Wednesday, November 9, 2011

We Lost a Great One: Thoughts on Hickstead's Passing...

A photo I took at the WEG.
Too bad you can't see Eric's smile...
Sorry to have been AWOL for a while.  To be quite honest, the untimely passing of Hickstead hit me pretty hard, and it's taken some time to wrap my head around the concept that he's gone. 

If you are feeling the same way, or would just like to spend some time honoring the memory of this great show jumping stallion, the Royal Horse Show is live streaming their Tribute to Hickstead tonight at 8:30pm EST.  Eric Lamaze, Hickstead's partner, will be riding in the FEI World Cup Grand Prix that will follow at 8:40pm EST.  Eric returned to competition Tuesday night, riding Herald 3 to a 10th place finish in the $31,000 Jolera International Jumper Welcome class.

I wrote some thoughts on Hickstead's passing for a blog I contribute to, Horse Junkies United.  There is a forum there for Fan Tributes to Hickstead, as well as a lovely article by HJU blogger Keara McMurdo. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts here as well:

Normally on days the FEI is streaming a live feed of a Word Cup qualifier, I get up early, wander down to the kitchen, make myself a latte and settle in on the couch to watch the best of the best. I'm so glad I didn't this past Sunday. 

As it was, when I finally did go online, I couldn't comprehend the news that greeted me. Like many others, at first I thought someone was playing a very cruel joke. Clearly that wasn't the case.

Hickstead's passing deeply affected many of us in the equine community. In typical Kubler Ross fashion, we cycled through the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Personally, I got stuck in Depression. On any given day I read equestrian books and magazines, watch equestrian DVDs while I exercise, ride, and watch horse related on-demand videos while my family watches TV. I did none of those things. I couldn't.

Tonight I stopped by the barn on my way out for a business trip. I groomed, rode, and massaged my mare, and as I do every night, I thanked her for her time, and for the privilege of having her in my life. Hickstead was very much in my mind, especially as I was with her, and while I wanted to work through my thoughts by blogging, I couldn't because I kept stumbling upon a mental roadblock - the word "JOY."

HUH? "JOY??" I've been crying on and off since seeing the news. JOY?? Really? Not the word I'd have picked. Oddly, though, I couldn't get that word out of my head during the 3 hour drive to my hotel. It wasn't until I got to my room and was finally able to watch some of the Hickstead tribute videos and footage of some of his rounds that it made sense.

According to

joy noun

1.the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation:
2.a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated

Oooooohhhhh. Of course. I get it now. Anyone who has ever watched Eric and Hickstead together has seen Eric's incandescent grin of delight after a clean round as he exuberantly pats Hickstead. We've admired Hickstead's pricked ears and proud neck carriage as he exults in their power and prowess. Most visibly, you can see their great elation, not just in having accomplished their goal, but in having accomplished it together. How many times have we seen Eric lean down to give the stallion a hug, or point down at Hickstead, telling us that the miraculous feat we'd just witnessed was all the diminutive stallion's doing. Theirs was a relationship focused on the "We," not the "Me."

Clearly they felt delight in being so good at what they did, but perhaps more importantly, they felt the keen delight, or joy, of doing what they did together.

Like many show jumping fans, I've followed Hickstead and Eric since the 2007 CN International. I can remember sitting on the edge of my seat, watching coverage from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and bawling my eyes out when Hickstead and Eric won, then crying even harder when Eric galloped around the arena, pointing down at Hickstead. Was there ever a more joyful moment than that?

Have you ever noticed how some things are so beautiful they have the power to evoke tears? Tears of joy, they're called. For example, I cry every time I see the footage of Andreas Helgstrand and the late Blu Hors Matine, or Totilas' record breaking Kur at Olympia, or William Fox-Pitt's triumphant Rolex Kentucky win on Cool Mountain. The sheer beauty of Hickstead's rounds have brought me to tears more than once.

Last year my Canadian friend and I were lucky enough to be able to attend the WEG together. I can remember how excited we were, and how torn I was over wanting success for my favorite American combinations and hoping that Hickstead and Eric would win (I'd been learning the words to the Canadian National Anthem for weeks.)

Watching Hickstead and Eric at the WEG was an unforgettable experience. If anyone still doubted his freakish talent, it simply wasn't possible after watching him through 4 clean rounds in the Final Four. One of my favorite WEG memories was of watching Hickstead in Round 2 as Abdullah al Sharbatly piloted him. At one point one could swear Hickstead had a little conversation with his young rider that went something like this: "Look, Son, I know the course. How about you sit still up there, try not to get in my way, and let me just go take care of business." His round with eventual WEG Champion Phillipe Le Jeune was a thing of beauty - Phillipe clearly understood how Hickstead liked to go, and rode him in the manner that would allow the stallion to do his job successfully.

Could there have been a more fitting tribute to the Best Horse of the WEG than Phillipe Le Jeune's? No sooner had they cleared the final fence than Phillipe began thanking Hickstead with pats and hugs. At the time, it struck me not just as thanks to a horse for a memorable win, but for a memorable trip as well. Again, what word springs to mind when one looks at Phillipe's face after his round on Hickstead? JOY. Not just for the win, but for the experience of working with a truly remarkable partner.

As a friend of mine so poignantly put it, "This horse should have had an unprecedented career followed by a tear-jerking retirement ceremony where he was paraded around the ring covered in a rose blanket. Not this. This is just too awful. It's just not fair."

She's right, this is NOT how their story was supposed to end. One can't even imagine what Eric and Hickstead's connections are going through right now. One can only hope that with time the sorrow will fade a bit, and they will remember the JOY.

Leonardo da Vinci once said, "The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding." Many years later Lord Byron observed, "All who joy would win must share it. Happiness was born a Twin." It seems to me the words of those two men coalesce to describe the magic partnership shared by Hickstead and Eric Lamaze. That magic partnership, that intense connection, that we as horse lovers strive for, and so often fall short of.

RIP Hickstead. You were a priceless gift of JOY to all whose lives you touched.


  1. Well now you've got me all teary-eyed again! But this was beautifully put. You are definitely not alone in these feelings. I have been so sad this week. It keeps hitting me in waves. And it's doubly-hard to be unable to explain to the non-horsey people what this has meant for all of us, and what we have lost. Great post.

  2. Very very nice.
    I remember thinking the same thing at the Final Four. He literally packed the less experienced rider around and jumped around in great fun with the rider who could fully appreciate him. I can't remember ever seeing a horse respond in that way to different riders.
    He was exceptional.

  3. Le Jeune's winning WEG round on Hickstead was mind blowing. Le Jeune and Lamaze defined excellent horsemanship that day... loving, respecting and appreciating each horse they rode.

    What a noble horse - what a seamless partnership. Condolences to Erik Lamaze - RIP Hickstead. You were one for the ages.