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Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze of Canada jumps a water jump on his horse Hickstead at the Spruce Meadows Nations' Cup team jumping event in Calgary, Sept. 6, 2008. (Todd Korol/Reuters/Todd Korol/Reuters)
Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze of Canada jumps a water jump on his horse Hickstead at the Spruce Meadows Nations' Cup team jumping event in Calgary, Sept. 6, 2008. (Todd Korol/Reuters/Todd Korol/Reuters)

Sudden death of famed show-jumping horse consistent with severe heart stress Add to ...

Hickstead’s life was dramatic and so was his death.

At age 15, the world’s best show-jumping horse cleared 13 obstacles in stellar fashion on Sunday afternoon, and, just as he finished his work, sank to the ground in front of a large crowd at a Grand Prix event in Verona, Italy.

Hickstead’s heart had suddenly stopped. He had won the Olympics in front of millions and he died in front of millions, too – the event was shown on an international show-jumping network.

He died beneath his rider, Eric Lamaze of Schomberg, Ont., who had transformed an “unrideable” prospect into perhaps one of the best show-jumpers ever. And Hickstead, in turn, had made Mr. Lamaze the No. 1-ranked rider in the world.

Their partnership was supposed to go on a while longer: Hickstead still had a few competitive years left, and Mr. Lamaze hoped to defend his Olympic gold medal – captured at the 2008 Beijing Games – in London next summer.

The results of an autopsy are expected to be released in the next couple of days.

Meantime, at the University of Guelph, veterinarian Peter Physick-Sheard said Hickstead’s demise is consistent with his studies into sudden death in competitive horses.

For the past several years, Dr. Physick-Sheard has been conducting research into the effects of intense exercise on the heart rates and rhythms of racehorses – both standardbred and thoroughbred – at Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks in Ontario.

He fashioned a device to go under the saddle-pads of racehorses to record heart-rate responses during competition – a far more precise way of looking at responses than fixing a monitor to an animal on a treadmill. The treadmill does not reproduce the actual intensity, both emotional and physical, that a horse running at full-tilt undergoes.

Dr. Physick-Sheard’s research has produced some unusual findings: a flurry of irregular heartbeats that occur after the horse finishes.

As he explains it, the autonomic nervous system that regulates heart rate has two opposing parts, the parasympathetic system, which shuts down when a horse reaches top speed (because it slows heart rate), and the sympathetic system, which works to increase the heart rate.

While a horse’s resting heart rate is from 16 to 18 beats a minute, it can climb as high as 270 beats a minute during a race. When the horse finishes and begins to pull up, the parasympathetic system comes back into play, but in an irregular manner, showing a lot of turbulence.

In most horses, the arrhythmias produce no ill effects in the long term, as the heart rates finally return to normal.

But sometimes the arrhythmias deteriorate into a fatal condition or sudden death. Dr. Physick-Sheard is still trying to find out why. There is so much detail in his data – far more extensive than mere electrocardiogram readings – that analysis of the findings could go on for years.

What happened to Hickstead is “entirely consistent” with Dr. Physick-Sheard’s studies, he said. Sudden deaths of horses are very uncommon, “but it’s just spectacular when it happens,” he said. “When it occurs with the public watching, like with Hickstead, it has a huge impact.”

Among trotters and pacers, about one in 10,000 starts result in sudden death syndrome, the veterinarian said. The numbers aren’t clear among thoroughbreds, but the researcher said the incidence is higher, perhaps because of the full-throttle type of activity they do.

Dr. Physick-Sheard said the intensity of a show-jumping horse during a jump-off would be similar to a racehorse streaking to the finish line.

High-level show-jumping horses are so well cared for that Mr. Lamaze or the horse’s groom would have noticed anything amiss immediately, Dr. Physick-Sheard said. And the constant travel of a show-jumping horse on the European tour would not contribute to the sudden death of the horse.

“The horses are so used to travel,” he said. “And most of these horses are extremely fit.”

At 15, Hickstead was reaching the end of his career, but others have competed longer. Big Ben, the champion horse ridden by Ian Millar, retired at age 18 and died at 23. Milton, the ghost-like white horse ridden by British star John Whitaker, retired at 16 after finishing second in a World Cup final. Idle Dice, ridden by American Rodney Jenkins, won three Grand Prix at age 21 and did not retire until 24.

Mr. Lamaze, clearly distraught, is still in Europe. He had planned to come to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair this week, though he had never intended to bring Hickstead, who won the $1-million Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows in September, the last time he competed in Canada.

On Sunday night, a crowd of about 300 Canadian equestrians at a Jump Canada Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Toronto held a moment of silence for Hickstead.

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