Prioritizing What Matters While Chasing The Team Dream

Jun 29, 2018 - 2:42 PM

This afternoon I got a phone call from a friend and fellow event rider who has just been named to the reserve list of a certain team competition in September. I was really hoping she would be one of the five on the squad, but the powers that be decided not this time around.

The evening before I read the press release from USEF announcing the team and alternates, and I got a tangle of emotions in my chest. Not all the emotions were good, but I was surprised how connected I still felt to the whole process even though I have not directly been in the high performance program this year. When my friend called, she was looking for some perspective, as she knew I had been in a similar situation—a few times. I laughed thinking about my initial reactions to reading the squad and said, “Honestly, I don’t think I have it yet!”

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Sinead Halpin (third from left) with Kim Severson, Hannah Sue Burnett and Lynn Symansky. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.

After reading the 2018 WEG list on my computer screen, I hopped up and tried to distract myself, as currently I am six months pregnant with my next shot at a team selection realistically being a few years away. For the past six months I have had to find a lot of ways of distracting myself from the constant gnawing at my soul to do everything humanly possible to find the next superstar or get more intense with the nice few youngsters in the barn or map my season from start to finish for each individual horse with key FEI competitions in mind. I mean I am an upper-level event rider. I have goals, and I’m already late getting to them, and I’m getting left behind. You see this is who I am … or is it?

So here we are in 2018, and I realize it has been four years since WEG in Normandy. I started reflecting on all that has changed. Four years ago I had been texting with Lynn Symansky and Hannah Burnett waiting to get an email telling us if we made the team or not. I couldn’t breathe. I had my dad, my health, my husband, my dog, WEG podium hopes—it was all the way up from here. But if you looked a little closer, you could see I miscalculated my stability on several levels. WEG did not go as planned, and from there things seemed to start taking a downhill turn.

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Sinead teaching with Zeppo. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.

2015 and 2016 consisted of some really tough times. I lost my dad very tragically and unexpectedly. This is something I still struggle with every day. I missed another Olympic Games; my beloved upper-level horse of 10 years was creeping toward retirement; I was more than $20,000 in debt from doing whatever was needed to hang on to competing at the upper levels, and I had no plan of how to dig out; I suffered a quite uncomfortable miscarriage right before a big international competition. Oh, and I was living apart from my husband for most of the year because we were trying to secure the purchase of a farm in Florida since it was becoming obvious we needed something “real” to hang on to. My confidence was at an all-time low, and to say I was struggling would be an understatement.

After and during the haze that was 2015/2016, Tik and I started to realize our lives and future were 100 percent up to us and those we chose to have relationships with. We needed to build something so we could handle life’s ups and downs with more solid footing underneath our unsteady feet. The rug had been pulled out enough. We either keep becoming victims of the rug, or we build something under the damn thing. This was not an easy transition. This meant for once making choices that were not based on chasing brilliance but based simply on starting over again and doing things cleaner and smarter, being less interested in shiny and more interested in sturdy.

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Sinead and her late father Eamon Halpin. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.

During this time we realized the importance of the people we chose to have relationships with. In my reflections the root of any success or climbing out of any struggle seemed to be some solid relationships we had built with good people. Some real stresses we had endured came from taking advice from the wrong people and working with some people whose morals and goals did not align with our own—and that was on us. We had to make some tough choices that seemed to be taking us away from immediate competitive aspirations, but in return we started to find our feet. And to our surprise when we assumed responsibility, this is when guardian angels started coming out of the woodwork.

We had amazing friends step up and help sign on our farm. They saw us desperate to grow, and we were not able to secure a mortgage on our own. They had become quite successful by building their businesses and understood our struggle. Then the friends who had originally encouraged us to buy a farm stepped in and gave us a loan to help secure the down payment, as they understood it was near impossible in our industry to earn what we needed in instant capital to secure our farm.

Another dear friend of mine helped me dig out of most of my debt, as she was desperately concerned about my reputation and making sure I preserved the relationships with the team around me. We made a plan, and we worked through it together. Another family of friends wanted us to have more control over the quality of horses we were riding and helped us start a small sales section of the business where we got to choose the horses we would buy to produce and then sell on.

Not to mention the longstanding clients who just kept sticking with us while the electricity in the barn didn’t work, and there was no tack room or hot water. Or others who didn’t even live in the country anymore and still kept horses with us because they knew we needed them to.

These friends were relationships we had built over years. Teaching lessons, teaching clinics, teaching their kids, friendly conversations in the barn. None of these relationships were built through horse ownership or chance meetings with billionaires. They were fostered through normal 45-minute up-down lessons and coffee in the barn aisle. When these friends saw what we needed and that we were willing to say, “Of course I would love you to buy or syndicate a four-star horse or maybe five of them but real life, realistically, what we need is some real-world help, or we are not gonna make it,” then all of these people believed in us as people not just riders or competitors but as human beings trying to figure out how to make it. This was something they all understood and could relate to more than buying a four-star horse. To them we silently made a promise that if and when we got stable enough to get back to the dreams, they would no longer be dreams but attainable goals that would be a product of a business that worked. A business where we do not compromise the people, horses or our core values.

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Sinead Halpin retired her four-star horse Manoir de Carneville in 2017. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

In December of last year, we found out we were pregnant again after our unfortunate experience in 2016. Panic set in again. As a kid I never dreamed about my wedding day or about being a mother. I dreamed about horses. We have just spent years rebuilding, and now I’m intentionally benching myself again—deep breath and focus on the long game. The best thing in my life so far has been my husband, Tik, and our wedding was one of the best weeks of my life, but I did not spend years fantasizing about being a wife, and I’m not even sure I’m good at it! But my husband is my best friend, and we are navigating this life together with laughter, love, some arguing, a lot of mutual respect and some wonderful people around us, so hopefully that is a sign we are doing OK.

Being pregnant is something I know I’m not very good at. I’m envious of those who love the “miracle” and think every baby they see is the most adorable thing ever. When I just wish babies looked like puppies, they are filled with excitement and wonder about the whole process. I am definitely the opposite of this. I hate feeling my body does not belong to me, the only diaper I have changed is on an abscessing foot, and I’m pretty sure kids see me and run the other direction. But I’m hopeful I will eventually change, and I know there are a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, their dreams of being a parent will not be fulfilled, so I am trying to embrace this next chapter.

I started this blog to talk about my perspective on team selection, but by sentence two I knew that was not really going to be the point. I have been on teams, and I have been left off teams, and to be honest most of the time I took it all way too personally. I thought: If I’m not on this team who am I? If I’m not striving to be the best in the world then what’s the point? If they don’t pick me I am a failure. This team stuff started to become who I was instead of what I do, and that mindset was killing me.

If I have learned anything in the past few years in this sport it’s that it’s OK to be selective about the people you befriend, the horses you ride, the owners and sponsors you work with. It’s OK to have the highest goals and wildest dreams, but knowing the difference between right and wrong, removing yourself from toxic situations no matter how enticing they are, and doing right by people and right by yourself is paramount, not only for your success but more importantly to your sanity. It’s not magic; it’s common sense that has become so elusive when we are trying to be anything but common.

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Sinead and her husband Tik Maynard with Zeppo. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.

The day before the team was announced I was texting with the same friends I was texting with four years before. I spoke to our old team coach about our zero-turn lawn mower. I wrote four thank-you notes to people just because I was thankful for them, deposited a few checks in the bank and went out to dinner with my husband. Did I miss the elation of reading an email that said you made a team? Yes, but I also realized the next time I get a letter like that I want it to be a wonderful part of my life and something I will do—not the only thing supplying oxygen to my lungs.

I have not written for the Chronicle since 2015. I have actually had very little to say publicly in the past few years that has not required a script. But I’m starting to find my way again, and as far as that thing called “perspective” is concerned I have a feeling that the quest for it, like anything sought after, is the best part of the story.

Sinead Halpin Equestrian
Copperline Farm

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