He seemed to be the horse that no one wanted. Undersized, overexcited, too small to excel and too wild to win.
Hickstead wasn’t preordained for greatness. That would come later. He was, at least for a time, a four-legged gamble that no one was willing to make.
The powerful 15-year-old stallion died of heart failure this week, a champion crowned in accolades. He was an Olympic gold medalist for Canada, a peerless athlete, and at his time of death, the greatest jumper in the world.
Few saw it coming. Bred in the Netherlands, Hickstead initially failed to make it into Dutch Warmblood horse registry. At only 16 hands high, he was about four inches shorter than an international-caliber competition horse.
His breeders had offered him up to members of the U.S. equestrian team, a larger and far wealthier organization than Canada’s. They took a pass.
Then a Canadian rider came along who saw what others missed: a flawed creature, perhaps, but a winner. Just like he was.
Eric Lamaze was a gifted Canadian show jumper with a rough upbringing and checkered record when he travelled to Europe for a horse in 2004. One day, after coming up short in his search, his horse dealer proposed going to see Hickstead.
It was Mr. Lamaze’s second look, and by the time he pulled up to the farm for his viewing, it was going on 10 p.m.
Mr. Lamaze was the antithesis of a horse-jumping blueblood. Born to a drug-addicted mother and absent father, he ended his schooling in Grade 8 and was raised by an alcoholic grandmother. In jumping, he discovered a talent and a refuge, and had become an international competitor and star.
On this fateful trip, he went with his instincts. At first, the horse seemed so hot-headed he had trouble getting on him. Then Mr. Lamaze took him for some jumps. He began to see the horse’s unruly power as a strength, not a liability.
Athletic duos require seamless communication. But there are no words between horse and rider.
“So the ability to discover someone with whom one is personally compatible is much more difficult,” said Akaash Maharaj, chief executive office of Equine Canada and the Canadian national equestrian team. “It’s a bit like falling in love. You can hope for it, you can plan for it, but you can’t make it happen. You just know it when it’s there.”
Together, the two rode to victory after victory on the international circuit, and persevered even after Mr. Lamaze’s career rode off the rails. Mr. Lamaze was twice disqualified from Olympic competition because of his cocaine use. By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he seemed an unlikely medal contender for Canada.
Yet by the time the competition was over, Hickstead had carried Mr. Lamaze to gold and silver medals. The rider’s horse had become his redemption.
Those who watched the pair saw a finely tuned partnership. Hickstead had the champion horse’s ability to stretch its body to clear a pole or lean back on his hocks enough to jump at just the right angle. This horse not only could clear the jumps, he seemed to love it.
“For a horse a lot of the obstacles can be pretty scary,” said Terrance Millar, chef d’équipe of the Canadian Show Jumping Team. “There are days they’re going to hit one, and they have to be brave to come back the next day and not hesitate and just jump. They need tremendous heart and tremendous bravery. Hickstead had ’em all in spades.”
Almost as important, the horse seemed to have an ability to soar in the hothouse intensity of competition.
“I think he understood that under certain circumstance, the situation really mattered to Eric,” Mr. Maharaj said. “And under those circumstances, he really delivered for his rider.”
This week, a visibly stricken Mr. Lamaze faced reporters in Toronto to speak about the very public loss of his partner. Hickstead completed a round at an international competition in Italy before lying down – allowing Mr. Lamaze to dismount unharmed – and succumbing to a massive heart attack.
For Mr. Lamaze, there will never be another Hickstead. He said this week he will try to look for a replacement while contemplating his future. But he could come up empty-handed.
Olympic team gold medalist McLain Ward of the United States says it’s not impossible for a top horseman with wealthy backers to get top horses. But it’s not so easy to find a horse like Hickstead. He could win all three events he contested at a tournament, for example, while other horses achieved less consistent results.
“He will probably never match that horse,” Mr. Ward said. “I don’t think there’s been a better horse in this sport, ever.”
It’s likely that Mr. Lamaze sees it the same way. He chose the one that others passed up, and the horse returned the confidence. Speaking in Toronto, Mr. Lamaze said the pair was successful partly because they were so alike.
“I think we had a bit of the same personality,” he said to reporters in French. “We both liked to win. We had the same energy that transformed itself into incredible things.”
In the process, they became one of the great teams in Canadian sport.
“There’s an old horseman’s proverb that for every horse there is one rider and for every rider there is one horse,” Mr. Maharaj said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Eric and Hickstead regarded one another that way.”Report Typo/Error