Two days after Eric Lamaze chose Derly Chin de Muze as the horse he would use to defend his Olympic show-jumping title in London, the rider got a rude awakening.
Derly Chin de Muze reminded him that she is not yet Hickstead, the horse he rode to win the Olympic medal, a horse that was ranked No. 1in the world, a horse that many thought was the best of all time.
The mare abruptly refused to jump a fence at a major event in Calgary, and now Lamaze has just three weeks to understand the problem and fix it, if he's thinking of repeating at the London Games.
He's not hopeful.
"If people expect Eric Lamaze to win a gold medal, it's probably not going to happen. That's the truth behind it," Mr. Lamaze said Tuesday, before he boarded a flight to the Netherlands, where he will join up with Derly Chin de Muze, which is already there. "Hickstead was the horse I was going to London with. We really didn't have a backup plan." While he has two other promising mounts, they are not quite ready for the Olympics at this stage, he said.
Last Saturday, at the $200,000 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Spruce Meadows near Calgary, as Derly Chin approached an imposing series of obstacles – a combination with three jumps, frightening heights and 15-foot spreads and rainbow colours everywhere – she just refused to jump.
The first of the three hurdles was impressive, an oxer (a jump with a spread that calls for the horse to jump wide) with solid, heavy bars that ascended in height. It was the second time in six days that she had stuck in her toes and simply declined her job. During her first refusal the previous week, Mr. Lamaze actually fell off the mare in Spruce Meadows's international ring when Derly Chin cleared the first hurdle of a combination but stumbled and stalled at the second. Neither was hurt.
Even before Derly Chin came to a halt last Saturday, Mr. Lamaze said he wasn't thinking about medals.
And for a moment after the Saturday refusal, he seemed to panic, thinking perhaps that the 9-year-old mare – inexperienced and young by Olympic standards – just might not be ready, that perhaps he shouldn't go to London at all. He said at the time that if he didn't feel he could contribute to the team, he'd give the Olympics a pass.
But a day later, after having watched videos of the miscue, he could see that he and Derly Chin had just failed to communicate; that their partnership was still so new they hadn't figured each other out and developed a trust. When Mr. Lamaze got ready for takeoff at that imposing jump, he thought the mare would finish the move on her own. She didn't.
It's possible the problem can be solved, he said.
First off, Mr. Lamaze notes, she's a very careful mare and dislikes lodging rails, a handy trait for a jumping horse. That's her blessing, but it's also her curse. Without experience, she can become intimidated by the fences she does touch.
Also, the rails and materials of Spruce Meadows's fences are heavy, Mr. Lamaze said. She won't see such rails at the Olympics, where the poles will be lighter and less frightening.
Derly Chin de Muze's difficulties started at the fence before the triple combination, a red-and-white plank fence that is easily dislodged. Because she is careful, she got a bit frazzled when she rubbed (but did not dislodge) the top part of the plank fence. "It scared her a little," Mr. Lamaze said.
The previous week, Derly Chin had stalled in the midst of a combination jump and Mr. Lamaze figures those memories lingered when she faced another big combo.
The good news, Canadian chef d'equipe Terrance Millar said, is that when Mr. Lamaze attempted the triple combination the second time last Saturday, the mare jumped it without turning a hair. Though in the end, she still did not knock down a rail.
Mr. Lamaze said he believes that if she hadn't touched the plank, she would have been okay for the next fence.
Derly Chin is already in Europe, and Mr. Lamaze has mapped out a plan to erase the surprises of Spruce Meadows. He'll take her to some smaller shows in the Netherlands and in Italy to help her find her confidence again on a simpler course with less pressure.
"You have to see what happens in the next two weeks," he said. "There's no certainty of anything. You have to regroup and do the best you can to help your country."
Mr. Lamaze said this Olympic Games will give him a chance to give back to the sport, to help Canada be on a show-jumping podium again as a team. He led the team to a silver medal four years ago.
"I think I can help Canada do something very good," he said. "I would not go if I thought there was a better person in the back [the alternate rider] that could do better than me."
But the odds, for now, are against him. Derly Chin de Muze reminded him of that.
LETTING THE HORSE LEAD
In the beginning, Eric Lamaze and his famed Olympic champion mount, Hickstead, were not a match made in heaven. At one point, he was so frustrated with the willful stallion, which tended to be unpredictable, that he considered giving up on him.
But eventually, Mr. Lamaze learned that to get along with Hickstead, there had to be give and take. Give Hickstead a little of what he wants, and he'll return the favour.
"There were buttons we couldn't push," Mr. Lamaze said.
Logic would say that Hickstead needed a strong bit in his mouth to exert control, but the horse would have none of it. When Mr. Lamaze backed off, and used a less aggressive bit, Hickstead became a partner and returned the kindness. It did take a long time for the pair to become a team, however, as Mr. Lamaze experimented with different bits.
Hickstead, too, used to refuse jumps. Ironically, when he was nine years old – the same age as Mr. Lamaze's new horse, Derly Chin de Muze – he also refused obstacles in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Spruce Meadows near Calgary. In fact, he refused two jumps and was eliminated. Lamaze's new Olympic mount, Derly Chin de Muze is also 9 years old, and refused a jump at the same event last weekend.
"People laugh and they say that I was in the same position with Hickstead," Mr. Lamaze said, recalling his disappointment after Derly's refusal to jump on Sunday.
CARROT OVER STICK
David Marcus's biggest problem with Chevri's Capital, the mount he is bringing to London, was that he was an inexperienced partner in dressage, a sport where the horse-rider partnership is paramount. The horse must follow unseen commands from the rider to perform difficult manoeuvres in the ring such as a piaffe (trot on the spot) or passage (a highly extended trot), all moves that are not natural to horses. It often takes years for the horse to learn the cues.
Mr. Marcus and Chevri's Capital started doing top-level dressage only six months ago, and have defied all expectations to make the Olympic team for London. And Mr. Marcus did it by becoming a bit of a horse psychologist to persuade his mount to do moves horses don't usually do.
"You have to figure out what makes them tick," he said.
Mr. Marcus says a system of positive reinforcement for the horse, taught by U.S. Olympian Robert Dover, has helped him and his young, inexperienced mount qualify. for the Olympics even though they started competing at the top level only six months ago. Theirs is an unusually quick rise to the top level.
As Mr. Marcus rides his horse around the ring at his Campbellville, Ont., arena, he does not hesitate to reward the horse with his voice after a snappy extended trot. Mr. Dover, he said, always trains the horse with a lot of praise, and makes them understand what he wants, rather than to force them into a move. "You have to get into their heads a little bit," Mr. Marcus said.
"My horse is still really happy in the show ring and he tries harder and harder all the time."
When former Olympic show-jumping rider Beth Underhill first started to ride Monopoly in 1990, he was a horse with an unfortunate reputation. He would stall in front of jumps, particularly water jumps. Monopoly was a New Zealand-bred Hannoverian-thoroughbred cross, and 11 years old when he and Ms. Underhill first got together. But she managed to turn the less-than-confident horse into a steed that earned Canada team and individual silver medals at the 1991 Pan American Games and eventually $1-million in career earnings.
"All horses have different characters," Ms. Underhill said. Monopoly preferred self-preservation over glory, avoiding difficult gates rather than risk injury.
Ms. Underhill got him to become one of the top horses in the world by making sure she was accurate in how she approached the hurdles with him. "If the distance [to the fence] wasn't ideal, he wasn't going to be one to throw his heart and soul over the jumps," she realized. So she worked at gaining his trust. In fact, she was the only person who rode Monopoly, a horse that didn't like change. Time and repetitive training over all sorts of fences worked wonders. The final clincher: She and the horse developed a special bond. The more Ms. Underhill gained his trust, the more he gave her.
"We obviously fit together – most of the time," she said. "The last two years of his career, he was extremely consistent and very comfortable about jumping water obstacles."