Big Ben Dies

Showjumping champion Big Ben was laid to rest on Dec. 11,1999, after suffering a final, fatal bout of colic. The towering Belgian warmblood gelding was 23 and had been retired from competition since 1994. His legendary partnership with Ian Millar was one of the most successful in showjumping’s history. In addition to two back-to-back World Cup titles, two Pan Am Games gold medals, three Olympic appearances for Canada, and more than 50 Grand Prix wins, Big Ben earned more than $1.5 million during his 11-year career.

Millar acquired Big Ben in Belgium in 1983, and the horse demonstrated his promise almost immediately, posting a fourth-place finish at the Los Angeles Olympics at the tender age of eight. Although Millar withstood some criticism for campaigning a horse that young at that level, “Benny” proved his toughness by going on to compete for another decade, a remarkable feat of longevity in a sport where horses often stay at the top only a few years.

When Big Ben retired in 1994, he embarked on a nationwide farewell tour, which took him from Alberta’s Spruce Meadows to Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair. In 1996, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, only the second horse to be given that honor (the first was Thoroughbred champion Northern Dancer), and in 1999 he was one of four Canadian horses to be depicted on a stamp.

The liver chestnut gelding, who stood 17.3 hands, survived two colic surgeries only 11 months apart. He suffered from chronic digestive upsets throughout his life. According to John Atack, DVM, who acted as Big Ben’s veterinarian since 1983, the root of Big Ben’s colic episodes was that it was very difficult to get the horse to drink enough water. Both on the road and at home, he was reluctant to take in fluids, and so always was at risk of impaction.

The impaction colic that ended Big Ben’s life began at about 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 10. Atack, Millar, and Ben’s devoted groom Sandi Patterson decided it was better not to put him through surgery again at his age. The great horse was euthanized to spare him further suffering.

“The big thing with this horse was that he recovered from both his colic surgeries faster than I’ve ever seen,” says Atack. “He never gave up, never quit. In terms of injuries, he didn’t have many. He was very intelligent, and very powerful. It was a remarkable career.”

Big Ben was buried on a hill overlooking his pasture at Millar Brooke Farm, about an hour southwest of Ottawa. In the spring, a horseshoe-shaped hedge and a Canadian flag will be placed on the hill to mark the site for the fans who wish to pay their respects.

The Equine Research Centre  in Guelph, Ontario, has announced the establishment of the Big Ben Memorial Research and Education Fund, which will support research on the prevention of colic. The brainchild of the Millar family; Barbara Taylor, one of Big Ben’s syndicate owners; and Dr. Andrew Clarke, the executive director of the ERC, the fund will be further described on the ERC’s website at www.erc.on.ca, and in the ERC’s magazine as plans develop. Donations should be marked “Big Ben Memorial” and can be sent to the Equine Research Centre, 50 McGilvray Street, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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