Ian Stark: Five-Star Winner To Five-Star Designer

Oct 6, 2021 - 4:13 PM

Ian “Scotty” Stark knows a little something about the “Saturday morning stomach.” For decades, the British team stalwart and multiple title winner spent cross-country mornings fretting before throwing a leg over a mount to ride massive tracks. Now that he’s designing those courses, he knows that feeling even better.

“You feel sick and nerves and adrenaline,” said Stark, 67. “There’s a ghastly feeling in the stomach. Now I get that as a designer, but it doesn’t leave you until the last horse is finished. There’s a lot of pressure on [designers]. Those mornings I have been seen to be bent over double on the ground, revisiting my breakfast. It’s stressful but exciting and thrilling when you see your courses ridden well.”

And at the Maryland 5 Star At Fair Hill, taking place Oct. 14-17 in Elkton, Stark will make his five-star course-designing debut, something he’s been after since he started designing tracks in 2005.

Giving It A Try

Stark is a familiar face at U.S. events, having designed at the likes of Richland Park (Michigan), the Carolina International (North Carolina), Rebecca Farm (Montana) and Galway Downs (California), among others. He’s also designed tracks at venues like Tattersalls (Ireland), Bramham (Great Britain) and Chatsworth (Great Britain).

The eventing world has fellow veteran of the sport Mike Etherington-Smith to thank for Stark becoming a course designer. Stark always was too busy competing and riding to think about doing anything else, but when Etherington-Smith suggested he design the novice level (equivalent to U.S. preliminary) tracks at the Chatsworth Horse Trials, it didn’t take too much convincing for him to give it a go.

“I told him, ‘Tell me if I’m useless, and I’ll go away and do something else,’ ” recalled Stark. “I really enjoyed it. Within a few years, I was doing advanced.”

Etherington-Smith happily handed over course- designing duties for the entire competition to his friend, keeping an eye on him and lending a hand where needed. Bramham was Stark’s second major event, and within 10 years, he’d built his first championship track, the 2015 Longines FEI European Eventing Championship at Blair Castle in his native Scotland.

“If it had been in America, I never would be a designer,” Stark said. “I would have had to work a lot harder than I did to get up the ladder. I was fast-tracked because [of my experience, and] I was suddenly doing advanced. Brits sent me on a [Fédération Equestre Internationale] course very quickly. It worked, and I was having a bit of success and really enjoying it. They fast tracked me again to the top level. I was very lucky. They were probably short of designers so quite keen to get me involved.”

But other legends of the sport aren’t so quick to put all of Stark’s success on luck.

“He’s such a good course designer because he’s a real horseman, and there aren’t many of them around,” said six-time Badminton Horse Trials CCI5*-L (Great Britain) winner Lucinda Green.

“He is a very strong character, but it took me a long time to realize that he’s also very sensitive, which is an interesting paradox,” she added. “It’s another reason why he can design at the top level, because you have to be very strong—people will tell you all the time what you are doing wrong—but you have to be very sensitive to the horses and the riders and how they think and react. He has, I would say, both extremes of personality.”

IanStark-SKBweb
“I like to intimidate a little bit and frighten the riders. I think if they’re a little bit in awe of the course, in general they ride it better,” said Ian Stark. Alison Green For Shannon Brinkman Photography Photo

Course Designing In The Modern World

While Stark credits Etherington-Smith with mentoring him, he considers Frank Weldon, who designed the Badminton cross-country course for 22 years, to be his greatest inspiration. Like the imposing ditch-and-wall fences that bear Weldon’s name, both men are known for designing tracks frequently described as “rider frighteners” that are still horse-friendly.

“I loved his courses,” Stark said of Weldon. “As riders, we used to go around and say, ‘How the hell do we ride this?’ Normally it was, ‘When in doubt, kick harder.’ You had to be bold and brave.

“I like to think I’m a little bit like Frank, though; he was brilliant and unique. We have to modernize courses today,” he continued. “Riders think I’m kind of nuts. I like to intimidate a little bit and frighten the riders. I think if they’re a little bit in awe of the course, in general they ride it better.”

Stark draws a careful distinction, however, between frightening riders and scaring horses. He takes pains to make sure his fences are fair and understandable to the equine half of the equation.

“My big dread is that the horses wouldn’t read the question I’ve given them. I’m fussy and meticulous about that. Riders, if they have a sleepless night or two, I don’t mind that. I did enough of that when I was riding,” he said. “Now, if I wake up in the middle of the night panicking about a fence I’ve designed, it usually means I’m not comfortable about it, so I change it and tweak it until I’m happy.”

Stark considers himself a traditionalist, having spent the bulk of his career eventing in the ’80s and ’90s. While he misses steeplechase and roads and tracks, he concedes that there are benefits to being able to compete more often.

“You used to get fit for a big event then have a holiday,” he said. “Now they can kind of keep going, and they never lose true fitness. It makes it easier for horses and riders. Also, it’s quite nice for the public to get to see the horses run more often so they can get favorites. There are a lot of positives about the new sport, even though I hark back to the old days.”

He also has mixed feelings about how fence design is being used to make the sport safer.

“We have to be doing something because it’s unacceptable to have people killed,” he said. “It’s a very high-risk sport—we all know that. It’s high risk getting across the street sometimes, but it’s different when you’re on a horse who has his own attitude and brain and ideas. Frangible devices are important, but I’m not a big fan of collapsible tables. They can save falls, but I’ve seen horses jump on top of them, and the table collapses and the horse falls anyway. We have to try to eliminate the nasty falls and bad accidents. Quite often, the nastiest falls are over the simplest fences. Sometimes the rider gets it wrong or the horse, or they just have bloody bad luck.”

Little mistakes shouldn’t cost people their lives, but the way in which fences evolve to prevent that merits careful consideration, he said.

“Frangibles are a must, and we have to keep looking at them and developing them,” he said. “I just hope we don’t get near knock down fences like in show jumping.”

What To Expect In Maryland

Fair Hill International president Trish Gilbert wasn’t worried about hiring a first-time five-star designer for the venue’s first five-star competition.

“He’s a good horseman, and he’s ridden all over the world,” she said. “He knows what horses can do. He’s got some fabulous ideas, and I can’t wait to see them.

“He’s quite organized and very positive as to what he wants and when he wants it,” she continued. “I think what he’s produced is quite fantastic, and it is different. Course designers each have their own way of looking at things. His course will look different from other course designers, but that’s all right.”

Stark’s background in foxhunting and riding in point-to-points influences his style of designing, and his preference for big galloping tracks with an emphasis on scope and speed will be evident at Fair Hill.

“I’ve always liked speed in everything I do,” Stark said. “I like driving cars at speed, and my wife tells me I walk quickly. I like big, attacking fences—courses where riders have to react and be punchy and be positive. The sport’s changed over the years, and we have to involve more technical elements, but I try to avoid too much twisty, turny stuff. At Fair Hill, the ground we have isn’t twisty; it’s open and galloping. There will definitely be some technical fences in there but also some big, bold fences. It’s going to be quite demanding as it’s quite hilly, so riders will need a fit horse with a lot of stamina.”

Stark wanted to start and finish by the Fair Hill racecourse. “We were going to start in the main arena, but we’re nervous about the horses galloping on it, as it needs time to get established,” he said. “If I feel the hills are too influential in the first year, I’ll redo the start and finish next year.”

Stark said he’s not going to make the track overly technical this year so he can get a feel for the grounds.

“People who have had sneaky looks at it said that [they could see] me and my riding [in the track],” Stark said. “I have a bit of a reputation for being brave and bold. I hark back to the attitude that as long as the horses read it, it’s good. I think it’s very readable and very understandable. For the tough stuff, I’ve given alternatives.”

Capt. Mark Phillips, the former teammate of Stark’s who has designed tracks at Luhmühlen Horse Trials CCI5*-L (Germany), Burghley Horse Trials CCI5*-L (Great Britain) and most recently the Chedington Bicton Park CCI5*-L (Great Britain), described Stark as an icon.

“[His course] will be big and bold,” Phillips said. “There’s a fair bit of terrain at Fair Hill, and with Scotty designing, take a good cross-country horse. Don’t take a dressage horse.”

Badminton Horse Trials 1988
In 1988, Ian Stark scored a one-two finish at the Badminton Horse Trials CCI5*-L riding (from left) Sir Wattie to first and Glenburnie to second. Kit Houghton Photo

From ‘I’m Going To Die’ To ‘I’m In Heaven’

Stark, who is from a non-horsey family in the Scottish Borders where he still lives today, got a notoriously late start to the sport at the age of 18.

He first climbed on a horse when his sister was too nervous to ride one afternoon, so he joined several of her friends for a hack. After being led up and down the drive at the trot, he joined his sister’s friends for an hour’s ride.

“We set off at a gallop across a field, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’ ” Stark said. “But once I got going it was, ‘Oh my God, I’m in heaven.’ I was hooked from there on.”

Soon he was spending every spare moment at Will Boyle’s stable, where he learned stickability by riding anything and everything. When he turned 18 he left school, wanting nothing to do with anything besides horses. He registered at the unemployment office intending to focus on riding but got a phone call from that office three days later. The next thing he knew, he was working at the Department of Health and Social Security, and what was supposed to be a six-week gig turned into a decade-long career.

While his job had flexible hours, Stark admitted his were extra flexible, as he squeezed in saddle time before work, after work, during lunch and occasionally when he was on the clock. He spent 10 years struggling to balance his budding eventing career with a miserable office job. After one three-week Christmas break he was especially keen not to return to work, so at the suggestion of his wife, Jenny Stark, he handed in his notice.

“My boss said, ‘At least you’re making it official now,’ ” Ian said. “I did my month’s notice and left, and within two years I’d been given Oxford Blue and Sir Wattie, who were babies. Then soon I was at the Olympics. They were both 8-year-olds when they got to Los Angeles for the [1984 Olympic] Games.”

A Brilliant Career

Before Olympic glory, Ian had to catch the attention of the British selectors. That started in 1983 when Sir Wattie won at Bramham, where Oxford Blue was third. Ian took Sir Wattie to an event in Munich (Germany) where they finished second, then Oxford Blue came seventh at the Boekelo CCI4*-L (the Netherlands). That got them on the long list for Los Angeles even though Ian had never run around a five-star. But he did that the next year, in 1984, riding Oxford Blue and Sir Wattie to third and sixth, respectively, at Badminton. Both horses went to Los Angeles, where he rode Oxford Blue, with Sir Wattie as his traveling reserve, to help Great Britain win team silver at Ian’s first championship.

“He was a pretty explosive new rider on the block,” Green said. “He went from naught to 60 in, it seemed, nanoseconds. He did a really amazing job with the two fairly ordinary horses that he had. He took them both to Badminton, which is where I first became aware of him. He burst onto the scene like I didn’t think anybody could do. He was right at the top layer in ’84. Within no time, we found ourselves on the same Olympic team.”

Green said he was a good teammate, level-headed and undramatic. “He was a good anchor,” she said. “That was when all of us knew more about the sport than him, because we’d been at it longer. But he arrived with a tremendous amount of natural ability and knowledge—it was quite extraordinary.”

Ian considers Los Angeles the real start of his eventing career, which went on to include appearances at five Olympic Games resulting in three team silver medals and one individual silver; a team gold, team silver and individual silver in world championship competitions; and six team golds plus an individual gold, silver and bronze medal at European Championships.

Over the years, he rode 18 horses at the five-star level, winning Badminton three times—twice on Sir Wattie and once on Jaybee—and earning the nickname “The Flying Scot.” He was well-known for honoring his heritage by wearing kilts at the horse inspections at the Kentucky CCI5*-L and at Scottish three-days but now dons “Tartan trews” (that’s trousers to us) for the jogs.

His most memorable finish at Badminton came in 1988 when he came first on Sir Wattie and second on Glenburnie, a feat that has yet to be matched by another competitor. Later that year, he earned individual and team silver on Sir Wattie at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, which he recalls as his favorite Games.

“Los Angeles was a bit of a blur,” he said. “In Barcelona [at the 1992 Olympic Games] Murphy Himself was lame. I fell off in Atlanta [at the 1996 Olympic Games]. I had a good ride in the individual [at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games] then my horse fell down in the team. Seoul was the most exciting one. I knew enough about the sport at that point to savor it and enjoy it.”

Ian retired from team competition in 2000 after Sydney, then retired from the sport when he was 54 at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L.

“I rang up [longtime supporter the Duchess of Devonshire] and said, ‘I’m thinking about going to Kentucky,’ ” Ian recalled. “She and the duke were busy and couldn’t go, but she said, ‘You and Jenny go and have a good time.’ I said, ‘Hang on, I’m thinking if it goes well, I would retire there.’ She called me back 10 minutes later and said, ‘We’re coming.’ ”

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At 67, Ian Stark can still be found out on the galloping lanes aboard Chatsworth Diamond. Julia Sherwood Photography Photo

While that trip wasn’t especially memorable—his aptly named Full Circle II got spooked just before dressage thanks to a Pony Club exhibition in a nearby arena but put in solid cross-country and show jumping rounds to finish 11th—he was thrilled to retire in front of a supportive crowd.

“People said, ‘Why didn’t you go to Badminton to retire?’ ” Ian said. “But there was too much pressure on the horse and me at Badminton. Every time I’ve come to America, there’s been nothing but support. I thought it was the right time and place to do it.”

Ian didn’t ride for a few years, but when his sister-in-law died she left behind a special horse named Looks Similar. Ian’s daughter Stephanie Robson took over the ride first, but it didn’t work out. “We were going to get someone else to ride the horse but I thought, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to ride it,’ ” he said.

After that horse sold, Ian played around with young horses for a while, and now he’s back in the tack aboard Chatsworth Diamond, a horse bred by the Duchess of Devonshire, and they’ve competed through the three-star level. He said he’s not interested in going back to five-stars, but if he’s feeling fit enough he’d like to hand over his course designing duties at the Chatsworth CCI—which takes place on the duchess’s property— so that he may ride there at next year’s four-star short.

An Unassuming Icon

Ian’s equestrian career goes far beyond course designing and riding at events. After riding in point-to- points for 12 years, he’s still deeply involved with the race world as a steward and a member of the British Horseracing Authority Disciplinary Committee. After retiring from team riding, he served as a selector for the British eventing team and did a stint coaching the Brazilian squad. He also serves as a commentator for television broadcasts.

Etherington-Smith describes Ian as unassuming and giving of his time—just as enthusiastic while leading a course walk for young eventers or teaching a clinic with novice students as he is while building an international track. Etherington-Smith recalled a time he and his wife, Sue Etherington- Smith, were visiting the Starks, and he asked Jenny where Ian kept his medals.

“She says, ‘Oh, there’s in a drawer somewhere marked “medals,” I’m not sure where,’ ” said Mike. “That just sums it up. There’s no flashiness, no ostentation, no, ‘Look at me, I have all these medals.’”

In addition to his extensive medal collection, Ian has accrued a long list of other awards. He’s in the Scottish Sports Hall Of Fame, the British Horse Society Equestrian Hall of Fame and the Event Riders’ Association Hall Of Fame, and the British Horse Society awarded him with an honorary fellowship, its highest honor.

He was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 and an Officer of the British Empire in 2001 for his contributions to equestrian sport.

“When I went to Buckingham Palace for the MBE, the queen presented that to me,” said Ian. “Handing it over she said, ‘And about time, too.’ Then she sent me a horse to work a few years ago. It was quite amusing—I had four owners: the queen, two duchesses and a lady. My friends joked about it a lot, saying that, ‘You had to be titled to send a horse to Ian.’ ”

Prince Charles presented Ian with his OBE. “I’ve met him quite a lot and on the hunting field as well,” said Ian. “He was quite chatty and said, ‘When are you going to take over coaching the British team?’ ”

But Ian isn’t interested in coaching—or doing any other single job—full time.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career; I’ve had such an amazing time,” he said. “I have commentary, the British Horse Racing Authority, coaching, designing—all these careers. I have a great variety in my life, and I’m too selfish to give them up. I wouldn’t want to do one thing 24/7. This keeps me enthusiastic and interested.”


This is an excerpt from an article that ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Oct. 4 & 11, 2021, issue. For the whole article—including what sport makes this adrenaline junkie quake, how he met his wife and recollections of his favorite horses—pick up a copy of the complete issue.

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