He is Canada’s most decorated Olympic show jumper. He’s the leading prize money earner at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, AB. And he’s on a mission to qualify for Tokyo 2020—brain cancer be damned.
Sport personality Adam Cromarty sat down with the ever-amazing Eric Lamaze for a live edition of Under the Saddle during the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, ON last November. From the personal challenges of his past to the personal victory he’s aiming for in Tokyo, it’s all on the table in Cromarty’s most inspiring episode yet.
Want more great rider interviews? Catch up on all episodes of Under the Saddle with Adam Cromarty. Then, tune in here December 23rd for Adam’s next guest: Irish wunderkind Daniel Coyle!
Adam Cromarty: And here he is. Big round of applause, Eric Lamaze! I was just telling these lovely people that you and I had a chat last night and you said nothing was off limits.
Eric Lamaze: No, absolutely not. I’m here to answer any questions that anyone has to put to me relating to our sport, what we do every day, how to get to the level that we are at from a young kid to an older man now.
Adam: Let’s start right back at the very beginning. Tell us about you as a child. The early Eric Lamaze.
Eric: Well, I wasn’t really brought up in the horse world, like many people, like many kids who start with horses. This wasn’t my journey. I played a lot of tennis. But I was always a person that enjoyed sport and seemed to excel at it a lot more than school. So, I knew that sport was going to be part of my life somehow and I thought tennis was going to be part of it until I met the horse. I made a quick change over.
In those days, I never dreamed of what turned out to be my career. I was actually afraid of horses. No, seriously. I really was afraid. But the moment I got on one, I wasn’t afraid anymore.
In my days, the pony didn’t exist. We started out at the Junior Hunter, which was 3’6”. And if you were brave enough and you had a jumper, you rode in the Junior Jumper at 4’6”, which is the equivalent of 1.40m. So we learned the ropes fairly quick. It wasn’t all these divisions now where you can go up one step at a time and everything. I’m not sure if you truly asked me what’s best: was it the old way or is it the new way with all these divisions that are catering to people and they slowly get to the height? We had no choice. I mean, it was 3’6” or 4’6”. That’s what it was. But it sure taught us how to ride. The horses in those days weren’t the horses we are riding today.
It was simply a dream, then dream became a reality. Really, as I said last night for Ian [Millar’s retirement] tribute, it was the love of the horse, working with them every day, training them and achieving your goals and to whatever their capability are [sic] is to reach that goal with them. There’s nothing more satisfying than [that], I won’t call it a job, because it’s not a job, we’re the luckiest people in the world. We get to travel the world with these great animals, so it’s for sure not a job for me. It’s something that I truly enjoy.
Adam: Childhood, it was kind of a rough start to life. Do you think that horses kind of saved you in a way?
Eric: Well, I mean horses are great therapy in general. I think they have been for years for many people. For me, they were. The still are today very much. There’s something about a horse. It’s just the way they look at you, the way that they are so different and yet sometimes the same, but are completely different. To try and make a team and jump these fences with them, you’ve got to get their full attention and full control. That takes hours of training them, getting them to trust you and accept you. Let’s face it, they have to believe in you to keep going down to the fences and you have to keep believing in your horse that he’s going to do it.
On the level of saying it’s a dangerous sport or not, it’s only dangerous if you play it at a level you are not capable of doing. But even at our level, we have to be wise in what we choose for horses and keep ourselves healthy and safe.
Adam: And that journey of moving from someone who just liked riding and horses to making this your life and your career, when did that transition happen? Was that a conscious decision? Did you wake up one day and think right, this is it?
Eric: I wish it was like that. I simply had no choice. That’s how it happened. That’s the truth. [Laughs]
That was kind of all there was for me to do. So I’m laughing because it is the truth. So thank god I could ride a little. But, you know, from the beginning, I started really at the bottom. From grooming horses, from working different jobs, from Hugh Graham to Jay Hayes, being taught by great people in Quebec, great Americans as well. I would ride whatever anybody would give me to ride and I would show up and try to do my best and prove myself.
Really, my big break came from Tommy Gayford, [who] was the Canadian team coach in those days. I think one of the best coaches along with Torchy Millar that the Canadian team has ever had. Tommy was unbelievable and he gave me one of his horses to ride that his daughter had a little bit of trouble with.
As a youngster and not having so much experience, I was fairly intimidated to have Tommy Gayford, and Tommy is—I don’t know if anyone [here] knows Tommy Gayford, but he’s not the quietest man in the room. So if you made a mistake you sure heard about it. So I was fairly nervous every time I went to their farm to school the horse. But nevertheless that’s how I won my first Grand Prix. It was in Kitchener, ON on a horse called Big Deal that he had bred himself and everything else. So, he gave me my first big break.
Adam: And have you always had Olympic ambitions? Or is that something came to develop later on in your career?
Eric: Let’s be honest, the Olympic is the highest level that one can reach in any sport. There were two Olympics that really, I don’t know why the coach didn’t pick me. I should’ve gone, but… Atlanta and Sydney. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t chosen. [Laughs]
I guess I got better at riding afterwards. I said, I’d be brutally honest.
Anyway, I felt that with all that behind me and all the ugly stuff, that I had to prove to Canada that I, I wanted to prove who I was and during the hard years was not who I wanted, the person that I was. The person I was, was the person who wanted to represent his country, I’ve always been a serious worker. I love teaching. I love getting new horses. I love buying. I love selling. I love every aspect of our sport. But obviously those two Olympics set me back quite a bit.
But I made good on it. I was lucky enough to partner with one of the best horses in the world. To win that gold medal that day after all that, I cannot express what went through my mind at the time. Your whole life just flashes in front of you. But finally it was done.
Having won a silver medal with team Canada for me was unbelievable. I’m a team person first and second, I think of myself. But first, I’m a team guy and I want Canada to do well and I try to stay involved as much as I can and follow up the younger people that I don’t know as much to see what the future has to hold for Canada. We’re getting a little long in the tooth, so we’ve got to keep looking for these young ones to replace us. That’s basically it.
And then Rio was incredible for me, as well, on a horse that was purchased simply to be a speed horse. To win that bronze medal there was very special. Any medal at that level, I will take any day over any Grand Prix, over any kind of prize money, over anything. I think a medal reflects your career, it defines your career, it’s something that can’t be taken away. You know, especially now. [Before] in a year there were I don’t know, maybe 50 shows. Now, there are so many shows. If you ask me who won the Grand Prix in Gion last week, I don’t even know. Because there are so many. So, between riders, we lose our attention into that. Years ago, we were always asking. Now you’ve got the internet and everything to find out. But there’s nothing like the Olympics.
Adam: You mentioned there that medals are always better than prize money. You’ve won more at Spruce Meadows than anyone else, you’ve won millions over your career. What do you do with the money?
Eric: The part of our sport that is very unique and when I say unique, I realize when you go to the Olympics, I really concentrate on our event and our events are often removed from the rest of the Olympics. As in Hong Kong. Most of the Olympics were in Beijing, but our sport was in Hong Kong. But in Rio, it was very accessible to watch other sport. I got myself to the pool one day to watch the swimming and I watched these parents cheering their kids on and everything else and I said to myself, I wonder how much it costs to get to the Olympics as a swimmer? How much can a bathing suit cost?
Anyway, I might be the leading money winner at Spruce Meadows, I don’t know if it’s five or six million or whatever it is. But to be really honest it probably cost $35 [million] to get those five million.
Adam: So, it’s not a good return!
Eric: [Laughs] Whatever it is, you add it up and you make the math, these animals are fairly costly. So when you say you’ve won that kind of prize money, you’ve certainly done well. You’ve chosen good horses for yourself and you’ve competed, joking aside. But it is not a sport where it’s easy to just, as I realize swimming is, there’s a lot that’s involved before you win this prize.
Adam: You mentioned good horses, we’ve got to talk about Hickstead. This week, I think marks eight years since you lost that incredible horse. But tell us about how you found him, obviously we all know the big success you had with him, and also what it feels like to lose a horse like that.
Eric: Well, I mean, the thing is when you partner with such a horse and you make a team, a lot of people say could Big Ben have been Big Ben without Ian Millar? Could Baloubet been Baloubet without Rodrigo? Could Hickstead have been Hickstead without me? Perhaps they were just partnerships all around that were good together.
I really believe that a great horse needs the rider to go with it and the rider meets the horse and once in a while the pair meet and there’s magic that happens and that’s what happened with me and Hickstead. It was a hard beginning, it wasn’t an easy horse, but somehow I gave in on some stuff and he gave in on some stuff and we met halfway and [he was] greatest horse I’ve ever ridden in my life.
While the others were show jumping, I was three day eventing, basically. The fences just wouldn’t come down.
So you know, unfortunately, his life was cut short and, yeah, it’s not easy. Like I said, we do this because we love the animal. So losing the animal is a serious part, it’s like losing a loved one. It’s not like breaking a golf club or something like that. It takes you a while to overcome that to be really honest and actually it took me much longer than I thought. There was many times when perhaps I thought I was fine and I had overcome this and I didn’t. It took me a long time and still to this day, you go on course and you do think what could happen? Could this horse have the same thing or something? It stays with you forever.
It’s a tragedy for the horse, a tragedy for you, tragedy for whoever has anything to do with this horse. But life must go on. You can choose to fold and walk away and step away from the sport. At that point, I had won more than I had ever dreamed of winning. I was okay with that. But, you know what, I have some great friends who said you’re too young, you’ve got to keep going.
So it took a little while to gather myself back together, I won’t lie to you about that. But we started with young horses and eventually I built myself a string of horses to compete again at the five star level and the rest is history. Horses like Fine Lady, Coco Bongo. I was blessed with owners like Artisan Farms. The Fleishhackers, owning Hickstead and everything.
You know, unlucky in some. But I consider myself at the end, even with Hickstead’s tragedy, to have been a very lucky guy to have been around the people that I’ve been associated with. One can’t not think of Eddy Creed, who passed away just after the Pan American Games. He played major roles in my life. It’s a shame he wasn’t part of Hickstead, to be quite honest, because he was a part of Cagney and Cagney was a big part of my life. But what a supporter and what he did for me really got me on the map.
Adam: And I think one of the reasons I find you inspirational is because you’re a real person and you’ve had some challenges earlier on your career. How did you manage to overcome those?
Eric: I think it’s like anything else. You gotta take the days that— you gotta catch your breath. You’ve got to think of what you see in the future for yourself. For me, I couldn’t see a future without horses. You know, it’s just something to this day, as you know I am not so well, and my doctor calls my riding “Eric’s medicine.” They often tell me, we don’t recognize you when we watch you—they’ve become a fan of show jumping by onw—but they say we don’t recognize you when you’re on a horse versus when you’re in a clinic. So, you know, you can do amazing things when you set your mind to it. I’m the kind of guy, I take two or three days to myself whether I feel sorry or not, I’ll deal with it on my own and when I’m ready to come out and fight the fight, I’ll go do it.
Adam: How difficult is it going through treatment and riding? Can you still kind of balance that schedule and plan ahead?
Eric: I think it’s much easier to do that than just receive treatment with nothing else to be doing at the same time. I mean, everybody has a different story to do with cancer and everything else, many sad stories and I don’t feel sorry for myself because I have come across many young kids that perhaps won’t see their 15th birthday. So, at 51, even with this in my way, I consider myself a lucky guy.
From the moment I met my doctor, I told him I’m not going to be your usual patient. Because my life is continuing. I’m going to keep riding. You guys go to work, but I’m also going to work. Somehow we made a great team and managed to be here today.
Hopefully, things for me, I don’t know what’s in the future. I’m giving it all for Tokyo. Tokyo means the world to me, more than anything else that has to do with horses. It’s a personal victory to even be there, for me. And I want to make it a personal victory to bring back a medal for Canada. And I hope we do it as a team, because that would even mean more to me than winning an individual medal. And my heart is set on this and I want this to happen. My whole year is based around that.
I feel that once this gets accomplished, and hopefully it does get accomplished, I’m going to feel a little burned out from it. But I think it will be time that perhaps I take care of my health a little more seriously. And give back to the sport. I love teaching. And just try and bring some young riders along and try to give them the chance to have the dream that I got to live in all these years.
Adam: The one question I wanted to ask you before we let you go. What’s happening in the love life of Eric Lamaze and are you on the market?
Eric: Shhhh! So many girlfriends are here. You’re ruining my night. [Laughs] Not much is happening. That’s the truth.
Adam: You said you’d tell the truth and he has. Thank you.