No one has had a more tumultuous year in the public eye than our newest columnist, Sinead Halpin, but she’s mastered the art of introspection on her journey to the top.
I’m standing in the center of the main arena in front of the podium, watching tradition unfold. Miranda Rock and her husband, Orlando, who actually live at England’s famed Burghley House, are waiting to present trophies to the top three award winners of the Land Rover Burghley CCI****.
I suddenly realize that I’ve never participated in something like this and am instantly panicked; I am going to make a fool of myself in front of the ever-so-formal British crowd.
To my right, the winner, Andrew Nicholson, quickly dismounts from his horse and strides gracefully toward the podium with a “cool as Christian Grey” type swagger, and the panic really sets in. I have no idea what I’m doing.
Finally I turn to my left, and in a desperate, childlike whisper, I squeak, “William?”
William Fox-Pitt, my former boss and one of the greatest event riders in the world, is chatting nonchalantly with his owner. He doesn’t hear me. So again, and in an even more strained voice, I plead, “William!”
He looks around at me with a raised eyebrow as I stammer, “What do I do?!”
How To Think On Our Own
Returning from Europe [after finishing second at Burghley last month—the best finish by a U.S. rider at the event in 19 years], I find myself musing over why European riders tend to beat our American riders. Does the “field education” of the average British rider versus the “in the arena” education of the average American rider create a more instinctual and therefore more competitive rider? Are we so “trained” as Americans that we forget how to think on our own?
In England, thousands of kids are brought up in the hunt field and normally kicked out into an eventing yard at an early age. In our country, we lack the horse tradition that’s engrained in the European cultures; our less knowledgeable, nervous parents send young kids to learn in manufactured, controlled environments. And while this approach is deemed safer, it often keeps our young kids from developing the natural instincts that will later help them develop a confident thought process while rising through the levels.
So how can we instill instinct and a correct thought process without changing our whole culture?
When I moved to work with Karen and David O’Connor at their farm in The Plains, Va., in 2001, I was only 19 and uncomfortable as hell. All of a sudden my trainers were asking me questions: “Why do you have a flash noseband on your horse? Actually, why do you have a noseband on at all?”
I would answer with an uncomfortable “I have no idea” look and mutter, “Well, that’s what I have always been told to do?”
This is when my teenage frustration started kicking in. I had no idea why David was trying to make me so uncomfortable. Why was he asking me all this? Couldn’t he just tell me why? Wasn’t that why I came here, to learn from him? If he could just tell me what to do, life would be easy again.
It’s taken me nearly 10 years to realize that he wasn’t trying to make me uncomfortable, or to embarrass me, or to make me feel like a failure—he was simply trying to get me to think.
In a young rider’s career, developing instinct and a correct thought process is crucial. Learning the basics of a good position and how to maintain a rhythm is the foundation that will promote good instincts. And instinct can be practiced as simply as galloping out in your field, where life is bound to throw some unknowns in your direction. There’s also foxhunting, games rallies, playing polo or anything where your focus is on something other than what’s directly under you.
Once these tools are starting to become confirmed, the most important lesson is training yourself how to think, therefore influencing how you learn. This is where investigating how our instructors are teaching the lessons, as opposed to scrutinizing how many lessons are taught, becomes vital.
In the fall of 2007 I moved to England to work for William, and it was only then that I truly started to appreciate the thought process that the O’Connors had instilled in me. I quickly realized that the only way I was going to be able to learn anything in my new role was to develop a keen eye and mimic a 5-year-old child: “Why do you warm the horse up like that?” I asked. “Why are you taking that horse to that event and not to this one? Why do you gallop that horse more than the other one?”
Thankfully for me, William’s children were 1 and 3, so he was used to a constant buzz in his ear! He was gracious and thoughtful with his answers, and slowly I became comfortable with our dialogue.
When I returned from England two years later, I was still torn about how much training was too much training. And for the next few years, to be honest, I shut myself off to a lot of useful knowledge. After things started getting a bit stagnant early in 2011, I decided to head down to Florida and based myself near the O’Connors again.
And I went right back to being uncomfortable again. Believe me, David was not shy about vocalizing his disappointment in my stagnant way of thinking.
I had U.S. Equestrian Federation training sessions with Mark Phillips where I couldn’t get anything right, and I found myself again overthinking, overanalyzing and in general feeling out of my depth. Doubt started creeping in. Had I fallen back into the American stereotype of over-training and failing to produce independent thoughts?
After the Florida season ended, I headed back to my home in New Jersey and allowed myself to digest all the new information I’d learned. I accepted that it often takes a while for thoughts to become your own, but being uncomfortable is the only way to improve. There’s also a time when a rider has to know when to stop adding piles of new knowledge on top of things she hasn’t wrapped her head around yet. Everyone must find her own limit and be self-aware enough to allow perfect practice to turn into instinct.
When I headed to my first four-star, Rolex Kentucky, that spring, I felt prepared and confident, and the third-placed ribbon I took home was tangible proof that my process had worked.
Fast forward a year to this spring, when I was back in England again, five years after my last stint there, and finding myself in yet another uncomfortable situation. I did not make the Olympic team.
Admittedly, training camp had turned into one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. Nine riders, countless instructors, farriers, veterinarians, a sports psychologist and a nutritionist were firing a barrage of far too much information at you. Lucky for me, I was not going to the Olympics.
So after a week of deep breaths and soul searching, I got down to business. It was time to ask some questions.
I had lessons where I rode and Phillip Dutton and Mark watched, then Phillip got on, then I got back on. I remember stopping and saying, “I have no idea what I am doing.” And Phillip would calmly and genuinely answer, “I know. Keep going. We’re going to keep talking until we figure this out.”
I had test rides with Linda Zang where I simply could not figure out the angle of the half-pass. Her response? “Don’t worry. We are going to get this. Keep going.”
I had honest conversations with my coaches and peers, realizing that maybe I had stayed in my personal bubble too long in the pre-Olympic season and missed my chance. Through this harsh and eye-opening process I tried to keep breathing, keep moving and control how I behaved, and to ultimately grow as a rider and person.
Here is where I truly learned another huge lesson about the training process: Surround yourself with the best riders, the best people, and most of all, people you trust. It might take a while to figure out who your “team” is, but to be successful at this sport you need people around you that lift you up.
The influence a harsh or ignorant word spoken at the wrong time can have is amazing, and it’s equally mind blowing how the right suggestion with the perfect timing can win medals. Different instructors work for different people, but ultimately it’s up to us as riders to seek out the person who translates knowledge in a way that’s understandable, challenges us to think, and inspires us to be great.
After I left training camp, I went to a farm in England where I was comfortable and started letting everything soak in. I rode by myself but in the company of friends and people I trusted. The crew at Maizey Manor was comprised of Olympic rejects from several countries, and we all knew our wounds were raw. Our conversations and opinions had to be treated with the utmost care and caution.
Slowly I felt stronger and more confident. The words and lessons that had been spoken in the weeks prior started finding their place in my training. And when I headed to Burghley, just a few weeks after I thought I’d be riding down centerline at the Olympic Games, I felt prepared and confident. Manoir De Carneville and I finished second there as a result of training, pressure and disappointment spurring change. And I’ll continue to challenge my students and myself in our way of thinking in order to learn as efficiently, thoughtfully and confidently as possible.
When standing in that main arena at Burghley, feeling uncomfortable and unsure of what to do, I was proud of the instinct I’d created within myself. I turned to someone I trusted and simply asked, “What do I do?”
William half laughed and responded, “Just watch Andrew and do what he does.” A perfect, simple answer.
So I walked up confidently and accepted my prize after watching Andrew Nicholson do the same. And I’m thankful for this learning experience, because hopefully next time there’ll be no one in front of me to mimic.
Sinead Halpin, 30, is a professional event rider based in Pittstown, N.J. A frequent member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s eventing training lists, she began competing at the advanced level in 1999, and she made her four-star debut last year aboard Manoir De Carneville. Together the pair finished third at the 2011 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and second at the 2012 Land Rover Burghley CCI**** (England). This is her first Between Rounds column.