alking through a quiet, unimposing barn aisle in Wellington, Florida, with Canadian legend Ian Millar, it’s hard not to think about all his achievements. There’s the fact that he holds the world record for competing in the most Olympic Games, ever, by any athlete in any sport, plus his over 50 years of experience competing at the international level. He could easily brag about his Olympic medal, his multiple Pan American Games wins, his place in the Canadian Hall of Fame, or the fact that he was Canada’s go-to guy for every FEI Nations Cup™ team competition for 20 years. But he doesn’t boast about his accomplishments, or drop Olympic tidbits throughout the conversation. Instead, he’s eager to share his knowledge and experience with others, which makes him the perfect instructor for Insider Masterclass.
Ian has competed for his home country in Olympic stadiums all over the globe and probably understands equestrian competition better than most people alive today. Walking around with him, though, as he takes the time to lovingly acknowledge each horse in his barn with a pat, you’re unlikely to hear of his accolades or his big wins. Instead, you may hear stories of how Ian learned the fundamentals of the sport from intense observation, emotional musings on his intense connection with beloved former mount Big Ben, or his favorite memories of working alongside his friends and family. He’d rather regale you with the lessons he’s learned from difficult times on course or talk about his daughter Amy Millar’s upcoming FEI Nations Cup™ than show off his own awards (although, yes, we’d like to see them).
What stands out most about Ian — aside from his status as a living legend — is his incredible devotion to the horses, the people, and the sport that has shaped his 62 years of competitive riding. Although fiercely determined and ever the athlete, Ian has never lost sight of his ‘why’ — the driving force behind why he continues, even now, to learn and grow as a horseman. For Ian, that is the horses.
That connection, that drive, that love for horses and horse sport has allowed Ian to be more than just a rider. He’s become a world-class trainer, coach, and mentor — one who is still chasing new goals at the top level and sees no end to his gilded career. And while he may be humble, he certainly “knows a few things because he’s seen a few things” (his words), and he graciously shares with us 10 lessons that he learned competing in 10 Olympic Games.
“There’s not much that I regret about my career. But one thing that I do regret slightly is that I didn’t take a little more time to savor the important moments. In those few minutes [on course], it all happens fast, but it’s all in slow motion as well. Every little detail is seared into my memory … but it’s important to let the emotions sink in.”
Ian Millar and Big Ben. Photo by Clix Photography.
“Anything that you can see and learn, you should do. Most of what we learned in those days [when I was starting my career] was from watching others. Nobody was putting it on a spoon and telling us how to do it. If you couldn’t learn by observing, then you weren’t going to learn.”
“When I think of a student [of the sport], it’s someone who, above all else, wants to learn and wants to be as good as they can be. You have to take the emotion out of it and just learn. Even after going to the Olympics, I never stopped being a student.”
“When you see these guys at the top, they might have a unique style, but they all started with the basics. Every time I ride I make sure I have those classical basics right. That’s the foundation of a capable, effective rider.”
Want to learn competitive jumping fundamentals directly from Ian? Take his Masterclass and take your riding to a new level.
“Succeeding at the top level isn’t all about talent or luck. When you learn your subject so well, then you remove any realistic reason to be nervous. We don’t practice until we can get it right, we practice until we absolutely can’t get it wrong. It’s this deliberate practice and this hard work that creates success.”
“How often do people not do things because they are afraid of failure? That you have got to get out of your system. When I think back, I can’t recall many things that I haven’t tried because I was afraid to fail. Sure, if it doesn’t work out there’s a price to pay, but I’ll be darned if I’m not willing to pay that price because I’m determined to do this thing.”
Ian Millar teaches the fundamentals of jumping for competition on Insider Masterclass. Start elevating your riding now.
“I have had plenty of failures in my career. I have made a point of learning from each and every one of them so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I’ve always been a student of the sport, and I’ve always believed in evolving. When I’ve seen someone do it better than me, I try to change my own habits so that next time, I can be the one who does it best.”
“Consider this: a horse’s brain to their mouth, their mouth to my hand, my hand to my brain. The connection of brain to brain comes through that [physical connection to the horse]. After a while, competing with [Big] Ben, we could almost read one another’s mind. We knew each other so well, we could help each other and know, just from feel, what to do. That’s a true partnership.”
“Surrounding yourself with the best possible team is probably the smartest thing you can do. Show how smart you are by surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you are. It’s very hard to succeed when you have one foot on a banana peel — you’ve got to be really well backed up. When a football quarterback is ‘in the pocket,’ he knows he’s protected [by his team]. A rider is the same; when I get to the ring, I have to know that I’m protected.”
“It’s truly a life with horses. It’s not just a life of riding — it’s a life with horses and a life about the sport. I would say to anyone — get a horse.”
Feature photo by Sportfot.