In Conversation with Ian Millar
On 9 September 2014, author Jeremy Freeborn interviewed two-time World Cup Finals champion and Olympic silver medalist Ian Millar.
On 9 September 2014, author Jeremy Freeborn interviewed two-time World Cup Finals champion and Olympic silver medalist Ian Millar. The veteran equestrian rider was in Calgary at Spruce Meadows, where he won the prestigious 2014 CP International Grand Prix and helped Canada win the 2014 BMO Nations Cup.
JF: When did you first start riding horses?
IM: I grew up in Ottawa. I don’t know why, but I always loved horses. I’m really going to date myself now, but a milk wagon was pulled by a horse. I’d run out in the morning and the milkman would let me sit up on the seat. I thought I was driving the horse, but of course the horse knew the route perfectly well. I would be on the wagon for several blocks.
My father was in the military and was transferred out west to be in charge of western command. I bothered my parents so much about riding. I asked if I could ride once we moved out west. They agreed that I could. Sure enough, when we crossed the Manitoba/Ontario border, I was very disappointed to see that men weren’t riding horses and the women weren’t driving buckboards and so on. Everybody was driving cars.
We got to Alberta and there were a couple of horses at a local store near where we spent the summer. The son of a local rancher would come and rent out the horses. I, of course, went there and started riding and helping out. Pretty soon I was running his business during the day for him while he helped his father at the ranch. My pay was that I could ride the horses as much as I wanted when they weren’t leased. His whole group of friends would go riding in the evening and I would go along with them. We moved to Edmonton in the fall and I attended a riding school. The whole family started riding. The rest, as they say, is history.
I tell you this story because some years ago at Spruce Meadows, a man walked up to me and said, “Do you know who I am?” I said, “I do not.” He said, “I am the man who put you on a horse for the first time.” It was the son of the rancher from Gull Lake, Alberta, from many years ago. It was an amazing thing to meet him.
JF: What is it about show jumping that you like the most?
IM: It really has everything to do with horses. I very much enjoy the sport. In the context of sport, equestrian is quite something because you can have your favourites, but anything can happen on the day. You are dealing with two athletes. You are dealing with a horse and even though we’re training these horses, you’re never quite sure what they’re going to do. There are so many variables that go into it. There’s drama. Hollywood script writers couldn’t do a better job sometimes. That’s the reality of our sport.
JF: You were first named to the Canadian equestrian team in 1971. How did it feel to be named to the team and what was your first experience representing Canada?
IM: It was a very, very proud moment. It was something I had been aware of for many years and wanted to do. In those days we had an international fall circuit, which was Harrisburg, Washington, New York (at Madison Square Garden no less), and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. I was part of that whole team. What a fantastic experience it was. Next year [in 1972], I attended my first Olympics in Munich, Germany.
JF: Was there a lot of pressure in 1971 because the Canadian team had won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City?
IM: Yes, indeed — for sure. Anytime you go on one of these team adventures, everybody is all really excited and we all want to win. The energy level was very high. We were a group of very young riders. We had Jim Elder who competed at the 1968 Olympics, and he was our mentor. It was a tremendous experience and a very high-energy experience.
JF: You rode Big Ben in competition for 10 years from 1984 to 1994. In your opinion, why do you believe Big Ben was an excellent horse for show jumping?
IM:It’s that special blend of all the characteristics that go into a top horse. Certainly, he had all the physical characteristics that it takes, and what put him over the top was his heart and mind. It’s really no different than a human athlete. At the end of the day, it’s going to be ‘heart and mind.’ Every day he’d wake up and say, “How can I please you today? What can I do for you today?” He had a feel for the moment. When you rode him in an important competition, he always seemed to know when it was important. He would just rise to the occasion. He became a consummate professional athlete. A bad day for him was one rail down. That was a bad day. Normally he’d jump clean. You could just depend on it.
JF: You have now competed for Canada at every Olympic Games since 1972 except for the Olympic boycott in 1980. Looking back at your international career, how has show jumping evolved over the last forty years?
IM: As far as Olympic competition is concerned, you could say it is almost a different sport. Prior to 1984, the courses would be significantly higher and wider and more difficult than the courses you would jump the whole rest of the year. It would be like a runner going to the Olympics and finding out that the 100m would no longer be 100m, but 120m. Adding 20m makes it a different contest. That’s what would happen with the original equestrian competitions at the Olympics. That began to change in 1984 with Bert de Némethy, the American chef d’équipe, and also course designer of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Those were the first Olympics where you came away thinking it was a little more difficult than what we jump most of the time, but it was consistent. That trend has continued.
JF: How meaningful was it for you to win back-to-back World Cup Finals with Big Ben in 1988 and 1989?
IM: That was a huge thing for Big Ben, his ownership group and me. Normally, big horses are not very good indoor horses because of the small venues. They are not fast enough to do it. Somehow, he was. To go indoors and win the World Cup Finals twice in a row was very significant.
JF: At age 61, you won an Olympic Silver medal with In Style in the team competition at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong [the equestrian competition was held in Hong Kong because of the difficulty establish an equine disease-free zone in Beijing]. How gratifying was it to be recognized as an Olympic medalist at this point in your prestigious career?
IM: That was a huge deal. In Style is owned by Susan and Ariel Grange. Our Canadian team had competed together a great deal. There was a lot of synergy on that team. We lost one of our riders [Mac Cone] because his horse was hurt and he could no longer compete in the last round of the team competition. If you’re a bookmaker, you would have said Canada had no chance once we lost that fourth rider. You need all four. Only three scores are counted, but historically you need all four [to win]. [At the Olympics, four riders compete per country, but only the best three scores per round are counted. Losing Cone meant that the scores of all three remaining riders counted in the second round.] To win the silver medal with three was unheard of and spectacular.
JF: How do you respond when someone says you are a Canadian sports icon because of your sports longevity and your commitment to show jumping?
IM:I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I just really work all day with my horses and my students. I just try to do the best I can, be the best horseman I can, and the best competitor I can. I love it all. I love every moment of it. For me, it’s fun.
JF: How meaningful is it for you that your children Jonathon and Amy are equestrian riders?
IM: That’s very important. I think if they weren’t involved in the sport, I might find some of the hard parts of it even harder. It makes a tremendous difference because we are working at it together as a family. For example, Jonathon was with me at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Amy goes to certain events and I go to their events. Sometimes we’re all competing together. It’s just great fun. I always think if all three of us are in a Grand Prix, I have three chances to win. If they win, it’s even better. I get more pleasure with that now than if I win.
IM: My goal is competing at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, at the Caledon Pan Am Equestrian Park, and then the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Then I will give it a long look. It depends on horse power. You are only as good as what you ride. If I have the right horses and if I’m healthy and stay injury free, I’m probably going to keep going.
JF: How are your preparations for the Pan Am Games in Toronto (2015)?
IM: Very good. The facility is fantastic. I’m on the Pan Am Committee for equestrian sport, which is a great pleasure. I have the two horses — Dixson and Star Power — who are (touch wood) very ready and I look forward to it.
JF: What Canadian throughout history has inspired you the most?
IM: There have been so many. Jim Elder and Tom Gayford [winners, with teammate Jim Day, of the 1968 Olympic gold medal for Canada in team jumping] inspired me. Gayford was also the chef d’équipe for Canada for many years. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Jeanne Sauvé, who was then our Governor General. The greatest partner and inspiration I have ever had in life and in sport was my late wife Lynn. She worked with me for so many years and her contribution was huge.
JF: Who has influenced you the most in your equestrian career?
IM: There have been so many. To pick one risks taking away from all the rest because there have been quite a list of people who have made very significant contributions to my riding and my career. I always find it interesting why they do it. When I look back, I think people saw a very enthusiastic, interested and hard-working person, and they just felt they wanted to help. That’s the same feeling for me, when I see a young rider today that shows me enthusiasm, talent and work ethic. If there is anything I can do for them, I want to reach out and help.
JF: What would you like to be most remembered for within the sport?
IM: A good horseman. A rider is one thing — that is a person who gets on and rides the horse. A horseman is the bigger picture. They understand feeding and nutrition. They know a little bit about blacksmithing and veterinary medicine. They’re trainers. They can look at the horse’s stall, and know their mood and their health. That is what it means to be a consummate horseman and that is how I would like to be remembered.
JF: What was the most gratifying moment of your career?
IM: To pick out one, risks taking away from so many others because winning the big Grand Prix at the Spruce Meadows Masters (1987, 1991, 2014) was major and the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong was huge, as was winning the gold medal at the Pan American Games twice (1987 and 1999). At the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, we were a bit of a long shot, but got it done. It’s quite a list. They all are a little different, but all greatly valued and appreciated.
JF: What advice would you give young Canadians who dream of being equestrian riders?
IM: Learn everything there is to know about a horse. Become a horseperson, not just a rider. In the end, when you take a look at the people who were consistently at the top of this sport, they tend to be horsemen and horsewomen.