Like many of you, I’m sure, I awoke to tragic news this morning. In fact, I am still finding it hard to comprehend fully…comprehend the loss of a champion. Hickstead, the 15 year old Dutch stallion ridden by Canada’s Eric Lamaze, passed away at a competition in Verona, Italy-he collapsed as he left the arena after a successful round.
Yes, it is easy to get caught up in the grief and the ‘whys’, but I think in order to honour Hickstead as the true champion he was, you have to focus on the legacy he left behind and what he gave not only his rider and fans, but his vast contributions to his country and his sport.
Foaled in 1996, Hickstead was not your typical show jumper. He was small, a mere 16 hands, and had an extremely fiery disposition- apparent to all those privileged enough to watch him roar around a course. His jump was like none other, he could fly at a massive vertical and have the ability to spring up off the ground, clearing it by nearly a foot- sometimes even jumping the standard.
Charisma, all great champions and leaders have it. Hickstead was not an exception.
As he walked under that clock tower at Spruce Meadows, you could watch him key-up. He would get a little taller, walk with a little (okay, a lot) more spring, and eye that jumps eagerly- waiting for Eric to let him play with the course. On course he would grunt and groan with effort, making impossible distances look easy, mountains of oxers appear tiny, combinations appear insignificant.
He poured his heart and soul into every round.
This is my favourite picture of Eric and Hickstead. It is actually a part of a series I took of them over the white vertical in the background, but this one really stands out to me. The fire in his eyes, the sheen of his coat over his powerful muscles, the reach of his legs in his powerful stride. He and Eric in perfect sync, attacking the course. True competitors. Legendary competitors.
I would say that Hickstead’s big break onto the international stage, the moment when everyone really took notice, was when he won the CN International at Spruce Meadows in 2007. They had many successes leading up it, but this is when the world took a step back and saw the impressive nature and the oozing potential in this little stallion.
Hickstead almost did not reach this potential, as on October 1, 2007 he showed signs of colic and underwent surgery. Thankfully, he recovered well and went on to have a 2008 season destined for the history books.
2008 brought with it, of course, the Beijing Summer Olympics, with Canada sending one of its strongest teams in years, real medal contenders, including Lamaze and Hickstead. As a team, Canada won a silver medal, forty years after the last team medal was produced (gold in 1968).
The individual competition was just as, if not more, fantastic.
I remember that I was at work that day, and since that I did not have a smartphone yet, was so very out of the loop about what was happening. It was after lunch sometime, when one of my friends sent me a text that said, “He did it!!!!!!”. Knowing that it could only mean that Lamaze and Hickstead had won gold, I started crying, and I think everyone at work thought I was crazy. Of course, I watched the competition as soon as I could, and it was phenomenal to see that pair, representing Canada, beat out the world and take individual gold. I still get goosebumps and cry, happy tears of course, whenever I watch that round.
Before the 2008 Olympics, Canada had been on a dry run when considering show jumping on the world stage. In 2004, we did not even qualify a team to go to Athens, Ian Millar (riding Promise Me) was Canada’s lone representative, placing 24th. Moral surrounding the sport in Canada was waning, we were being smothered by countries such as the United States and Germany. Even at Spruce Meadows, although attendance remained fairly high, the Canadians were not seen as a true threat.
This all changed, in a big way, with Hickstead. All of a sudden Canada was a threat on the world stage, and with Lamaze and Hickstead snatching up wins all over the world, it was a domination.
Racking up wins in France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, Lamaze and Hickstead took Europe by storm. There are literally too many wins to list, but I would say if I had to pick on of the most notable, it was their 2010 win in the Grand Prix of Aachen- where Lamaze broke his foot during the first round of competition. I highly recommend visiting the Torrey Pines Stable website and browsing though news section and the results page that both document their major wins together…it is phenomenal.
Back on home soil, Hickstead was equally amazing, often going tournaments without having a rail. It was amazing to experience the shift in atmosphere at Spruce Meadows, the crowd would buzz with anticipation for their hero and everyone would be riding along with Eric through the course. It brought pure and utter excitement back into the hearts of Canadian fans, Hickstead rejuvenated the sport in this country, and I would also like to think, around the world.
Lamaze and Hickstead set the bar in the sport, the bar that all riders had to chase and reach to obtain, a bar that seemed to be getting higher and higher as the wins kept stacking up.
In 2010 at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, Lamaze took the individual bronze and Hickstead took the Best Horse honour as he jumped clear with all four riders, the only horse to do so.
2011 brought yet another successful season with Lamaze and Hickstead capturing big wins both in Europe and on home soil at Spruce Meadows. I was incredibly lucky to become a part of Horse Junkies United this year, as I was able to not only witness, but be in the ring, on the same turf, during these performances at Spruce Meadows.
The 2011 Masters tournament at Spruce Meadows was magical for the duo with Hickstead did not put a hoof wrong all week, winning a welcome class, going double clear in the Nations Cup (anchoring Canada to a 2nd place finish), and, for the second time, claiming victory in the $1 million CN International Grand Prix- the only pair to go clear in both rounds.
Now, with a heavy sadness in my heart and tears running down my cheeks, there is the realization that the 2011 Masters tournament at Spruce Meadows was the last time Eric and Hickstead would compete on home soil, the last time Canadian fans were able to, first hand, experience the magic of this little stallion jumping his heart out and the utter joy he expressed with each stride.
He is not a horse any show jumping fan will soon forget. He inspired countless numbers of riders to get out there and be the best they can be because, with the right attitude and enough heart, nothing is unattainable.
He touched all of our hearts and his legacy will live on within them forever.
We cannot let the excitement and joy that Hickstead brought the sport to fade away, it is up to us- whether you are a fan/rider/owner- to keep his memory alive and continue what he started, the improvement of the sport in both Canada and around the world.
Eric Lamaze and Hickstead’s last performance in Canada – winning the $1 Million Spruce Meadows Masters on Sept 11, 2011
Rest in peace Hickstead, you deserve it.
I will post an album with the pictures of Hickstead that I have on the HJU Facebook page.