Ask Me Anything: Ian Millar Answers Your Burning Questions About Life, Riding, and How to Be a Better Horseman (Part 1)

by Ian Millar /

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hen Canadian show jumping legend Ian Millar announced his retirement from international competition earlier this year, he renewed his mission to educate the next generation of horses and riders. We are honored that Ian was our very first Equestrian Masterclass instructor, teaching the foundations of success for all equestrians. But his teachings don’t stop there. Some lucky Masterclass subscribers got to ask Ian questions about himself and his horses as well as seek advice pertaining to their own riding. Today, we’re sharing his answers with you!

“Hi Ian! I’ve loved learning from you in your class. I wanted to know, what horse taught you the most about riding and training, and why?” – Susan 

The horse that taught me the most about riding and training horses was Big Ben. I bought him in Holland and he was, essentially, “no one” to most top riders. Not only was his talent undiscovered, but the general consensus was that, amongst other limitations, he had a very difficult character. I learned to train him the way that my wife “trained” me – she would convince me to “decide” to do something in a way that I believed it was my own idea; it was orchestrated so subtly that there was no argument, and I honestly believed I owned that decision. That’s the way that I approached Ben. If you walked up to that horse and said, “OK, here’s what you have to do,” he was likely to look at you and say, “no, I’m not going to it.” And keep in mind, this horse was 17.3 hands high and 1,650 pounds and no really meant no. So it was a matter of figuring out how to get him to do what I wanted him to do while letting him think that it was his own idea. And I must tell you, if I’m to put a label on it, that right there is the true art of training.

The other reservation that people had about him was that he would be too big and too slow to win at the top level, and especially that he’d struggle indoors. But in fact, some of our biggest wins were indoors and we often won based on speed. Despite his size, he was able to be incredibly fast and catty. 

Throughout my career, I didn’t usually have the luxury of going out and spending money on the very best horse I could find or the specific type of horse I was after. When a horse came my way, I had to figure out how to make that horse as good as they could possibly be. So you learn to be inventive and how to teach these overlooked horses skills that might not come so naturally to them. But you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish with a horse when you can figure out how to communicate with them.

“My seven-year-old jumper has a lot of scope, but when he gets nervous he tends to jump straight up as opposed to up and over — you can almost feel his motor ‘die’ at the base, but then he jumps extra high without much forward motion. He’s green to showing and does this more at shows than at home. He’ll do it occasionally at home if the jumps are spooky or larger than normal. What can I do with him, both at home and at shows, to help him learn to jump across the jump and build his confidence?” – Ellen

From your description, it sounds like your horse is of middle to lower “blood” — by which I mean natural physical and mental energy. These horses, when they're confronted with something that concerns them, will often react by slowing or stopping forward motion, whereas a horse with more “blood,” when faced with something daunting, will likely accelerate. It's the opposite reaction, but the same stimulus. When you have a horse that is careful, which it sounds like your young horse is, and you present them with a situation or a jump that feels uncomfortable to them, the reaction is going to be to slow down in front of the jump and lose forward momentum, but still jump very carefully: in this case, jumping very high in the air but not getting across the jump. 

So what do you do about this? You have to, through consistent training, make him into a horse that is very, very sensitive and forward. With any forward aid, he must be so responsive that it overrides his instinct to hesitate. Transition work is great for this; many, many transitions, making sure to use the “ask-tell-demand” system to get him understanding that you expect forward motion the moment that you apply your leg, no matter what distraction or stressors may be present. And once that is solidly in place, you've almost “rewired” his brain. You've taken a hesitant horse that is maybe not naturally the most forward horse in the world, and you will have actually created a very forward-thinking animal through training. Then, when you go to the jumps, you should be able to apply your forward aids and get the right reaction, even if he’s unsure. He still might jump quite carefully, but he will listen to you and be able to jump across.

“My 11-year-old gelding recently came back from some time off due to a minor injury. He was previously a 1.50m+ jumper and loved his job. Lately, whenever I work him on the flat, he randomly stops and won’t move. Nothing can make him go... no amount of leg, spur, tap with the whip… nothing. He just stops in place, tenses up, and won’t go. The vet says he’s not lame, and he’s not back sore. Have you ever experienced this? And what could I do with him to stop this behavior without causing a fight?” – Zofia 

I know you’ve already had this done, but I would not overlook doing an even more thorough veterinary exam, especially if this is a new habit for this horse, who does not seem to be a green or particularly difficult horse. I have difficulty answering this from a training perspective since I have not been around your horse and I haven’t encountered this type of behavior myself, especially in a horse this experienced, but because you’re noting that he “tenses up,” I would think that something may be making him uncomfortable. I would explore the option of having him scoped for ulcers, check the fit of your saddle, and thoroughly examine other possible physical or environmental causes for this change in behavior.

“Hi, Ian! My seven-year-old horse recently started acting up at horse shows: sourness and stopping at fences, even in low jumping classes. He’s well behaved at home and only exhibits this at shows. Do you have suggestions on how to work with this? Should I go to more shows to school? Or is there something I can do to work on this behavior at home before I show again? I keep thinking about your quote, ‘hope is not a plan,’ and I’d like to find a way to work through this problem in practice before competing. Thank you!” – Sara

One consideration, Sara, is how much you are competing. Sometimes horses just simply go to too many horse shows and do, in fact, develop a negative attitude towards going to these competitions. A horse must always be allowed to be a horse. They need their paddock time. They need their liberty. They need to just go outside and be a horse.

Having said that, if your horse is getting plenty of time off, when I consider a problem like this, what I would probably do is I would make the training exercises at home much more complicated — more challenging and generally more difficult — than anything the horse is going to be presented with at the competitions. It would be similar to taking a young child and teaching them a school subject so thoroughly at a level that is far above what the exam will be. So they then would walk into the exam, look at the questions, and think, “Oh my gosh, this is a joke, there's nothing to it!” and have an easy, enjoyable experience during that exam.

You can do the same thing with a horse, and this will help them look forward to the shows and build their confidence in the competitions. Sometimes people do the opposite — their training doesn't create enough of the challenge at home and so the horse goes to a new environment where the bar is raised, so to speak, and they fail and lose confidence because of it. 

“Hi Ian, Being a full-time working mom with a toddler at home, it can sometimes be challenging to get to the barn every day to ride and train with my horse. Do you have any advice or recommendations on what I can do to still advance and grow in the sport when I am out of the saddle and away from the barn? I am currently showing in the adult equitation, medals, and hunter divisions. I truly enjoyed your Masterclass and found it to be incredibly informative and eye-opening. Thank you for taking the time and for sharing your wisdom!” – Greta 

Hi, Greta. So much of riding and training horses is a mental exercise. To that end, you can read articles and books, watch videos, and take online courses such as the various Masterclasses in the Masterclass membership. Even just streaming competitions while you’re at home and observing what great riders do. And, of course, taking these Masterclasses as you say you’re already doing.

Physically, there are exercise routines that you can do at home that will improve your flexibility and strength. When you ride your horse, your position will be automatically stronger, and you will be more secure in the saddle.

There absolutely are things that you can do to continue to learn and improve as a rider while doing the most important job you'll ever have in your life — raising your child.

“My question relates to rider biomechanics. What would your advice be for a rider who is dominant on one side and weaker on the other? I tend to collapse to the right, which has made for difficult right-lead canter transitions, along with my horse falling towards the center of the ring to the right. I've been working on this with my trainer, but the arena doesn't have mirrors, making it difficult when I'm solo. I’m trying to feel for equal weight in my stirrups and seat bones, but I’m still having this issue and would love your advice. Thank you for your time!” – Kathy

Generally speaking, riders who are not symmetrical create horses that are not symmetrical, and visa versa. I would suggest that if you become more symmetrical, it will almost automatically correct these issues that you are having with your horse. I personally have a daily routine of stretching and strength exercises that I would say are critical to my riding.

If you have the ability, I would look for a personal trainer who has a good understanding of the equestrian sport, and work with that professional for at least a few sessions so that you can get a real understanding of where you need to build strength. Because you’re also having trouble feeling equal weight in both stirrups and seat-bones, I’d also suggest that you consider seeing a chiropractor.

Strengthening and stretching your own body out of the saddle to correct your current imbalance will likely give you significant improvements with your horse’s issues to the right.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!

Read this next: 10 Things Ian Millar Has Learned From Competing in 10 Olympic Games

Photography by Pooya Nabei for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Editorial Staff

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