Legends of the sport: The brilliant eventing career of ‘flying Scot’ Ian Stark *H&H Plus*

  • The “flying Scot” kept the eventing world on its toes with his party antics. Madeleine Silver reflects on a career that took him to five Olympic Games

    Ian Stark is certain that he still owes the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) at least five years’ worth of work. It was 1972 when the then budding eventer waved goodbye to school, rode in his first novice at Sunderland Hall and decided to sign on as unemployed in the hope of garnering some cash for “doing nothing”. But within three days he’d been given a job at the DHSS.

    “We worked on flexible hours, but mine were slightly more flexible than others,” laughs Ian, nearly 50 years after landing his unwanted job. “I used to go and visit people in their homes who were claiming benefits and sometimes I would just go and ride the horses instead.”

    A decade of juggling a stifling office job and the slippery rungs of the eventing calendar came to a head when, aged 28, he couldn’t face going back after a Christmas break.

    “My wife Jenny, who is the sensible one, said: ‘Well, quit.’ I thought she was joking, but I handed in my notice the next day. It was a huge relief, but kind of scary because we had two children and there had been a monthly salary coming in,” he remembers.

    Even the enviably jovial Ian couldn’t have predicted the flurry of success that ensued; within two years he had won his first three-day event at Bramham, finished third and sixth at Badminton on his debut at four-star level (now five-star), and was on a flight to Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympic Games. The path had been set for what would be nearly a quarter of a century spent on the British team and at the top of the leaderboards of the world’s toughest four-stars.

    “It was a whirlwind time,” says Ian. “But I was getting on for 30 and so you would like to think I was a little bit more mature than if I’d been 17 or 18. It was what I wanted to do and Jenny was 100% with me. We were lucky that we were an established family before I was in the limelight, so I was a bit more grounded. And if I got carried away, Jenny would quietly put me back in my place.”

    ‘Fooling around’

    For all his medal-laden success, Ian’s foray into equestrianism came about seemingly by chance at the age of 10. It was only when his sister, Linda, was too nervous to go for her Sunday ride at the local riding stables run by Will Boyle in Galashiels, that he decided to go instead.

    “I was led up and down the drive by a child not much older than me shouting, ‘Up down, up down,’” he says. “We then went straight out round the hills and in the first field took off at a gallop. I remember thinking: ‘I’m going to die.’ But once I got used to the feeling of the canter, I loved it.

    “A week later I was fooling around in the woods with my mates, when a ride went past from the stables. I pestered my mother to give me 10 shillings and I ran a mile-and-a-half to the stables and waited for three hours to get a ride. I was hooked from then on. My family weren’t horsey at all and so it certainly wasn’t given to me on a plate; you had to work for everything.”

    By the age of 12, Ian was hero-worshipping the showjumpers who graced the TV and spending every evening, weekend and school holidays at Will Boyle’s yard.

    “I got thrown on to everything that came off the truck from Ireland. Some were broken and some weren’t – and I got fired off a lot. If I came off the same horse twice, I got a major bollocking and I didn’t dare fall off again, so it taught me about stickability and riding any type of horse,” he says. “It probably wasn’t the most conventional beginning, but I look back on it with fond memories.”

    That early display of valour at Will’s – where his boss had an unnerving habit of jumping out from behind trees to see which of the young jockeys that he’d put on his hunters could sit tight – was perhaps a precursor to the adrenaline and pluck Ian would thrive off as his career unfolded.

    When he won Badminton for the first time in 1986, he was the last to go cross-country, in torrential rain and bottomless ground. But for Sir Wattie, who had been hacked and hunted all winter by Jenny, Badminton was just another day’s hunting.

    “We never had an arena, just a tiny, flat paddock that horses were turned out in every day. It was a bog in the winter, but it meant that when I got to Badminton and it was wet ground the horses didn’t care,” he says about his early set-up.

    Ian swiftly became synonymous with speed; even since he retired from teams in 2000 and top-level competition in 2007 and turned to course-designing, his tracks have garnered a reputation as being big and forward striding.

    And out of the saddle life is lived in the fast lane – doing rotationals in a Hawk aircraft at 500mph is his idea of a good day out, and when he bottled jumping off a five-metre diving board while taking time out from competing at Luhmühlen, he decided to take up sky-diving to beat his fear of heights.

    “I remember someone saying a million years ago: ‘It’s all very well for him to ride so fast, but is he ever in control?’ And I was kind of annoyed by it because even with Murphy Himself and Glenburnie, who were very strong, I never felt out of control,” he says. “I couldn’t ride without being able to see my stride and influence the horse at every fence. I possibly over-ride, or over-control, but I think I just have a pretty competitive, positive nature.”

    High and low

    It is perhaps this competitive spirit and attention to detail – “I’m incredibly pernickety” – so artfully combined with the eagerness to have a good time that has endeared him to long-standing owners; first the Edinburgh Woollen Mill and later the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Vestey in particular.

    And those riding on teams with him knew to prepare for “party central”, says Karen Dixon. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, with Ian ringleading, the Germans were invited to play an alcohol-fuelled game that involved spinning round before trying to run in a straight line and hit a tin.

    “One of the Germans got so disorientated he keeled over into bushes – one way of getting rid of the opposition!” reminisced Mary King in her autobiography.

    It was only on returning from the biggest competitions, when the adrenaline stopped pumping, that Ian could find himself crashing. “Jenny will tell you that I have itchy feet and so I loved the travel, I loved the intensity of it all. But two or three days after a big event, I’d then get really low and people just learnt to ignore me,” he admits. “I wasn’t very nice, but it was just how I coped. I got high and I got low.”

    Two decades away from the podium has given him the chance to reflect on what his string of horses, particularly those seven team rides – Arakai, Jaybee, Stanwick Ghost, Murphy Himself, Sir Wattie, Oxford Blue and Glenburnie – gave him.

    “I used to have this attitude of just expecting it to go well,” he says. “It wasn’t until much later that I’d finish a cross-country round and be incredibly emotional because you realised how much the horse had given you. And they didn’t just give it to you once, they gave it to you again and again. They are amazing animals. As you get older everything changes; you witness a lot of strife in life and it means you appreciate the good times.”

    Ginny Elliot on Ian

    “We rather considered Scotty as the anchorman I suppose – he was as reliable as you can get as a team member, not only with his riding, but also as a teammate; he was always open to chatting through the course or how to get the best test out of a horse.

    “And he was the life and soul of a party. When we were in Los Angeles for the Games, the official bus that we were on to go to a reception arranged by the Princess Royal wasn’t leaving the Olympic village. With time ticking and the bus driver unhappy about letting us off, typical Scotty said: ‘There’s only one thing for it,’ and we all leapt out of the window.

    “Within seconds a police car turned up with the sirens going, but having shown them our accreditation and explained to them that we were late for this reception, they told us to pile in the car. I had to sit on one of the officer’s knees in the front, and with the siren going they took us there. It was hysterical – and of course, it was all Scotty’s idea.”

    Karen Dixon on Ian

    “Scotty really played the team game. He never carried any baggage, so if somebody was a bit cross or sharp, he wouldn’t hold it against them.

    “When he was in the start box, he was the sort of chap who attacked; he was strong and mentally up for it. He really coped with pressure and so you never thought: ‘Oh my God, he’s going to melt down.’

    “At the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990, it was a horrendous course where you had to gallop around a corner at a sodding great, big parallel and I remember Ian and Murphy Himself screeching around the corner to it. We weren’t worried about the fence, but about whether he was going to meet a tree afterwards. But he was just making it happen and going for it; everyone had come unstuck but Scotty nailed it.”

    Mary King on Ian

    “The way Scotty rode was so brave and forward. He was very competitive and wanted to win, but he really enjoyed the whole thing; he always found any excuse for a party and was great at motivating everyone to have a good time. When we weren’t riding, he didn’t sit around reading a book, he’d always be doing things, which I loved.

    “When I first competed with him in Punchestown at the 1991 European Championships, we had a quiet day when we weren’t doing our dressage and he said: ‘Let’s go water skiing.’ So off we went to this lake, without telling the selectors. We could have easily hurt ourselves and I remember I was really stiff the following day when I had to ride my dressage test!”

    Ian on three of the best

    Sir Wattie: Winner of Bramham 1983, Badminton 1986 and 1988, team gold and individual silver at the 1987 European Championships, team and individual silver at the 1988 Olympic Games. “Wattie taught me everything in the beginning. In my opinion he was a star from the first time I rode him as a four-year-old when he nearly bucked me off. I thought then: ‘Well, he’s very special.’ At my first Badminton I made huge mistakes and he saved my neck. I remember galloping at a broken bridge thinking: ‘I’ve completely screwed up here.’ He landed on the rising ground, went right down on his nose, and ploughed along the ground for two or three strides before picking himself up to keep going.”

    Glenburnie: Fourth at Burghley in 1986, team gold at the 1989 European Championships, team and individual gold at the 1991 European Championships. “Glenburnie was kind of nuts – a pretty hot-headed, bold, thoroughbred. He was bred to be a Cheltenham horse and was hunted by Rosi Maitland-Carew before he came to me for a couple of months to school and hunt. I was jumping five-bar metal gates on him as a four-year-old – not what you should do – but he was just brilliant. The Maitland-Carews were persuaded to leave him with me to event, and within nine months he was the Scottish novice champion.”

    Murphy Himself: Won Burghley in 1986 with Ginny Elliot before going to Ian and winning team and individual silver at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. “Murphy was ridiculously brave. At Belton Park the spring after I got him, he fell at a combination, and that was the only time we parted company. I remember thinking it was my fault because I tried to slow him down in the middle. I then realised that my job was to present him at the fence and it was his job to decide what he wanted to do. I just had to be a bit of a passenger and go with it.”

    Ian’s greatest hits in numbers

    5 Olympic Games with 3 team and 1 individual silver medals

    6 European Championships, with 6 team golds, 1 individual gold, 1 individual silver and 1 individual bronze medal

    5 world medals, including 2 team golds and individual silver

    3 Badminton Horse Trials titles in 1986, 1988 and 1999

    Ref Horse & Hound; 16 July 2020