Having Ian Millar, a nine-time Olympian, for a father might seem daunting to some people. How do you follow in the footsteps of an icon in Canadian equestrian history? But Jonathon shares a passion for the sport not only with his father, but also because of the support and participation of his mother, Lynn, and sister, Amy.
A mother’s touch
Lynn Millar was to Millar Brooke Farm in Perth, ON, what a chief operating officer would be in the corporate world. A gifted horsewoman with an unerring sense of what was good for the horses in her care, she passed on her knowledge to her children.
Says Jonathon of his mother, who passed away in March of 2008, “She was a really good trainer, and the horses she worked with were always correct. It was also the little things – that the horses were well cared for and healthy.” Jonathon saw his mother ride only a few times in his life, but what she shared from the ground was no less valuable. “She always believed that if you aren’t diligent and don’t spend the time doing the work at home, and properly develop fitness, then the competition side is not going to be as rewarding. She really taught us how to work with the horses on the ground and to be patient.”
One of Lynn’s legacies to her children is the understanding that success in the show ring is the result not only of good riding and luck on the day, but consistent work with the horses every single day.
Father, rival, teammate Lynn was Jonathon’s horsemanship mentor, but Ian was his competitive role model. “Between my two parents, I had an ideal education,” says Jonathon. He and Amy both rode with other trainers when they were growing up, and Jonathon later worked for Emile Hendrix in Holland. “Big Ben came from Emile and Paul,” says Jonathon. “Nearly every top horse my father has had came from them and we have become really good friends over the years.” It was Ian who encouraged Jonathon to pursue the opportunity in Europe when he was in his early 20s, at a point when he should have been thinking about university.
“My dad said “you don’t really like school much,” and I agreed. He said there were three things I should learn to do: drive a truck, be able to shoe a horse, and go to Europe to learn about breeding and developing young horses.” (Jonathon still doesn’t know how to shoe a horse.)
At the 2010 World Equestrian Games, Ian found himself in unfamiliar territory, watching his son compete while he sat in the stands. “He was definitely a proud dad at WEG, but being on the sidelines is a feeling he’s not very accustomed to.”
At 37 years old, Jonathon finds his relationship with Ian, 64, to be more on the friendly footing of peers working together. “Sometimes I click with a horse and my father doesn’t, or sometimes it happens the other way around. We will trade horses and watching the other person work on it for a few days will reveal something that hadn’t come to mind.”
Jonathon admits his father is more competitive than he is. “For him to be forty years into a career and still be that competitive is something to admire. There is an old Irish saying: “If you find something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ It’s something he says often.”
Team of three
At the 2000 Spruce Meadows Masters, Ian, Amy and Jonathon were all on the Canadian Nations’ Cup team. At the $100,000 Ocala Grand Prix in 2001 they finished first, second and third. “Any time we are all competing together is special,” says Jonathon. They know one another’s horses well, too; an example is the mare Piccobello, whom Ian rode in Florida in the winter of 2010, Jonathon rode through the summer, and Amy took over at the Royal Horse Show in the fall. This puts them in an enviable position in competition. “We might say how something rode differently than how it walked. We watch each other and have little observations. This is a game of inches, and having an eye on the ground from someone who knows your horse can make a huge difference,” says Jonathon.
At the 2008 Olympics, where he helped Canada win a team silver medal, Ian said he hoped he would be competing at his tenth Olympics in London, adding that it would be his dream to compete on an Olympic team with one or both of his children. Jonathon agrees wholeheartedly. “To be on the team with my dad is definitely a goal.”