Ian Stark’s early riding lessons: ‘I learnt stickability and I absolutely loved it’

  • Scottish eventing legend Ian Stark, a five-time Olympian, three-time Badminton winner, and winner of 18 senior championship medals, was not born in the saddle. He only started riding at the age of 10 because his older sister had a go and didn’t enjoy it very much, as he explains in the seventh weekly episode of The Horse & Hound Podcast

    “I lived in the middle of a small town in the Scottish borders. I’d always wanted to ride, but never really got the chance. My sister went with all her chums for a couple of weeks, but she was a bit scared so she wasn’t going to go one Sunday and so I said: ‘I’ll go with all your girl friends’.

    “I was a 10-year-old boy with about six 13-year-old girls so I thought I’d made it! I absolutely loved it. I remember being led up and down the drive. A child not much older than me was leading the pony shouting ‘up down, up down’ – much, much later I realised that was rising trot. Then we went straight out for an hour’s ride.

    “We set off at what I thought was a breakneck gallop – it was actually just a steady canter, but that was the first time I had ever ridden. We charged across a massive field. I remember being equally terrifed and thrilled at the same time. I got to the other end of the field and I was still on board. From then on I was hooked.

    ‘That’s still my favourite part – galloping across fields and up and down hills.”

    During his childhood Ian spent as much time as he could at the stables, where he rode everything that came his way and learnt the hard way how to stay on…

    “By the time I was 12, I was getting put on anything and everything. I was kind of small and got stuck on these massive horses. Will Boyle, the chap who had the stables, would get a truck load of horses from Ireland every spring – they were supposed to be broken, by half of them weren’t. I used to get bucked off, spung round with, dumped, reared – it taught me stickability and I absolutely loved it.”

    After leaving school at 18 and spending 10 years combining working in an office with doing horses, Ian made the big step at the age of 28 to make his riding passion into a full-time career.

    “It was a massive risk. I was giving up a salary and doing horses full-time. But within a few months of leaving the office I was given Sir Wattie and Oxford Blue to ride, and two years later I was at the Olympics.”

    Continued below…

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    The decision to focus on eventing certainly paid off as Ian went on to win four Olympic silver medals, European individual gold, silver and bronze plus six team golds, five World Championship medals and three Badminton Horse Trials titles.

    While Ian had a reputation for being a brilliant team player and totally focused on the task in hand while competing, he also liked to enjoy himself and was always up for trying alternative activities around major championships, as he recalls…

    “I do remember partying pretty wildly at Gawler in Australia at the World Championships in 1986 – the competition was all over and we’d won team gold. I was hanging from one of the country’s flags at the top of a very large marque after climbing up the pole, and the flag ripped and it lowered me right to the ground. I was just a little bit affected by the alcohol so I didn’t really know what I was doing – it was thrilling and I thought it was great. But the next day when I got on the plane to fly home, my hands were covered in splinters so I spent the entire flight home from Australia picking out all this wood from my hands.

    “Another time in Australia, we went off water skiing and I don’t think I’d waterskied before – we went with the Kiwis and Mark Todd was driving the boat. Toddy started to go down the river very, very fast. What I didn’t realise was that he was going to go very fast and then turn very fast. I hung on as much as I could, but I took off – I was airborn, a bit like a skimming stone as I bounced off the top of the water about six times. Fortunately I had a life jacket on as otherwise I would have been at the bottom of the river. But a couple of days later I was in the dressage arena and it was all OK. Toddy and I still talk about that – he thought it was hilarious!

    “There was always a bit of rivalry; we were very serious and intense when we were competing, but we had great fun with it. I think we had the best of eventing.”

    Listen to the interview in full in episode seven of The Horse & Hound Podcast, available now via your podcast app. Search for The Horse & Hound Podcast and subscribe to be notified each time a new episode is made available.

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