Canadian Grand Prix rider Ian Millar says, “I’m a very goal and destination focused person, but I’m also very attentive to the journey.”
By Doris Degner-Foster
Ian Millar’s journey is a long one. He became a member of Canada’s show jumping team in 1971, and has maintained a place on the team ever since – which has helped him earn the nickname “Captain Canada.” He holds the record for participating in 10 Olympic Games, more than any athlete in any discipline. At age 67, Ian still has a busy schedule based at his farm in Perth, Ontario, Canada, working with his daughter, Amy, and son, Jonathan, who also compete and train actively most of the year. Sidelines caught up with him while he was competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida.
When training, Ian’s philosophy is getting the horse and rider to be the best they can be, whatever that is, according to their abilities. “I always hope that every rider or staff member who has spent time at our farm, Millar Brooke, will look back at that time in a very positive manner, realizing that we have done the very best for them and their horses,” he said. “When I wander around the Palm Beach Equestrian Center, I see many former students or employees. They are all great friends and I enjoy seeing them.”
Ian stressed that attitude in a horse and rider are critical to success. He said about training, “You have the opportunity to learn more from the problems and the challenges the horses and riders have. I believe very strongly in constantly learning and appreciating the journey because the destination is unpredictable.”
Early in his career, sports psychology was not yet popular. At that time, riders learned on their own how to deal with the pressures of competition, learning through experience. Ian explained, “I figured out that with every horse and every rider there was an optimum stress level. If you’re below it, you’re not going to be sharp enough and if you’re above it, nerves will interfere with results.” He laughed, then went on to add, “So you have to learn how to put yourself right in that optimum range of stress. The day I stop being nervous is the day I don’t care enough. I welcome the pressure and stress that come with big competitions.”
Of course, Ian is no stranger to big competitions. In addition to riding in 10 Olympic Games, he won the Canadian Show jumping Championship nine times and won the prestigious Spruce Meadow Derby in Alberta, Canada, six times. Riding his legendary horse, Big Ben, Ian won more than 40 Grand Prix titles worldwide, including two back-to-back World Cup finals, the prestigious Spruce Meadows Masters Grand Prix, and an individual gold medal in the Pan American Games. In the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in 1999, he won another gold medal in an incredible come-from-behind victory riding a horse named Ivar, and the team bronze medal. It wasn’t until the 2008 Olympic Games, however, that he won an Olympic medal, winning team silver at the age of 61.
In addition to his recognition within the horse sport, he is a member of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given by the Canadian government, and has been inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame and Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Veterinary College.
About 25 years ago, when he was in his early 40s, Ian was asked in an interview how long he would continue to ride and compete at the top level. He answered that he would like to compete on into his 50’s, and then he’d see where things went from there. Ian shared an anecdote about his late wife Lynn when he said, “My wife once said to me, ‘Make me a promise. Only do this if it’s still fun, and if it stops being fun, I want you to stop.’ I’ve kept that promise.”
Obviously, Ian is still having fun. He explained that problems that are a source of stress and frustration need to be solved quickly and eliminated, but that he fully embraces positive challenges. He said, “My basic philosophy is, I’ll never quit trying until I succeed, and I never give up.”
Ian’s tenacity is evident in how he works to maintain his physical fitness. He spoke again of the early years of his career when he said, “We didn’t have access to personal trainers. I had, as so many riders do, some lower back issues. During the course of my research I learned the importance of core strength and the balance between abdomen and back muscles. I immediately set about developing a stretching and strength exercise regime which I do every morning and I never miss a day. That’s in addition to riding and working at the shows, or around the farm.”
Ian stressed that the longevity of a riding career is dependent upon good riding basics and a classic style. As the sport has evolved, the attitude of the horse has become more important. Today’s course designs require a very sophisticated level of training and riding. That requires a horse with a good mind.
“Attitude is paramount,” Ian said emphatically. “In modern-day competition, no matter what level, the horse must be a positive, generous, willing partner. A horse is powered by his lungs, perseveres with his heart and wins with his mind.”
To be a successful competitor in this day and age, the horse must be the consummate athlete. He must possess a very adjustable stride, impeccable balance, power, technique and speed. Additionally, good visual skills are critical because the jumps are designed to be difficult to see. Because of todays rigorous schedule and very strict medication rules horses must also be very durable and sound. “Not many Grand Prix are won with a double clear round any more,” Ian said. “Speed in the jump-offs determines the results. Even the basic time alloweds are so fast that if a horse can’t effortlessly gallop and jump at that speed, clean rounds become difficult to achieve.”
The best example of such a horse was Big Ben, the Belgian Warmblood gelding Ian rode from 1984 to 1994. Because he stood 17.2 hands, it didn’t look like he could be fast and agile enough for indoor competitions. As his career continued, he ended up having just as much success in small indoor facilities as in the large outdoor venues of the world. Ian found that Big Ben could learn how to do things that didn’t come naturally to him. He said, “Because of Big Ben’s mind and ability to adapt, he’s a horse of the ages. I believe he would’ve been successful today.”
During Big Ben’s career, he survived two colic surgeries and a highway accident where his horse van overturned after a head-on collision with a car. Just two weeks later, Big Ben won three out of three at the prestigious Spruce Meadows national competition. This included the Saturday Grand Prix and his sixth Spruce Meadows Derby win on Sunday. Big Ben was retired to Ian’s Millar Brooke Farm and died in December 1999. He’s buried on a knoll overlooking the farm.
When asked again how long Ian will continue to compete at the top level, this time he said there are three clear factors that will determine when he retires. Heading the list is good horses. He explained that it simply isn’t satisfying to compete unless he has horses that are as good as those he is competing against. The second factor is absence of injury and continued good health to be able to compete at the top level. Third: As long as it stays fun.
Asked about his future plans and if retirement is on the horizon, his enthusiasm was evident as he answered, “I’m looking for sure at this next cycle. I’m looking at the World Equestrian Games this year and the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015. I’d very much like to be a part of that. I’d like to do the 2016 Olympics and then I’ll take a long look at it.”
His response echoed his answer in the interview 25 years ago. We wish you many more years of competing, Ian. Have fun!
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Oklahoma when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She also enjoys writing fiction and is working on a middle-grade book series about teenagers who ride horses and solve mysteries. Look for Doris’ blog “Notes From the Field” on the Sidelines Magazine website.