riding teacher, Mrs. Gardiner,” he says. “She said to me, ‘Ian, the horse is king, and we are here to serve that king.’ I remember that to this day because, when a student comes out of the ring and says, ‘Boy, this horse didn’t jump very well today,’ I’ll stop them in their tracks and say, ‘Wait a minute now, this is on you. This horse never elected to come in off the range and go into a barn and have a saddle and bridle put on and go to a horse show. We did this. We are responsible from top to bottom.’ That to me is a basic tenet of being a horse person. They are at our mercy. We had better understand that.”

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Millar began riding in Edmonton, Alberta, when he was ten years old. His first riding teacher taught him to respect the horse and take responsibility for its quality of life. His admiration and love for horses as grown throughout his career. Millar is shown with Dixson at the World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy, France. Photo: Clix Photography

Those few words spoken by his first instructor over 60 years ago have been his mantra and he has carried that commitment of the highest level of care for every horse he has trained since his career got going just as grand prix jumping started in North America. The first grand prix show jumping competition was the Cleveland Grand Prix, July 25, 1965, with a field of 29 horse/rider combinations representing United States, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Germany. It was won by Mary Mairs Chapot on Tomboy.

In 1969, Millar married the love of his life, Lynn Doran, and they settled in Perth, Ontario. In 1972, they purchased a 500-acre parcel of land with an old house and a rundown barn. But in that modest property was the vision of a world class equestrian facility that would become Millar Brooke Farm. Children came along – Jonathon in 1974 and Amy in 1977. In the decades that followed, the Millars became Canada’s most iconic and beloved equestrian family. And across those years, Millar has seen many changes in the show jumping sport.

“I have the perspective of time,” he says. “Back then [in the 1960s], there might have been 20 or 30 people in the big competitions. There might be ten riders you had to worry about beating. Of the ten, five weren’t riding horses that were good enough. Really, you were down to five horse/rider combinations. Fast forward to today, down in Florida there could be up to 100 horse/rider combinations in the competition. You should probably be worried about 90 percent of them. So, the quantity and quality has increased tremendously.”

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Good grooms are extremely capable people. They have an emotional connection, which the horses feel and respond to. Millar’s legendary mount, Big Ben, is shown with his groom, Sandi Patterson. Photo: Clix Photography

Looking at today’s riders, Millar says that they know more about riding at 15 or 16 years of age than he knew in his early 20s because of good quality trainers.

“When I was coming along, there weren’t so many trainers. We basically learned from watching others. You picked a gifted rider that had good results and you’d watch. You’d set about copying what they did. Which is why, possibly to this day, I learn extremely well from watching. When I see it done beautifully and I have the ability to imitate as best I can, that’s a wonderful teacher. It’s hard to define magic on a horse but we know it when we see it.”

To Millar, that elusive magic gets expressed in the subtle ways a rider connects with the horse and its willingness to respond. He says that if a rider has to take the winning effort from a horse, there are only a finite number of times they can do that. But if the horse gives the rider that winning effort, those efforts may be infinite.

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Ian Millar and Big Ben were members of the winning Nations Cup team at the Royal Winter Fair in 1992. (L-R) Jay Hayes, Beth Underhill, Ian Millar and Mario Deslauriers. Photo: Clix Photography 

“The riders I admired most over my career had that ability to get horses to give them the wins,” he says. “They rarely had to take them. They had the ability to inspire horses the way certain people inspire others. We call them great leaders. But there are certain riders who just take the wins and they are darn good at doing it. In my opinion, is it magic? No, just good. But they tend to go through their horses a little faster through physical and mental burnout. The horse might start out being a good tryer and pretty darn careful and then a year and a half, two years in, it’s not as careful anymore.”

The show jumping world is a pressurized lifestyle and horses, like people, can suffer burnout given the stresses of travelling, the show environment, the constant expectations. Millar says that it is an unnatural lifestyle with additional problems if they do not get the benefit of some down time. They lose interest and that translates into knocking down jumps. The bridge, though, can be a really top show groom.

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Ian Millar and Big Ben compete at Spruce Meadows, Alberta. Photo: Clix Photography

“Ian places a strong emphasis on high-quality horse care, from the big picture to the smallest details,” says Danny Ingratta, head groom at Millar Brooke Farm. “From years around Ian, you learn to notice slight changes in a horse and learn the importance of a consistent program. So, attention to detail is one quality that I feel I have really developed. Grooming is more than just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You have to be able to embrace it and enjoy it. Above all, you must love horses.”

Ingratta started work at Millar Brooke Farm in 2011, joining the team in Wellington, Florida, for the Winter Equestrian Festival. He cherishes the moment in 2014 when Millar won the Canadian Championship at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto on Star Power.

“They [grooms] are extremely capable people and what the good ones do is have an emotional connection to the sport and to the horses,” says Millar. “The horses feel that connection and respond very well, becoming what I term ‘people horses.’” 

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Ian Millar and Big Ben at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Photo: Clix Photography

It took a little while for Big Ben, Millar’s legendary mount, to become a people horse. His story almost didn’t happen. At 17.3 hands, the Belgian Warmblood foaled in 1976 was often overlooked because of his size. But, by chance, a friend in Holland introduced Millar to Big Ben. He instantly saw something special in this equine giant. Millar purchased him and, in 1983, Big Ben arrived in Canada. For the next 11 years, he set a new standard as he sailed over jumps and into people’s hearts.

“When we had Big Ben as a seven-year-old, he didn’t like or dislike people,” says Millar. “He didn’t care either way. People were there to bring him his food and water and put him in and out of the field. To him, that’s all we were there for. Over a period of time, the ladies who worked with Big Ben and me as the rider and trainer helped him become a people horse. Once he started to care about people, it made a huge difference to everything he would do. When I really needed him to make that extra effort in the ring, it was easy to get that effort because he was more than happy to give it to me. That is so, so important. These horses are hard to find. It takes a long time to train them and really get them up to speed to be consistent winners. They normally have a double-digit age. You get occasional wins at eight and nine but normally when they become solid heavy hitters, they are 10, 11, or 12. By then, you’ve got a lot of time and effort invested in them and you want it to last. That comes down to management. It’s a complete management science like any high-end human athlete. When you talk about the differences, say, in human medicine and specialization, it’s the same in veterinary medicine. The vets we use at shows really are sports injury vets. It’s a specialization. Horses need that to become successful and, more important, stay successful.”

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Big Ben says goodbye to fans at his retirement celebration at the Royal Winter Fair 1994, and with the Millar family (L-R) Jonathan, Lynn, Amy, and Ian. Photo: Clix Photography

The management and training Big Ben received led to a decade of show jumping brilliance. He overcame big challenges – two colic surgeries and a head-on trailer collision with a car. His fame spread, and he became a celebrity in his own right. But, in time, he showed signs of slowing down.

Millar was at a competition in California and Sandi Patterson, Big Ben’s groom, was holding him in the warm-up arena waiting for Millar to arrive and mount.

“Normally, when he came for a competition like that, he’d be right on the job and he would know why he was there,” says Millar. “But he was just standing there. Lynn and I were looking at him. He wasn’t showing the same spirit, wasn’t as passionate about the job. He was just relaxed, having a nap. I said, ‘That’s not like him. I guess it’s time, isn’t it?’ Lynn said, ‘It’s time.’ There had been no other discussion. It was that simple.”

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Millar is well known for planning, preparation, and analyzing every detail, strategies that have served him well throughout his career. Photo: Ringside Media

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Riders will often share information and ask one another how the course rides. “To jump today’s courses, your flat work has to be so good that you virtually control every footfall when the horse is in the ring,” says Millar. Photo: Ringside Media

Big Ben was retired from competition in 1994 at age 18 and celebrated in a cross-Canada retirement tour. Long-time sponsors were on board, memorabilia were collected, and a travelling booth was constructed. The tour was booked at all the major shows including the Spruce Meadows Masters and people lined up by the thousands to have their photo taken with him.

“That day they had the biggest attendance they had ever had,” said Ian. “We retired him on the bank by the in-gate and Spruce Meadows presented him with a cooler saying, ‘Thanks for the Memories Big Ben.’ Then I got on him and did a final lap of honour and people were crying and reaching out to touch him. The music was Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings. It was magic.”

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At the World Equestrian Games 2006 in Aachen, Germany, with In Style. Photo: Clix Photography

In those final days of the retirement tour at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Big Ben showed his unique gentle magic. He was taken up in the freight elevator to a public area. He walked out on rubber mats so he would not slip, and people lined up to have their picture taken with him. 

“Someone came along with a young boy, maybe 10 or 11, in a wheelchair,” recalls Millar. “The boy had a basket full of carrots and apples in his lap. The lady, who clearly knew nothing about horses, pushed the wheelchair right under Big Ben’s head so that it was literally a foot from his chest. Big Ben looked at the boy for a minute, put his head down really gently, got himself a carrot, and raised his head a bit. [Being so close] you could see the boy was highly concerned but Big Ben just looked at him, then blew at him. And the boy smiled.”

In the 25 years since Big Ben’s retirement, Millar has continued to see many changes and challenges in the show jumping world. Compared to years ago, he says that materials such as rails in the ring are lighter, so horses have to be more careful. Course designs are more technical. The time allowed has tightened. Jumps are coming at riders every few seconds. Horses naturally gallop on a 12-foot stride and, years ago, course designers were planning courses on multiples of 12.

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With In Style at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, on their way to a team silver medal. Celebrating their silver medal in the team show jumping competition at the 2008 Olympic Games are (L-R) Chef d’equipe “Torchy” Millar, Mac Cone, Jill Henselwood, Eric Lamaze, and Ian Millar. Photos: Clix Photography

“Fast forward to today – and it’s been this way for a while now – you rarely find two jumps on multiples of 12 anymore,” he says. “They can be anywhere from 11 feet to 13 or 14 feet. The horse has to have the ability to lengthen and shorten its stride and keep the rhythm and the balance the same. Let’s say they are carrying 40 percent of their bodyweight on their front feet and 60 percent on their hind and they are galloping along on a 12-foot stride. You want to change that stride to 13 feet, but the weight distribution has to stay the same, unless you want to change it. It goes to the conformation, the training, the strength, the build, the character. There are so many factors. The rhythm is like the metronome that is used in music. When the stride lengthens it doesn’t quicken, when it shortens it doesn’t get slower. So, going back to differences in the sport, 15 years ago we might have bought a horse with a certain gallop. Today we look at that horse and say that natural gallop is not good enough and never will be for the top sport.”

With the time allowed being so tight, a rider needs the speed, but without putting rails at risk. Then the horse needs the speed for the jump-off.

“The top half of the prize money is in the first three or four places and most of these grand prix are going to have six to eight horses or more in the jump-off,” he says. “If the horse isn’t naturally quick enough to be in the top three you’ve got a problem.”

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With Star Power in the CN International at Spruce Meadows in September 2012. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

It comes down to meticulous planning, preparation, and analyzing every tiny detail in the ring, strategies for which Millar is legendary.

“It has always been his relentless drive,” says Jon Garner, director of sport, Equestrian Canada. “I get to competitions early and he’s one of the first in the sand ring working on his own horses while working with his students and Jonathon and Amy. No stone is left unturned. Nothing is by accident. There is a plan for everything. When I came over from England (1990), we would walk a five-stride. But he was the first one to walk a bending ten. It’s commonplace now. He was very much in control and meticulous. He would know exactly where he needed to be on a course at any given time and what he needed to do with his horses.”

Ian Allison, senior vice president at Spruce Meadows, Calgary, has enjoyed a 40-plus year relationship with Millar.

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With Dixson at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Photo: Clix Photography

“He hungers every day to learn more about horses, course design, and his competition,” says Allison. “He takes nothing for granted. He truly has a thirst for knowledge. He tries to understand the mindset of his horses, his competition, and the course designer at all times. The ‘switch’ - it seems - is never off. Literally everything has a ‘learning’ or a ‘take away.’”

For Millar, though, it all begins with the basics in the training ring at home where he works quietly with each horse, building the connection.

“Their connection goes from their brain to their mouth, their mouth to my hand, my hand to my brain,” he says. “So the connection of brain-to-brain, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind can only be as good as my hand and the education of that horse’s mouth. Those two things are beyond critical.”

Allison says that each of Millar’s horses are individuals to him with traits he looks to identify that will benefit their collective performance. Millar has taken dozens of horses to the 5* level – 1.6 metres – and done so based on their strengths, as well as him as a rider overcoming all possible weaknesses.

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With Dixson at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Ontario, and the gold-medal winning Canadian Show Jumping Team of Yann Candele, Tiffany Foster, Eric Lamaze, and Ian Millar. Photo: Clix Photography

“I think he cherishes time with each of his horses, understanding more about each of them every day,” says Allison. “He loves a challenge if he recognizes progress. I think Ian expects himself to be a better horseman each day and his horses to be better each day as well.”

Back in the training ring at home, Millar appreciates implicitly that successful show jumping today is built on the foundation of perfect flat work and dressage. Riders cannot successfully navigate the lines between jumps without the flexibility, balance, and co-ordination that dressage instils.

“To jump today’s courses, your flat work has to be so good that you virtually control every footfall when the horse is in the ring,” says Millar. “In the show jumping world at the upper end, riders need to do beautiful dressage work. If they don’t, they will not be successful. Years ago, the simplicity of the courses allowed them to be able to ride with less dressage skills. Now, they can’t. For an average of every four or five strides, a jump is coming at you [with a] jumping effort every five or five-and-a-half seconds. Events are happening very quickly physically and mentally for horse and rider. Less space [between jumps] and less time require greater skills. One of the tools to make that happen has been bits, as you can more drastically alter balance and pace and stride length with a little more bit. Back in the day, you would never see a double bridle in the show jumping grand prix ring, but you do now.”

Garner says that often riders in the same competition will share information because they know how hard it is out there. It’s their best effort against the course designer.

“A lot of riders would ask Ian, and he would also ask people how a line rides,” says Garner. “But he has undying belief in himself. Never in doubt. He knows when he goes through the in-gate he has done everything he can to prepare and get ready. Ian has always been process-driven. The results will take care of themselves if you have worked on the process.”

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Millar, shown riding Dixson, has inspired generations of young riders and is an unparalleled ambassador for horses and the sport of show jumping. Photo: Ringside Media

That process is a family affair given the talents of son Jonathon and daughter Amy. And it brings rare, magical moments.

“Some years ago [in 2000] Jonathon, Amy and I were three parts of the Canadian Nations Cup team [at the BMO Financial Spruce Meadows Masters tournament],” says Millar. “Jill Henselwood, a student of mine, was the fourth rider. As if I didn’t have enough stress myself doing it, that was a long day’s work for my late wife Lynn and I, but it was a fantastic thing to have the whole family doing the Nations Cup for Canada.”

In 2001 in the final week of Florida’s HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun) Ocala winter circuit, they were first, second, and third in the Thursday prix then, on Sunday, the threesome took first (Jonathon), second (Ian) and third (Amy) in the $100,000 grand prix.

“That was remarkable,” says Millar. “Those things meant so much to Lynn and I.”

By now, the Millar name was legendary and just a glimpse of this tall, fit, handsome rider on his horse would tongue-tie teenage riders who idolized him.

“It was 2001 and I had been working at Spruce Meadows since the previous fall,” says April Dawn Ray with Canadian Horse Journal. “The first big outdoor show was coming up. I was riding a young horse in one of the rings, his name was Graphic, and he was a little unpredictable. I saw a giant bay horse with a very tall man onboard coming toward the ring. As he got closer, I realized it was Ian Millar. I was 19 years old at the time and had looked up to him for as long as I could remember. When he walked into the ring, I was nearly paralyzed. Given I was on a very green horse and terrified of losing control, I promptly finished my ride and went back to the barn. Over the season I managed to keep my cool around him and all the other riders (barely), but I always found Ian to be so kind and generous with his time when kids and fans asked for autographs. I would have loved a chance to speak to him. I used to do the colour guards (escorting the winners in the big classes) so I hung out a lot at the back gate. I was painfully shy back then.”

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Horses are truly a family affair at Millar Brooke Farm. Millar took over the ride on Ericson for his daughter, Canadian Olympian Amy Millar, while she was expecting her second child. Photo: Ringside Media

The year 2008 was one of tragedy and triumph. Lynn passed away in March after a long illness with cancer. She was fundamental in developing the family’s equestrian facility and a constant background force for her husband’s success. Later that year, Millar shouldered his grief and rode on Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics. With Millar riding In Style, Eric Lamaze on Hickstead, Jill Henselwood on Special Ed, and Mac Cone on Ole, the team won silver. Celebrating that moment, Millar said of that night that he believes he had an angel riding with him, and he dedicated the win to Lynn.

Today, Millar is coach, trainer, businessman, friend, father, and grandfather, switching hats as fast as the roles come at him like the jumps in the ring. When the stakes are high, so are the stress levels. They peaked when he had to step aside from competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics after his horse Dixson developed sinus haematoma issues again. Amy was on deck to take his place on Team Canada.

“This was Amy’s first Olympics. I was so happy and proud for her to have that. But it was the toughest job of training I’ve ever had because of the pressure and the importance of it all. To take my father’s hat off when I walked down to that warm-up area and just be 100 percent trainer was very difficult. I could not think of Amy as my daughter at that point, but as the rider I was training. This was an athlete we were getting ready for an Olympic competition and sometimes it can go wrong. So, to get out there with that attitude with my daughter, mother of my granddaughter Lily, it’s not an easy thing to do. When she came out of the ring we’d talk afterwards. I’d talk as a trainer and analyze the whole subject in a very clinical way. Then at another time, I became her father. Switching those roles back and forth throughout Rio was an exhausting, rewarding, magical experience to have with my daughter.”

But the thrill was that Amy and her horse Heros were part of Canada’s fourth place finish in the team jumping event. The attention to detail by the entire Millar team to get Amy ready for her Olympic debut was not lost on Millar on the team’s return to Canada.

“Ian called me up into his office one afternoon in August 2016 and I, FOR SURE, thought I was in some sort of trouble,” says Ingratta. “It was like getting called into the principal’s office. But when I arrived, he said that he just wanted to thank me. I was very confused. He then said, ‘I wanted to thank you for taking care of my little girl.’ This was shortly after I returned to Perth after taking Heros to the Rio Olympics. I was speechless and must have had a very perplexed look on my face because he continued to say, ‘After doing this for so long, I wanted to thank you for taking care of Amy and Heros as well as us (Ian, Jonathon, and Jonathon’s wife Kelly), the whole farm, and for everything that you do.’”

Generosity in both thought and deed is the hallmark of the Millar family. Those working at the farm are valued as part of the Millar team. Some, like Patty Markell, barn manager, have worked for the Millars for many years and she was with Millar and Big Ben during the 1984 season, culminating in the Los Angeles Olympics.

“I started as a student when I was 17 and, as soon as I turned 18, I began working around the farm part-time,” she says. “So, I have been working for the Millar Brooke Farm on and off for the past 39 years. Ian has been very generous to me over the years. One example is when Ian provided a horse for my daughter, Courtney, to ride. Ian knew she was between horses and was really missing being in the saddle, so he found a horse for her to work with. Actions speak louder than words and so often I see Ian doing things purely to help others.”

And that makes Millar a people person. But above all else, he’s a family guy valuing the time with Amy and Jonathon to talk all things horse. In that vein, he’s a self-professed talker and no less so when talking barn talk with Amy.

“I’m a better talker than a listener,” he jokes. “We, Amy and I, were having a meeting. We were sitting at the table and it’s time to go, but Amy and I aren’t quite done. My granddaughter Lily comes up and she would have been seven at the time. She said, ‘You know GP (she calls me GP, for grandparent, or grand prix!) my mommy tells me she had to learn how to sleep with her eyes wide open when she’s having meetings with you.” She said that, innocent as can be! Amy’s face went red and she said, ‘I never said that!’ We all laughed like crazy but seven-year-olds don’t dream up words like that. Those moments are so, so special.”

Millar believes that a good athlete is what they do on the field of play; a great athlete is what they do off the field of play. To him, Big Ben was a truly great athlete because, as much as he did in the ring, he did just as much away from it. He impacted so many people; he turned so many into show jumping fans. And he connected in so many ways with people, sometimes poignantly.

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Ian Millar, aka Captain Canada, has competed in more Olympic Games than any athlete in history. Photo: Barbara@BarbarasVisions.com

“Many years ago, at Spruce Meadows, I had just finished the Derby, which Big Ben won,” says Millar. “Nancy Southern got hold of me and said, ‘There’s a young lady here from the Children’s Wish Foundation. Her wish is to visit Spruce Meadows and see Ben and meet you. Could she come back to the barn?’ I said, of course. They showed up at the barn and this girl was clearly not in a good way. She had an IV connected to her. She patted Ben. Sandi Patterson, Ben’s groom for most of his career, was watching him. He wouldn’t necessarily mean to hurt you, but he could be pretty wired after one of these competitions. It all went well, and Nancy said, ‘Do you think it would be possible for her to sit on Big Ben?’ I said, ‘Oh Nancy….’ But how could you say no? I said that we should take it step by step and if we can’t get it done safely, we won’t do it. So, we all went into the field [leading Ben] and the girl approached him. He was about 20 feet away from her and he turned and looked at her. He took a breath and became 16.3 hands instead of 17.3 hands and turned into a school horse instead of a high end international grand prix horse. He just stood there. She walked up and patted him. He turned his head around for her to touch his face. We lifted her on and he stood like a proper gentleman. We led him a little bit then we got her off. She thanked him. She stepped back and when she was about 20 feet away, he tried to nip Sandy and he became 17.3 hands again. This is all beyond true. About three weeks later, I got this envelope with a beautiful picture of the young lady sitting on Big Ben. It was from her parents saying she had passed away. They wanted me to have this picture and to know how much it meant to her to be able to sit on Big Ben. The parents wanted me to know that the picture was with her in her hospital room as she took her final breath.”

Millar’s life has been one of brilliant achievement, bringing magic to millions of people. Now, going forward, he is sharing a lifetime of knowledge with the next generation of show jumpers, teaching them not just the technical skills but his philosophical approach to developing winning strategies.

In 2014, the Ian Millar School of Horsemanship at Wesley Clover Parks in Ottawa was established and named in Millar’s honour. It hosts hundreds of riding lessons on a weekly basis. The facility has over 30 horses, five outdoor sand rings, and a 22,000 square foot indoor arena. Just as Millar experienced the thrill of learning to ride over 60 years ago, young riders getting started learn the correct basics. Those basics were what helped him focus and advance to the very pinnacle of his career with planning and persistence.

“He was always persistent,” says Eric Lamaze. “He never gave up.  He was a mentor to so many people in so many ways. He might not come to you and say a lot; he instead showed people the right way by example. I enjoyed the fun times we had together being on a team. He was like a kid, he loved it. Every time we were at an Olympics, it was like it was his first time. He enjoyed it so much.”

“Ian embodied equestrianism to Canadians, and embodied Canada to the equestrian world,” says Akaash Maharaj, former CEO of (then) Equine Canada. “His story - especially his partnership with Big Ben - introduced countless Canadians to horsemanship, drew in generations of young riders, and recruited many of our sport’s most important sponsors. There are few, if any, athletes who have had such a decisive influence on any sport.” 

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Getting around at Caledon Equestrian Park. Photo: Ringside Media

But it was the influences in his early years that set him on the path to excellence when, as a 10-year-old, he took riding lessons from Mrs. Gardiner in Edmonton. The Millar family moved back to Ottawa when he was 15 and, by the time he was in his early 20s, Millar was riding in grand prix competitions. He returned to Alberta to compete on a circuit in Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer. The first show was in Edmonton where it all began.

“A group of Mrs. Gardiner’s friends brought her to the grand prix,” recalls Millar. “They sat her right at the rail, and she watched as I won the grand prix. [After the awards] I walked over to her, took off my medal, and put it around her neck. She was elderly then and I don’t think she said anything, but she smiled. She was so instrumental in my winning that grand prix.” 

Millar acknowledges gratefully that she, and everyone who gave him riding instruction, had a part in every success he experienced throughout his career. 

“They gave me their most valuable gift – their knowledge and their experience,” he says thoughtfully, pausing to reflect. “Now I am passing that on. It is what I must do. It is my desire to do it, it is my dream to do it. And I believe it is my responsibility to do it.”

Main article photo: Barbara@BarbarasVisions.com

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

ian millar retires, ian millar's accomplishments, big ben ian millar captain canada, olympic horse rider canada

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