After 10-time Olympic show jumper Ian Millar stopped competing, the pressure was on. There was speculation that he would become the chef d’équipe for the team that he led as Captain Canada for so many years.
Alternatively, some wondered, would he simply bow out for a life beyond the spotlight, stepping back to a quiet existence at Millar Brooke Farm in Perth, Ontario?
There wasn’t an immediate public answer to the question of what his future held.
“I just wanted a little time to myself to figure out what I wanted to do, because I had been on the road and competing non-stop essentially for over fifty years for Canada,” Millar noted. “Like a racehorse coming off the track needs a cooling-off period, I wasn’t there to rush into anything,” he recounted from ringside at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, FL.
He found he wasn’t about putting his feet up and staying on the sidelines. “I am 76 years old,” he stated, repeating a well-known statistic. “Normally, people start talking about retirement at age 60 or 65.”
But not Millar.
“I really do not see the point of retirement. It’s not a word or a concept that really has anything to do with me,” he said,
That’s particularly true in the five weeks since he became the Canadian team’s chef d’équipe, a position that many have believed over the years would be his destiny.
“I’m doing as much work now as pretty much I ever did, in different ways,” he said cheerfully.
The wisdom of having him take the chef position had long been obvious, but was underlined last weekend when Canada won the $150,000 CSIO4* Nations Cup for the seventh time, with Millar walking out in front of his team as they headed for the highest level of the podium.
“He pretty much steamrolled the whole class,” observed Robert Ridland, coach of the US team, which finished fifth. “He was leaving no stone unturned.”
Canada was tied for second on 8 penalties after the first round of the Nations Cup, playing out before a capacity crowd. From the volume of the cheers for the maple leaf crew, it seemed as if most of that audience must be Canadian. They got even louder in the second round, as rider after rider delivered clear trips to climb to the top of the chart: first Tiffany Foster on Hamilton, then Erynn Ballard on Gakhir and finally Mario Deslauriers, with his second perfect performance of the evening on Emerson. That locked up the win; anchor rider Beth Underhill only had to get on Nikka VD Bisschop to ride into the ring for the trophy presentation.
“Nervous? If you’re not nervous, you don’t care enough. You’re damn right I was nervous, because I care a lot.”
The jubilation was overwhelming.
“I think Canadian fans are some of the best in the world. This particular fan group was led by my mother,” said Foster.
As she bubbled over with excitement amid a barrage of hugs and congratulations for the team, the rider called Millar, “Dream chef,” and that said it all.
Before holding up his glass for a champagne toast to the victory, Millar remarked in his usual dignified style, “We consider it a very important win for our Canadian team.”
Then, asked if he had been nervous as the class proceeded, he quickly replied, “Nervous? If you’re not nervous, you don’t care enough. You’re damn right I was nervous, because I care a lot.”
Explaining how he happened to be in the middle of the celebration rather than on a tractor or helping his son-in-law around his farm, Millar mused, “Many thought it would be a natural step once I stepped back from competition that I should become chef. I didn’t for several reasons, among them, my son [Jonathon] and daughter [Amy] and their involvement in the sport; the whole idea of conflict of interest. There must never be a hint of that.”
At the time he stopped competing, his former teammate, Mark Laskin, had the chef’s role. “Then he stepped away and again, there was a certain amount of pressure. Coincidentally, Eric [Lamaze] had become available. His enthusiasm for it was unbelievable. I wasn’t as enthusiastic and committed as he was. One year later, he and Equestrian Canada elected to part ways. Then I thought to myself, `I really need to do this, and so I did.’”
He took over the reins with alacrity. “I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a responsibility, a challenge and a great honor to be chef d’équipe for your country. I’m a forever learner, I love to learn,” he offered.
As Millar noted, “It’s not just about choosing teams and being at events. The job is much more than that.” It also includes involvement in national programs, a responsibility to the Young Riders program, GRIT (Great Riders Intensive Training) and interaction with Sport Canada. He is grateful for help in negotiating that busy new pathway from Karen Hendry-Ouellette, EC’s show jumping manager. “I know the sport from the riders’ side; she knows it from the official side and the chef’s side.”
In addition, he is active on the farm with his daughter, and helps with her international horses, while Jonathon Millar and his wife Kelly Soleau-Millar operate Millar Brooke South in Florida. He continues to teach and train, riding five or six horses a day and has management responsibilities with a real estate organization in Canada.
In terms of dealing with his son or daughter as potential team members, he noted, “I didn’t really see a problem ever about how to handle it; it’s more going to be the perception.”
In the days when Millar’s legendary mount, Big Ben, was in his prime, Captain Canada would leave the room as the selection committee of which he was a member discussed him.“I did that for years. The process was so clear. I can honestly tell you there was no abuse. Jonathon and Amy are more likely to suffer from reverse discrimination from me.”
In the Nations Cup, Amy Millar was the original choice for the team until her first string horse Truman wasn’t able to compete. The option became whether the final team slot should go to Amy on her second horse, Christiano, or Ballard with Gakhir.
“We have some very good riding talent in our country … our greatest strength is, the ones we have are excellent. Our weakness is, we don’t have too many of them.”
“It was clear in my mind that Erynn was stronger and Amy felt the same way,” said the chef. The committee was unanimous, and Erynn got the nod.
Several issues facing the team are far bigger than that, however.
“We have some very good riding talent in our country, seasoned riders who really know what they’re doing, completely dedicated to riding for the team,” Ian pointed out. “Our greatest strength is, the ones we have are excellent. Our weakness is, we don’t have too many of them.” He pointed out it can be a struggle if one top horse or rider can’t compete for some reason.
Also on the other side of the ledger, “We’re underfinanced compared to the rest of world. We don’t tend to have huge backers to buy horses. Equestrian Canada struggles,” he continued, citing “that ten-to-one ratio between the U.S. and Canada,” means Canada has one-tenth of the membership of the U.S.
“That’s a lot of money. Sport Canada initiated all kinds of new programs, cultural standards, SafeSport, coaching standards, all this sort of thing, and they ask the federation to implement them.”
Then he smiled and added, “It’s not really an ask, you have to do it. Equestrian Canada’s resources have not grown to be able to do these things. So they are stretched financially.”
There is some help on the way from the CAN Jump Initiative – its fundraiser in Wellington last weekend raised $200,000. Three shows, Angelstone, Thunderbird and Wesley Clover Parks, also are putting a levy on entry fees that will go to the organization.
Luckily, Millar and selectors can monitor all the action that involves Canadian show jumpers via livestreams on the internet, without spending money on travel to watch far-flung competitions.
The next big challenge for the show jumpers will be this autumn’s Pan American Games in Chile, where the pressure is on to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Prior to that, only one spot is available from the Nations Cup final in Barcelona for an Olympic berth, but first, teams have to qualify for the final. And it could well be a European country which takes the honors there.
“I don’t know that I remember when we were going into a Pan Am Games with no pre-qualified American teams,” said Millar. “This is going to be a serious carry-on down in Chile.”
Paris is definitely on Millar’s to-do list, but he cautioned, “It should never be an attendance award. If we’re going to go, we’ve got to have our eye on a medal. Canada has always been an underdog due to lack of depth and funding. But our record internationally actually is pretty impressive.”
He mentioned team gold in the 1968 Olympics, the Games debut for the country’s show jumpers, and of course, everyone remembers the team silver and Lamaze’s individual gold from Hong Kong 40 years later.
The USA’s Show Jumping Hall of Fame honored Millar for his years as a competitor with a new International award last weekend. “There are a lot of great international riders who have had an impact in this country,” said the Hall’s executive director, Marty Bauman. “So we decided to initiate an international award. It seemed very logical the first choice should be Ian Millar because of his long history of competing in this country, winning the World Cup Finals and many big events, such as the American Invitational. He’s such an icon of the sport who had a major impact in this country.”
Millar’s icon status means a lot to the riders. Deslauriers is glad to be working with Millar, explaining, “I started with Ian as a young rider on the team. He was always very diligent and very organized back when he was just the captain. I think it’s great for Canada; he’s got a good plan. The job was an easy pick.”
Foster agreed, saying with Millar’s appointment, “Everyone was thrilled, so honored that he would do this. We had been hoping for that for a long time.”
The Nations Cup victory, she added, “has a lot to do with him. We wanted this for him and we’re glad we could give it to him.”
As Amy Millar noted, “It’s a very exciting time for Canada. We’re trying to get organized and qualified for the Olympics and have a solid plan for the next two years and developing a group of riders. He’s the man for the job, he has done it so many times for himself. He knows the exact formula.”
She’s happy that he will always be with the team in its travels. “When I went away to compete, sometimes he came and sometimes he stayed home,” she said.
“Now he has to come. And that will be great.”