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September 6, 2011

Behind The Scenes At Burghley—A Competitor’s View

Sinead Halpin rocked the dressage at her first Burghley in the brand new breeches she bought just moments before her test. Photo courtesy of Calina/Horse Junkies United.

I’ve timed it perfectly. I can get down to watch Michael Pollard’s dressage test in the riders’ tent at stabling and give myself exactly 25 minutes to get ready for my own dressage test. I already have my top hat and tails ready, and my breeches and shirt are in my bag, which is next to my spurs and boots.

I am literally congratulating myself on being so organized!

I watch Michael pull off a lovely test to put himself in the top 10, and I run out of the tent toward the lorry to get ready for my Burghley debut! I pull out my breeches and realize I grabbed my cross-country breeches that have large ROMFH logos down both legs—impossible for dressage at BURGHLEY! 

I think quickly, “I’ll just borrow a pair from my other American teammates... Wait... Michael Pollard, Will Coleman, Boyd Martin...” Panic sets in as I grab the credit card and run toward the trade fair...

This is just one of the stories that came out of my amazing weekend at the Land Rover Burghley CCI****!

Fortunately, in case you were worried, I solved the breeches disaster after scaring a nice British sales boy while I sat throwing breeches on the floor looking for a white pair of 26Ls. He made the wrong move of handing me a beige pair in the correct size, and I proceeded to yell, “WHITE! They have to be WHITE! IT’S BURGHLEY!” without even looking up.

With a £39 charge on my credit card and only 1 minute late on my scheduled departure toward the main arena, Tate and I made our way to the ring.

Dressage at Burghley. What can I say? It’s awesome, and it’s particularly awesome when you pick up the trot in the warm-up on a horse who loves to perform! Tate can be quite difficult to ride on the flat when there are no flashing lights and atmosphere. I’ll admit I didn’t dare sit the trot until after we entered the main arena, but he was all business when I did!

I can actually say that halfway through our test, I started to enjoy myself and think about what dressage actually is... It’s center stage. It’s a place to show off your horse, and my horse was ready to be seen! I sat a little taller and showed the judges how amazing my slender chestnut is and actually got a few 9s!

I was talking to my mom later and saying how when Tate feels confident he just loves to show off, and she half-smiled and said, “Well, that makes two of you.” I suppose she’s right. ;)

I walked the cross-country more than a few times. I walked with the Captain [Mark Phillips], and being the designer of the course, he has amazing insight on how it was meant to ride and how the horses would jump the jumps. I then walked with David [O'Connor], who has almost horse-like insight about how the horses would “feel” at different places in the course.

Eleven minutes, 40 seconds, is a long time, and the horses are going to get tired and need a break sometimes, and sometimes you’re going to have to keep on kicking. And being less experienced at the four-star level, it’s helpful knowing when to kick and when to let up!

Tate was amazing on cross-country, but the 11:52 seconds I experienced was unlike anything I have felt before. Commitment was the name of the game. There was no time nor leniency for a second thought—You think twice, and you’re on the floor. 

Between fences 2 and 3 there was a lot of time, and I can say that was the only time I remember really thinking about my emotions. I was nervous. But as we sailed over 3 and headed toward the Leaf Pit, those emotions got replaced with actions: “Slow down now! Go now! Sit up now! Turn now! Believe me Tate... Now!”

The next time I thought anything other than an action wasn’t until we were coming down to the last water. Tate was getting tired, so I needed to be really good and “give him the footwork he needs to solve the problem,” said David before we headed out. So I set him up as well as I could for the last water, and he stayed with me, and I stayed with him. And as I jumped the second-to-last, I thought, “Wow, we might just do this...” 

I ended up with no jumping penalties, 4 time penalties, a sound, tired horse and education in GET R DUN! The next 20 minutes was a whirlwind of getting Tate cooled down and “Can you believe it?” and “Can we have a quick interview?” and hugs from my family, friends, teammates, coaches and friends. And finally seeing Tate reach down to grab a mouthful of Burghley grass.

That was the moment I got a lump in my throat out of absolute devotion to this horse, this sport and all the people involved in the last 20-odd years of this journey. 

I watched the rest of the cross-country from the owners’/riders’ tent next to the box that had several screens covering almost every jump and every horse on course. It was jam-packed, everyone engulfed in the drama that was live on the screen in front of us and literally taking place on the estate surrounding us. Our marquee was filled with anxious athletes and admitted unabashed eventing junkies soaking up the last moments of this once-a-year and 50th anniversary event.

When the day ended, several dreams were made and several hopes were lost, but fortunately all horses and riders ended walking away to fight another day.

Saturday night we spent between the barn and the nearby food tent (complete with bar and DJ). Megan, in usual style, can keep everyone laughing and in good humor while icing Tate, listening to me yammer on about some jump or last year or next year or on and on. She can entertain us while hanging fluids, organizing the tack, developing a business plan, writing her own blog, doing interpretive dance, checking Facebook, and, first and foremost, loving on Tate as much as I do. It means more than the world to me knowing that Meg is there wanting all of this as much as I do and that she is jumping every jump not just for me but for Tate.

I watched all these girls (the grooms of the North American horses) work with these amazing horses and saw that the love and bond they have with “their” horses is something that is second-to-none. As riders, we get to experience an unusual relationship with our horses as we go “to battle.” But the guys back in the tents are the unsung heroes that run on nothing but heart and coffee (and sometimes rum for Megan!).

So a big shout-out to the guys back at home keeping the ship afloat (Sarah Rupert!!) and the grooms keeping us riders and horses on form and in check and sometimes taking care of the wounded the day of competition.

Show jumping day started out just lovely. Then the rain came. Unfortunately Tate struggles a bit in wet, muddy grass for show jumping. I haven’t quite mastered how to help him cope with a bit of rough going on the final day if conditions are less than average. The morning group jumped in great weather, but by the mid-day break, true English weather had set in and wouldn’t let up until about an hour after show jumping was done.

I made a mistake and rushed Tate through a turn in the beginning of the show jumping track, feeling that he was getting stuck in the turn due to the heavy footing. He coped with that jump but struggled through the next two fences, having them both down behind. We then settled into a respectable rhythm for the next 10 fences and jumped them clear, finishing 15th in our first Burghley and winning the International Pairs Challenge with Mary King.

I walked into the prize-giving one place behind Mark Todd. We were instructed to salute to the royal box on my entrance, and I thought, “Wow, this is a different view from sitting in the stands.” As I stood directly behind Mary King, Andrew Nicholson and William Fox- Pitt while BBC filmed and Princess Anne presented, my horse stood at attention, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Mark glanced over his shoulder and said, “Well done, Sinead,” and I almost said, “You too.” But then I thought, “That would be a silly response… say something clever! This is your moment! Be clever...”

So in all my glory, I smiled, and out of an awkward, far-too-long silence, said, “Thanks...” And he turned back around and picked up his conversation with Frances Whittington. I silently yelled at myself for being such a goober, then realized Mark Todd knew my name, so the smile returned.

I’m still smiling as I am on my flight home to New Jersey. I can’t wait to get home and get back to my other horses, my amazing boyfriend, my fabulous working student Sarah, my adorable dog Zeppo and life as usual. I did spend a quiet moment with Tate in his stall today, just making sure I reflected on the experience we just had together and soaked up the last few moments of the Burghley experience.

He chomped lazily on his Fibergized, almost looking at me like, “I know you’re gonna get a little emotional here, and it’s cool, I get it.” (I miss him already!) 

I went to Burghley to test myself and my horse against my own expectations, not to prove my place on a team. But now I do look forward to the Olympic year with confidence not only in myself but also my peers. After spending time with fellow North Americans over the last few weeks, I know I’m not the only one with high standards and expectations. I’m excited about the prospect of coming together to put our individual pursuits toward a common goal, an Olympic medal (or a few).

A huge thanks to Jackie Green and Catherine Burrell (and Elizabeth Power) at Maizey Manor for housing Tate, Meg and I for the last few weeks, and to David O’Connor, my mom and Jim, Jacquie Mars, The Captain, Sarah Ike, Brendan and P.J., Sarah R. at home, Steve Teichman, The Meg Kep, all the Canadians, Americans, Irish and British folk, Mary and Ian (who let us stay in their wonderful home!), everyone who helped financially, emotionally and logistically to get us here, Burghley, the U.K. (and Bacon Baps!!) and my brilliant horse, Manoir De Carneville. 

Sinead

Sinead Halpin Equestrian

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