TORONTO - It was a partnership formed from shaky beginnings that grew into much more than rider and horse.
Olympic champion Eric Lamaze credits Hickstead for transforming his life and making his career, and as the horse drew his final few breaths before dying his last act was to ensure his rider's safety.
The rider met the media Wednesday, struggling to control his emotions as he talked of Hickstead's sudden death from an aortic rupture.
"What these horses do for us is incredible, they become part of our family, they really change our life," Lamaze said. "It's a sport that we choose because we love it, but it's a sport that we chose because we also love the animal."
The 15-year-old stallion collapsed and died Sunday during a show in Verona, Italy, with Lamaze still on his back. During a news conference at the office of his friend and lawyer Tim Danson, Lamaze said he believes Hickstead's final thoughts were of him.
"He made sure that I was OK, and just sort of fell beside me," Lamaze said. "He collapsed in a way that he made sure he did not injure me in the process."
The blow has been devastating for the Canadian show jumping star, who said losing a horse isn't "breaking a hockey stick or breaking a tennis racket."
It's left Lamaze considering retirement, although the 43-year-old from Schomberg, Ont., plans to take some time to let the heartache subside before he makes any firm decision on his future.
"There are two choices that I have, one is to pack it in. . . or fight it out and just keep pushing for my career to be a little bit longer," Lamaze said. "I've won a lot of things already that should satisfy me for my career, we will decide in the next week or few days where my career goes from here.
"I think I've achieved everything I've wanted to achieve, but I'm not ready to go yet. But we will see."
Lamaze would love to compete at one more Olympics, which would be a big boost to the Canadian team. But the rider who won gold and silver at the Beijing Games aboard the once-troublesome Hickstead admitted he doesn't have the horse of the calibre he needs for a strong showing in London.
"I've always said I've been there once on an incredible horse, I would never go back on less than a very good horse, and having a very good chance," Lamaze said.
He could purchase another horse, but has only until Dec. 31 to do so to meet citizenship requirements.
Lamaze is competing at the Royal Horse Show this week in Toronto as a tribute to Hickstead.
"If I had stayed back in Europe and avoided coming to the Royal because I didn't feel great about riding, I don't think he would have got the recognition that he has received," Lamaze said.
Fellow riders wore black armbands, and Lamaze received a raucous ovation Tuesday night when he competed aboard Herald 3.
"I think it was a very, very special horse that was very exciting to watch, I think he did everything for people that were watching him," he said of Hickstead. "He enjoyed loud crowds, so I think it's very well-suited the way people reacted (Tuesday) night."
Hickstead earned about $3.7 million over the course of his show jumping career, and stood to make much more money for his owners — Lamaze is part of an ownership group — through his stud fees.
Hickstead has sired about 100 foals. There are about 50 doses of the horse's semen remaining in Europe, and none in North America.
Lamaze said he hadn't spared a thought to any loss of revenue, but is more devastated that the horse wasn't given a proper sendoff. Hickstead was cremated in Italy.
"It's a horse that you would have loved to retire, given him a retiring ceremony as he deserved," Lamaze said. "But it wasn't meant to be."
The rider called Hickstead's death a fluke, saying the horse was examined by a vet two to three times a week and was in top physical condition. He wasn't considered old for a show jumper — Ian Millar's famous mount Big Ben was retired at 18.
Lamaze planned to ride Hickstead through the London Olympics less than nine months from now, and then perhaps one more season.
The rider admitted he never predicted a gold-medal future for Hickstead when the two became partners in 2004. The horse, Lamaze said simply, was a handful.
"There were many times I gave up and thought it was never going to work," Lamaze said.
But the rider and horse, who've been called a "pair of misfits" — Lamaze because of an unconventional equestrian upbringing and Hickstead because of his small stature and big temper — went on to become a team that was at times unbeatable.
This past season, they won the $1-million CN International for the second time in their career at the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary. They were a favourite to collect a medal for Canada at the London Olympics.
Lamaze grew up the child of a drug-addicted mother who was in and out of jail and no father. He was raised mainly by his grandmother, and didn't advance past Grade 8 in school. He found his passion working in the stables and has credited the sport for turning his life around.
Gold in Beijing was redemption for Lamaze, who missed the 1996 and 2000 Olympics after testing positive for cocaine.
Danson said their partnership extended well beyond the jumping ring. The lawyer compared Hickstead's reaction to his rider to a dog when its owner arrives home from a long day of work.
"I can't tell you how many times I've seen when Eric comes on the scene, and this horse goes crazy, just like the dog, he starts moving his head, his feet. . .," Danson said laughing. "When you see them behind the scenes and the relationship between the two of them, it's a really golden moment to see."