Ian Millar and I have something in common. The first horses we fell in love with were the horses that brought the milk carts to our neighbourhoods. Ian’s milk delivery man had him sit up on the box seat and they went about four blocks and then he would have to get down and run home. At age 10 his family moved from Ottawa to Alberta. He expected ‘The West’ would be just like the movies with cowboys on horses and horse drawn buggies everywhere and he was disappointed to find only cars and buses. But at Gull Lake he did find some horses. There was a store nearby and beside the store the 18 year old son of a rancher had two horses with bridles but no saddles. For 25 cents you could ride the horse to the end of the road and back and go as fast as you wanted to. He saved up his quarters and rode up and down going as fast as he could. In the summer the rancher’s son had a full time job on his father’s ranch and Ian took over the horse rentals. When the older boys were riding their horses around the lake they took Ian with them as a “mascot” and they all galloped around the sandy shores of the lake. This penchant for speed could be seen as the first indication that Ian Millar was not going to be a dressage rider!
But when he was 12 he took some lessons from a German trainer who put him on a lunge line. By the time he was 13 he was doing not just “flat work” but piaffe and passage and learning how to control every footfall. Ian says this is a skill he has found invaluable his entire career. He started to do more jumping at 16 and by 19 he was really serious about it. He entered a competition where the riders had to jump a wall. If you knocked it down you got one more chance and then you were out. If you cleared the wall they put it higher. Ian’s horse was not really cut out for this type of jumping and often not only hit the wall but then trampled the boxes the wall was made of. Finally the organizers offered him a refund if he would stop because they said they were running out of boxes to build the wall.
At the age of 24, with his horse War Machine, he had his first team ride for Canada and went on the following year to ride for Canada in the Munich Olympics. Now in 2016 he is heading toward a world record 11th( yes, ELEVENTH!) Olympics. When I spoke with Ian he had just started Dixson, his mount for Rio, back into work over fences. Dixson has been in conditioning work but not jumping since September. To me this is good horsemanship; giving the horse a mental and physical break from the very demanding work of top level international competition. Ian told me that Dixson had “retained everything” and was on top form. They will be competing at WEF in Wellington during the winter season in some of the CSI competitions and then will head to Spruce Meadows before the Olympics in Rio.
Maintaining the health and fitness of top level athletes like Dixson has a top priority with the Millarbrook team. Their support team has an equine chiropractor, sports injury vet, and equine physio who work with specialist equipment of hot and cold laser, ultrasound, shockwave, treadmill and a walker. These high performance athletes get the same attention as a human high performance athlete. The horses are at their peak from age 9 to 14. This is not young in horse years and so they must be very carefully looked after and monitored. In FEI level competition there is absolutely no use of drugs and drug testing is routine for all equine athletes.
I asked Ian what he looks for in a young horse. “A horse that can understand the distance, whose eyes are quick. The jumps often have optical illusions and they must see them and know what it is. For a five year old they must be sound, have a good character, and be a goer, fast, brave as can be and strong but not so strong they won’t train . They also need to be naturally careful with instinctive technique.” The horses must have 8 out of 10 for all of these qualities. If there is one quality that is only a five then that horse may not go so far. He then gave me the analogy of a kid who gets a ball thrown toward his head. If the kid ducks or covers his face instead of reaching out and grabbing for the ball then he is not naturally given to ball sports.
“They need power in the body to jump high and wide and need an amazing gallop. Normal stride may be 12 feet but they need 16 feet and then be able to go down to 8 or 9 feet and handle the balance and rhythm. They have to get deep to the jump and must be able to sit.” Ian explained that it is very important for the horse to be naturally fast as the time allowance will not allow for a slow horse and in a jump off speed is essential. That is a lot of natural talent to require of a horse. And as Ian says: “So few horses are super stars.”
It was at this point that he gave me the Ian Millar version of the Serenity Prayer. “You need to have the courage to change what you can and be able to accept what you cannot change. It is important to challenge but not over face both horses and students.”
What would be his advice to a young rider aspiring to get onto a team or to the Olympics? “It all hinges on the psyche.” he says. “You have to be hungry and be driven. The winner will be whoever wants it most. Now riders are much more dedicated than they were 30 years ago. They go to the gym and eat nutritious food and are very aware of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is a very competitive world in international jumping and extremely costly. The person who aspires to this life must get as much education as they can, training and taking lessons and watching others and reading and going to clinics.” And remember “There are no problem horses only challenges and opportunities.”
An aspiring young rider looking at Ian Millar might well be awestruck at his accomplishments: 10 Olympic Games, 9 Pan Am Games winning 9 medals including 2 two individual gold , more than any other show jumper, 10 times Canadian National Champion, and two time winner of the $1 Million CN international as Spruce Meadows. Despite all those triumphs and podium finishes Ian still recommends a realistic approach to the sport. “Don’t make getting onto the podium the only motivation. It may never happen even though the rider may be good enough. There may be circumstances (horse injury etc.) that will prevent the dream from being fulfilled. So enjoy the journey and don’t be too disappointed if it does not work out. “
For riders who wish to train with Ian he has three rules for his students:
1. “Show up!” (And he means on time and ready to work!)
2. “Always be at the right place at the right time for when the big moment comes. Look on the board and see when there is a lesson to watch or a horse being brought in to be tried.”
3. “Help me to help you. Motivate everyone around you to help you. Pick up manure when you go past the farrier, offer him a drink on a hot day and you will find he will explain what he is doing. The knowledge is out there. The gift of knowledge. Motivate people to share this gift with you.”
Recently at Spruce Meadows an older gentleman came up to Ian and said: “Do you know who I am? I taught you to ride and I’ve been following your career ever since.” It was the rancher’s son from Gull Lake.
Video of Ian Millar at WEF on Fanlac 6 year old KWPN stallion owned by Charles Schneider: Ian Millar at WEF on Fanlac