Before this spring’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, Sinead Halpin was just another face in the crowd of 30-and-under eventing hopefuls, far from the favorite to make the biggest mark at the USA’s only 4-star competition.
But after her impressive third-place effort as the highest-placed American, behind British eventing legend Mary King, who was first and second — and ahead of another British legend, her former mentor, William Fox-Pitt — nothing was quite the same for the 29-year-old Branchburg resident.
“It was really, really cool,” she said, reflecting on the reaction to her performance from friends, acquaintances and people she didn’t even know. Halpin was flooded with “phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, everything. I couldn’t really keep up with it all, which was exciting. It’s almost embarrassing, honestly.”
Halpin, who works out of Fieldstone Farm in Pittstown, noted that by the weekend of April 30 – May 1, when the Kentucky Horse Park was flooded with thousands of fans, “I didn’t really notice everybody else there. You are so focused on the task at hand,” she explained.
A fault-free show jumping round before a packed stadium on Manoir de Carneville, which would elevate her to the top three in the standings, brought a burst of tears as she crossed the finish line.
While it obviously was “such an emotional moment for me,” Halpin said, “I didn’t realize the magnitude of how many people were in that moment.”
Her horse, known to his friends as Tate, was turned out to rest after coming home from Kentucky and Halpin continued with the rest of her routine. But a few weeks later, while she was at the Virginia Horse Trials with another mount, the Rolex aura was still in force.
“So many people came up to me and said, ‘I was in tears, too,’ and I said, ‘Oh my God, you were there?’ Afterwards, I think the main thing that hit me was how many people were following and supporting us. It wasn’t just me and Tate out there.”
One of her many lessons from Rolex is realizing, “You get so over-focused you tend to forget there are people out there we can help or who can help us with guidance, or support or just a little inspiration. The number of people who said they can relate to me is really cool,” said Halpin, who believes her accomplishment proves to others, “You can do this. It’s very doable if you work really hard at it. I’m somebody they can relate to. It’s really awesome.”
Halpin, who gives clinics when she isn’t competing on weekends, notes interest in her teaching has risen since Rolex. At a Canadian clinic, for instance, she had to stay an extra day in order to teach everyone who wanted a lesson.
Tate was competitive, but hadn’t been winning big time when Halpin went to the Netherlands last fall on the U.S. squad for the Boekelo 3-star. It was her first European competition and just a look around at the European talent when she got there made her realize, “Whoa, we are not going to be in the top 10.”
She was 21st of 107 there while riding on the silver medal team, an experience that opened her eyes. It helped pave the way for her achievement at Rolex, where she only had been hoping for a “successful result,” rather than a specific placing.
Next up for Halpin and Tate is Burghley, the British 4-star in September. She hopes the approach that enabled her to succeed at Rolex will carry through.
“I’m trying really hard not to change my focus,” commented Halpin, who has honed her skills under the guidance of Karen and David O’Connor.
“My horse is still maturing and I’m still maturing and we set a tone that lets us get better in small increments.
“I need to improve, but I like the progression it’s taking if we can keep this consistency up so we remain a player at this level. I’m trying not to change my focus too much.”
With the London Olympics on the horizon next year, Halpin has the potential to be a contender, though anything can happen along the way in her demanding discipline.
“I realize how fickle this sport is,” she said, while adding, “London hopefully will be the next productive step. I’m trying to keep my feet firmly planted.”
Tate is the only advanced horse she has at the moment, though several others are coming along. U.S. eventing team veterinarian Dr. Brendan Furlong and his wife, Dr. Wendy Leich, have given her the ride on Classical King, a talented 7-year-old jumper by Lion King. He is at 1-star level now, as she focuses on his flat work.
Another prospect is D-Lux, a 6-year-old who hasn’t evented yet, but is well-bred “with big-time potential written all over him,” Halpin believes.
A partnership with Halpin seemed logical to the Furlongs, who also live in Pittstown.
“We picked her before she starred at Rolex. She’s a local girl and a hard worker who rides well,” said Furlong. And, added his wife, “she’s hungry.”
Working with the Furlongs is a treat for Halpin.
“They’re so educated, there’s always a good dialogue back and forth. I don’t know how I got so lucky,” she said, noting they are helping her work on syndication, a key to having a strong string of horses.
Halpin’s head has not been turned by her recent success.
“I’m fortunate to be a little older than the young riders who are just getting the first taste of it, and a little bit younger than the guys who have been doing it forever, so I’m still quite impressed but not naive,” is the way she puts it.
Even so, her 4-star finish has made a big difference in her life. Being the best American at Rolex, she noted, “has allowed me all these other ideas and dreams and goals to come into my daily thoughts.”
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