By Debbie Curtis
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
When Kelly Soleau-Millar was 2 years old, her constant uttering of the word ‘pony’ led her mother to drive to every barn in the area until she found one that would let her daughter sit on a pony. When that special barn was discovered, Kelly insisted on visiting every day. That fascination with horses was just the beginning of a career that eventually led Kelly to compete at the highest levels of the sport, meet Jonathon Millar and marry into the ‘first family of show jumping,’ the Millars of Millar Brooke Farm in Canada.
“My mom had always liked horses,” Kelly said, “so she was excited about me liking them too. Both of my parents grew up on a farm, but the extent of my mom’s riding had been hopping on bareback with a halter to get the cattle in.”
Kelly grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where her parents were happy to support her passion. “My parents got me my first pony, Sweet Dreams, when I was only 3. Mom and I would head off every weekend from the time I was 4 or 5 years old chasing points, sometimes two shows in one weekend. We travelled everywhere together starting in short stirrup when I was younger, Pony Finals and all the way up to the Medal and Maclay Finals, Junior Hunter Finals and Young Riders.”
When she was 10 years old, Kelly’s parents bought a small farm where they kept her pony Farnley Beeware and their two donkeys. “A few years later, we moved to Marlborough, Connecticut, to a larger farm where we founded Bridge Brook Arms,” she said. “Our family ran a successful boarding, training and sales business for many years with our trainer, Michael Kirby.”
The Millar Family
Having shown all over New England growing up, Kelly’s passion for horses only became more of a cornerstone in her life. “I was a working student for Michael when I met Jonathon in Ocala in 2003,” she said. “He was going back to Canada, to their family farm, Millar Brooke, for the summer, and he suggested that I come up with my horses and show at Spruce Meadows. I’d never been there, so I begged my dad and he let me take my two jumpers up with the Millars. My hunters were brought up shortly after, and I never left. Jonathon and I have been together 15 years, and we got married two years ago in December, in Key West, Florida.”
Jonathon has been a part of the Canadian Show Jumping Team for 20 years, and easily follows in the footsteps of his famous father, Ian Millar, the most decorated equestrian in Canadian history. Life with the Millars opened the way to many opportunities and experiences for Kelly. “One of the most amazing experiences I have had with the Millars was going to the Olympics in Hong Kong,” she said of attending the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where the equestrian events were held in nearby Hong Kong. “It was an incredible experience. Ian helped clinch the silver medal for Team Canada and then Eric Lamaze went on to win gold individually. It was my first Olympic experience and I will never forget it.”
While the Olympics was a special experience, Kelly said every day with the Millars is a good day. “I am honored and blessed to be a part of the Millar family. To be able to work alongside Ian, Amy and Jonathon every day is an incredible experience, and to be able to call them your family makes it even more special. There is something new to be learned every day and I embrace every second of it.”
Though still solely an American citizen, Jonathon and Kelly split their time between the U.S. and Canada, trading the Florida beaches for a quiet lake in the Canadian countryside. “I spend the summers showing in Canada but my main residence is still in Wellington,” Kelly said. “I love spending the summers in Perth and traveling all through Canada. Perth is very small, a real cottage town. Jonathon and I have a house on the lake in Perth and I very much enjoy spending time there.”
Kelly spends the winters in Wellington, where she has horses of her own that she manages and competes along with running her parents’ farm, Bridge Brook Arms, that they rent out to fellow equestrians for the season. She also trains, teaches, competes and helps coordinate for Millar Brooke Farm.
“My day involves being at all three places, riding, lunging, training and teaching, as well as going to the show to compete,” Kelly said. “I really enjoy Saturday night grand prix. I find it’s really nice because you can have your students during the day and focus on your own personal achievements that night. Also, there is usually time to go home beforehand to take a break and focus.”
The barn routine is focused on having happy and healthy horses, and Kelly is a firm believer in turn-out. “On Mondays, which is a day off from showing and riding, my horses are out in turnout as long as they can be. They have mini ponies they’re turned out with that keep them company,” Kelly said. “I like my barn to have a relaxed, calm atmosphere, because these horses are athletes and they’re busy all the time. I also believe in trail rides occasionally when not competing and just going around on the bridle paths and letting them be horses. Showing is a lot of pressure, and a happy horse is going to give you more in the ring.”
Keeping her horses happy and healthy has a lot to do with Kelly’s feeding routine. “I had one horse who struggled with metabolic issues along with hind gut issues, and nothing seemed to help,” she said. “I called Cynthia ‘Tigger’ Montague, an equine nutritionist, and she put him on a holistic diet. Within a few weeks, he became a different horse. He was happier, more relaxed and, most importantly, felt and performed better.”
That experience caused Kelly to change her horses’ diets. “Whole foods and supplements are a huge part of my program,” she said. “At Bridge Brook Arms, I’ve been using BioStar for 10 years. We know the levels of everything they’re eating and it’s all natural. I should eat food that healthy myself!”
And when her horses are happy, Kelly is happy. “I have an 18-year-old gelding, Centre Ice, whom I’ve been competing with for over eight years now,” she said. “He got to Wellington and won his first two classes right out of the gate. He’s the horse I won my first grand prix on and is truly part of my family. I joke that he’ll live in the house with us someday; he definitely will stay with me forever. I tend to keep horses and my husband sometimes gets upset with me. I’m not going to lie: I have a lot of retired horses. My first grand prix horse is still living out in the pasture at Millar Brooke, and he’s going to be 24 this year.”
Keeping her retired horses doesn’t mean she has fewer competition horses, either. Kelly finds success in the ring whether the horse was bought made or she trains it herself, like Itty Bitty, bred by Jonathon’s mother, Lynn. “She’s one of the first young horses I worked with,” Kelly said. “I rode her over her first trot-rails, and now we’re all the way up to the grand prix. She’s half-warmblood and half-Thoroughbred. She has always been underestimated because of her small size, standing at barely 16.1 hands. But she’s fast and careful and a very efficient jumper. She studies the jump and does exactly what she needs to do to get over. I own her in partnership with my blacksmith, Robert Rankin. I just love her.”
When she gets downtime, Kelly can be found at the beach or on the lake, indulging her love of water. But with the majority of her time spent with horses no matter where she is, the Millar Brooke tradition is in good hands. “I just got the ride on Cacharel, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, last summer,” Kelly shared. “I own her in partnership with Donna Vanderwoude-Dyment. This was her first year in Florida with me and I showed her in some of the 2- and 3-star grand prix. She’s a remarkable horse who’s just so special and I believe we have a bright future ahead. I don’t believe there’s anything she can’t jump!”
As part of the famous Canadian Millar show jumping family, Kelly is fully immersed in the equestrian world and wouldn’t have it any other way. And she’s still just as fascinated with horses as she was when she was a toddler and her mom took her in search of a pony. That search led to a lifelong passion that continues to take Kelly on a wonderful adventure.