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September 28, 2011

Who's THAT Rider?

In April Sinead Halpin received the national four-star championship trophy from David O'Connor, her longtime coach and mentor. Photo by Tik Maynard.

I assume the position: fully dressed for cross-country, sitting on the tack trunk, striking my crop at the grass, adjusting my helmet, fidgeting with my watch and eventually settling into a deep stare at nothing in particular.

Sarah, my working student, asks if I’m all right. She’s not yet been to a competition with me where I’m heading out over an advanced track, and she’s confused by my lack of normal confidence and chatter.

I was at Plantation Field, about to jump Outfoxed around our first advanced together, and earlier in the day I’d jumped Classical King around his first one-star. I find it a bit easier to keep up my general up-beat persona when I’m riding at the lower levels, but at the upper levels, I still find it an effort to get myself feeling calm and cool.

My horses were both very good on Saturday. King jumped a very expressive double-clear round, nearly jumping me off in the first water, and Foxy jumped a slow clear in the advanced. 

I do feel that Plantation has the potential to be one of the best events in the country, due to its new all-weather arena, as well as fabulous spectating on the cross-country. They have a bit of work to do on the cross-country course to remedy some of the issues that occurred this year, but I feel confident that the crew will make the necessary changes to the track so it contains a bit more flow for next year.

I was literally galloping around on Foxy on the course just thinking how lucky I was to be there on these two lovely horses. One of the most addictive things about this sport is the fact that you are always learning… You never quite get it. It’s so important to develop a certain confidence and relay that to the horse. It’s also vital to constantly assess your weaknesses in order to improve, which can be difficult. It’s an unusual balance. 

This brings me back to a conversation I had at Burghley.

David O’Connor stopped me while I was walking out of the stabling and asked if he could talk to me for a second. I quickly went through the things I could have possibly done wrong, and I assured myself after a quick mental check that, “Nope, I think I’m good!” So after a prolonged second, I said yes, suspiciously.

David proceeded to tell me he had overheard a conversation I had with William (Fox-Pitt) about the cross-country course. During this exchange, I had commented that I was sure his horse would be fine because he was in the irons, and I wasn’t so sure Tate would be so lucky with me in the navigation seat.

David raised an eyebrow, and, in a more assertive tone than I’m used to from the usual Mr. Cool, said, “Don’t do that.”

I looked at him blankly.

“You are THAT rider,” he continued, “You’re playing at the level. Stop acting like you’re a guest.”

I felt a lump of self-doubt creep up in my throat. I thought I was cleverly hiding my “in over my head” feeling, but David saw straight through it. I honestly said, “But what if I make a mistake out there?”

“Then you are still THAT rider, but you made a mistake, and you’ll come home and fix it,” he said.

I nodded and walked toward the course for my final walk, contemplating whether I really was “that” rider…

When I walked to the start box on Tate later that day, I was trying to stay cool. Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton came up while I walked the short walk with Meg from warm-up to the start box. Phillip gave me some last-minute advice on a particular line on course, and Boyd looked at me and said, “Just one jump at a time.”

And when I reached the box, David seemed to appear from out of nowhere at the last minute. And just loud enough for me to hear, he said, “Be that rider…”

Exactly 11 minutes and 32 seconds later, he gave me a proud smile and a hug and said, “I told you so.”

While galloping around Plantation, I felt like I was a bit out of my comfort zone with a green horse and a new horse, but I’m starting to develop a new type of confidence. I’m starting to wrap my head around the fact that some days you’re out there to learn, some days you’re out there to teach, some days don’t make any sense at all, and on a very few precious days all the stars align and magic happens.

Burghley and Plantation were two different ballgames, but the same rules apply, the same players play and the same new lessons are there to be learned…

Sinead

Sinead Halpin Equestrian