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May 21, 2014

A Student Of Empathy

Photo by Cynthia Sayre Gilbert.

This season seems like it has been unusually tough on U.S. eventing. We have lost so many lovely horses and been blindsided by injuries, but we still kick on. 

Yet I have still found myself looking in the mirror, asking, "What am I doing?" and questioning the sport I have dedicated my life to.

At first I thought I had lost it when these questions started entering my head, my positive nature derailed.

"I might as well throw in the towel and take up gardening."

(I have nothing against gardening, for the record.)

After that fleeting moment, I looked back in the mirror and thought how lucky I am to share my life with animals that teach me to love, to desire greatness, to be patient. But most importantly, I realized, after spending time in this sport, through the highs and lows of competition, through the frustration and elation in training and bitter lows of injury, I have learned empathy.

Empathy is the ability to first recognize and then relate to an emotion of another. Empathy often is confused with sympathy and compassion, but they are not the same thing. They are in the same family but not to be confused. Compassion is what we feel when someone or something is in need of something; we want to help them. Sympathy is understanding when someone or an animal is troubled or in pain.

Empathy is a word that stands alone and encompasses what connects us to these animals. Empathy, to me, is experiencing emotions that match another person or animal’s emotions; it becomes hard to differentiate between what are your individual emotions and what are the combined emotions.

The relationship we have with these animals is an unspoken language of empathy, a conversation that is based on recognized emotions. We work tirelessly developing a dialogue so we can head into competition—no matter at novice or four-star—looking to answer the questions that are challenging the relationship we have with our horses. In the beginning, the dialogue notices if the horse is a nervous shipper, and as the years get on, you notice the one tail swish, the ear flick, the odd step, the feeling when that horse says, literally, she is ready or he is not. But no one else knows but you.

I competed my lovely, syndicate-owned mare, On Cue, at MCTA Horse Trials the weekend after Rolex, and it's becoming the running joke that I win the hunter award for cross-country because she has the most beautiful rounds, but I go at a snail’s pace. The week before I literally could have been 45 seconds under at a four-star with Tate, but I can’t seem to put my foot on the gas with this mare. At the beginning of her career she made time at every preliminary. I then pushed her too far, missing the signs. It ended with a bad fall from which my body paid the price, but I struggled to forgive the mental anguish I gave the horse. My body has healed, and I have more empathy for this horse than most in the barn.

I ran into my good friend Max Corcoran (Karen O’Connor’s former head groom) at Jersey Fresh this past weekend. Max helped me at a few events this winter, and she instantly recognized Cue as a lovely creature but stoic as well as fragile. Max asked me how Cue was doing last week, and I instantly threw myself under the bus and said, “She is perfect, but I can’t seem to take my foot off the brake. I have the most beautiful cross-country rounds but for some reason I can’t seem to kick her to go faster in the heat of the moment.” Max didn’t hesitate. She looked at me and said, “You know. You will know when the time is right, and until then you just take your time.”

This sport has an amazing amount of empathy between all those involved. Horse to rider, rider to coach, rider to owner, rider and groom, groom to horse, rider to fan, and this list continues. I could write books about the relationships I have had with all involved in the team (human and horse) that surround me, moments where something happens with a person or horse that just lifts you up. It is the balance of these relationships that keeps us connected and in love with the sport and the horse. Those truly connected feel the struggle and the success of those around them and This Eventing Community is connected. I will continue to make myself a student of empathy to the horses and people around me.

I write this blog to all of those who have loved and lost in this sport at every level. We have cheered for you and cried for you...together. XOXO

Sinead Halpin Equestrian