The whole drive I had been chugging Red Bull and giving myself pep talks about developing a thicker skin while anxiously surfing my XM radio. A few weeks earlier I had been having some conversations with peers about our need to cross-country school more often and in more “uncomfortable” situations. It’s pretty easy to set everything up to go according to plan while schooling, and often that is important, but if you’re looking to sharpen your instincts for a championship competition there’s only so much trotting back and forth over a ditch that’s going to help you.
The week after Virginia Horse Trials I headed to Middleburg, Va., with four horses: two that I was planning on competing at the Jaguar Land Rover Bromont CCI** (Quebec) in their first two-star and two youngsters that just came along for the ride.
My plan was to flat a few days with David O’Connor because he was then off to Ireland to coach. After that, I decided to drive up to Boyd Martin’s top class new cross-country facility and get some lessons with the man, Phillip Dutton. I wanted to give these two very nice, but green horses the best chance of being successful at their first three-day and didn’t want to have a mistake and think, “Well I should have…”
To speak bluntly, I hate cross-country schooling. I think most people do but rarely admit it. But I actually love cross-country in theory and in competition. At upper-level events, I am extremely nervous before I go out on course, but once I’m out of the box the nerves are somewhere whispering in the background, but with just a hint of a voice.
|Although Sinead Halpin often dreads cross-country schooling, she’s found it invaluable for all of her horses, including young ones like High Altitude. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.|
But in day-to-day cross-country schooling I find it difficult to shut off my over-active and critical brain. I want to analyze, predict and calculate things so I “know” what is going to happen. So where is the balance between educating and planning versus instinct and reaction? Here we cross the tricky line between training and competition.
While training you must be thinking, reacting, planning and often re-evaluating. If you’re not thinking you’re not learning. In competition, you’re not learning; you simply must be doing. After a competition in reflection you are learning, but in the moment, effectually you are just doing. I knew that Phillip was going to be the perfect person to push me to get a little tougher and get a little better, but it was not going to be a cakewalk.
I anxiously hopped on Grey Area, a 9-year-old gelding owned by the Grey Area Partnership, eager to see what we were capable of in what was sure to be an intense school. “Skippy,” as he is known in the barn, is a sensitive athletic Irish Thoroughbred cross with a sharp wit and sharper opinions. I glanced up and saw Phillip coming around the turn in the golf cart, and I saw someone was with him. I figure the occupant is an owner, and slowly I find myself more comfortable in the tack than on the ground, which is normal. I start to think, “This is going to be fine.” Then I see who the passenger is…GEORGE MORRIS!
My first thought is, “OMG, I didn’t even polish my boots, and WHY did no one warn me?!”
Oh yes, I am at Boyd Martin’s being coached by Phillip Dutton—not exactly gossipy texting girls that would give me a heads up. Damn it. No matter, no turning back now.
We have a friendly exchange, and Phillip sends me to warm up over some fences. Long story short, I could not stop micromanaging, and Phillip ended up getting on Skippy while George and I watched.
He politely said to me, “You know, it takes two to pull.” He then said I had a beautiful horse and that Phillip is a master at what he does. I politely said I 100 percent agreed.
As I hopped back on, Phillip explained some technique and an idea of my intentions when riding this horse. He then said, “This is not going to come naturally. It is a decision you have to make, a choice to decide what you are going to do,” and off we went. A few tough hours later I was loading up the horses with a lot to think about.
|Sinead Halpin schools her new novice ride Carolina. Photo courtesy of Sinead Halpin.|
I went back to Virginia, watched the videos and thought about everything Phillip had said, which often isn’t much, but his words have a strong point even if subtly said.
A few days later I loaded up the horses from Virginia and stopped in Pennsylvania to have one more cross-country school on our way back to New Jersey before heading to Quebec the next day. Thankfully Boyd had time to help me because Phillip was occupied, and the day was perfect, the horses were perfect, Boyd was great and what a difference a few days and some humble pie can make.
Both horses carried on to Bromont and were fabulous. Top Gun finished ninth and Grey Area 11th. The cross-country rounds had moments where both horses were perfection and moments I was pretty thankful we now had the confidence to figure out some challenging situations!
I did not win the event nor was I expecting to, but do I plan on these horses winning events? Absolutely. Being realistic about where these horses are in their training is important, but after our time in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Quebec, those wins are closer. The comment, “If you’re not winning you’re losing” is probably true, but if you use every loss to get closer to a win, bring on the losing! I’m sure there are a few more lost battles along the way, but the point of losing is to learn how to win.