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Big Ben

Written by J. Drake

Big Ben wasn't just a horse who made great athletic accomplishments, he was a horse who won the hearts of people all over the world. He also overcame many physical ailments over the course of his lifetime, which truly made him remarkable.

Originally born in nothern Belgium, van Hooydonk Farm, on April 20, 1976, he was an unusually large foal (17.3 hands) from a 15 hand mare. He was given the name "Winston" after Winston Churchill who had been one of the most important and influencial political leaders of the twentieth century. In 1983, he was purchased by a farm in the Netherlands for a meager $2,000. It was here that he was given the name "Big Ben" because he "looked taller than a clock tower." Most people who came to look at the tall now seven year old gelding passed him up saying he was too big and too ugly. Ian Miller, a Canadian equestrian, spotted Big Ben and purchased him for $45,000 on the spot after being with him for just twenty minutes. Big Ben was then moved to Millar Brooke Farm in Perth, Ontario, Canada in 1984.

Ian took Big Ben down to Florida for the Winter that year along with his other string of show horses. It was here that Ian started to find out that he had an extremely talented horse on his hands. At first Big Ben was a very sensitive horse who would shy away from a candy wrapper on the ground. It was said that riding Ben was like riding an elephant with the tempermant of skittish Thoroughbred. To work through these issues, Ian began competing Ben at the preliminary level to focus on his training. By the time that Spring arrived, Ben had started to respond to Ian and the two were forming a team together.

In Big Ben's first grand prix appearance, the pair placed second. A week later, they were entered into the Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows in Alberta and won their first of many grand prix titles. Later that year, Ian and Ben made it into the Los Angelas Olympics where they helped contribute to Canada's fourth place finish. in 1987, the pair went on to win the individual and team gold at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis. The following two years were also good years for Ian and Ben and in 1989, Ian was voted to be Male Athlete of the Year, given the nick name of "Captian Canada" and Ben was also now enjoying celebrity status.

In 1990, during the Winter season in Florida, Ben began to show signs of his first bout of colic. He was initially treated in the usual way for colic but it was later decided that he needed to undergo surgery and Ian reluctantly agreed to the procedure. The surgery went well but the question lingered in the air "would he regain his form and be able to compete again?" This question was soon answered just three months later when Ben and Ian pulled out a win at Spruce Meadows which was followed by an additional three more grand prix wins.

Big Ben's trouble with colic weren't over though unfortunately and in 1991, he coliced again just ten months after his first episode. A second surgery was performed on the giant gelding at the University of Guelph in Ontario. After this, no one thought that he would have a chance at competing again. After-all, he was a giant of a horse and had already suffered from one colic episode, let alone a second now.

When Ian shipped his string of horses down to Florida for the Winter, Ben went along because Ian thought the sunshine would be good for him and it would speed his recovery by getting him out of the cold Canadian weather. Apparently Ian was right about this because when Big Ben went back home to Canada, the pair ended up winning the World Cup qualifiers in Calgary and Otawa. Forty thousand fans were there to give him a standing ovation at Spuce Meadows that year as it was unheard of for a horse to return to that level of competition after surviving two colic surgeries.

In responce to Big Ben's colic episodes, the Millers also wanted to find answers to why they happened in the first place. They sought advice from experts and made changes to Big Ben's care to make sure it wouldn't happen again. Big Ben was now seeing individual care given to him for nealy six hours a day. This included hand walks, making sure he got enough water, spacing his meals out to eight times a day, and even wearing a magnetic blanket for a part of the day.

Despite the best of care, Big Ben faced yet another run-in with bad luck. In 1992, the sixteen year old Big Ben was on his way to Edmonton Northlands for the spring competition when his trailer was involved in an accident. A driver of an oncoming minivan fell asleep at the wheel and collided with Big Ben's trailer head-on. The driver was killed instantly when the minivan exploded. The trailer swerved and fell into a ditch as it tipped over. One Horse died, two were badly injured, and another was so traumatized that he would never step onto a trailer again. Big Ben was rushed to a hospital where he received stitches to close a huge gash over one of his eyes. He then went on to Calgary to compete and ended up winning all three of his classes and took home another victory at the $100,000 Shell Cup.

To finish up his 1992 showing year, Ben took him victories in Tampa at the $100,000 American Invitational, a first in the World Cup Qualifier League, won the Crown Royal Series Finale in Toronto, and was a member of the ninth place Canadian team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (which was just two months after his addicent).

Big Ben enjoyed one more successful year in show jumping at seventeen years of age in 1993. He took home the title of Canadian National Showjumping Champion yet again and also won the $100,000 Shell Cup again that year.

In 1994, Ian decided it was time for the mighty gelding to enjoy retirement before the wear and tear of competition started to catch up to his long-time partner of eleven years. In honor of his final appearance, a Big Ben Retirement booth was set up for fans to come say good-bye to Big Ben. Usually arrogant and not very people friendly, Ben was seen to drop his head at the booth for children to pet him and seemed to respond to all the attention the people were giving him People would wait over an hour in line to have their picture take with Big Ben. Big Ben memorabilia was sold as well and at the end, the proceeds were divided up between the Canadian Equestrian Team and the Canadian Theraputic Riding Association. This was viewed as Ben's parting gift to the public who adored him.

In 1999, Big Ben was given the honor of being one of only two horses to ever be inducted in into the Canadian Sports Legends Hall of Fame. Northern Dancer is the only other horse. He was honored by having a stamp produced with his image on it. Sadly, later that year, just five years after he was retired and at the age of 23, Big Ben suffered another episode of colic. After two veterinarians said nothing could be done to ease the suffering caused by a third case of colic, he was euthanized as a result of this final episode on Dec. 11, 1999. Big Ben was laid to rest on a grassy knoll which overlooked the farm where he had lived most of his life.

Big Ben's final resting place.

Big BenFacts:
Owner: Ian Millar (Millar Brooke Farm)
Breed: Belgian Warmblood cross Thoroubred
Sire: Etretat
Dam: Oekie
Colour: Liver Chestnut
Markings: Blaze, socks on both hind legs
Height: 17.3 hh (180 cm)
2005 - a statue was errected in the likeness of Ian Miller and Big Ben along the banks of the Tay River
Breyer also honored him by creating a model of the gallant red horse.

Won over $1.5 million in prize money
First horse to win 2 consecutive World Cup Final titles 1988 Gothenburg and 1989 Tampa, Florida
Team and Individual Gold medals at the 1987 Pan Am Games, Indianapolis
Member of the 4th place Team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles
2nd World Cup Final's in 1986 Gothenburg
5th World Cup Final's in 1987 Paris
Member of the 4th place Team at the Show Jumping World Championships, Aachen
Winner of Masters Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows in 1987 and 1991
Member of the 4th place Team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul
Winner of Grand Prix of Stuttgart 1989
Winner of Grand Prix of Bordeaux 1989
Canadian National Show Jumping Champion 1988, 1991 and 1993
Won the Spruce Meadows Derby 6 times in eight years (the Chrysler Classic in '86,'87 and '89 and the Shell Cup in '91,'92 and '93)
One of only two horses inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.