Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sinead Halpin Clinic - "If You Can Walk Up the Stairs Without Tripping, You Can Find a Distance"

My buddy Pam and her trust steed Pongo
looking forward to the Sinead Halpin clinic. 
(Originally posted on Horse Junkies United.)

On Valentine’s Day, I gave myself a present that did not include chocolate – I took the day off of work and drove over to audit my friend Pam’s ride in the Sinead Halpin clinic at Bow Brickhill Stables in Milford, NJ.

Sinead is an international level eventer who is currently listed with her horse Manoir De Carneville (‘Tate’) on the USEF High Performance Training ‘A’ list for the 2012 Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team. Sinead and Tate were the highest placed American finishers (3rd) at last year’s Rolex Kentucky and were 15th at Burghley.

I knew it was going to be an interesting experience, when I arrived a little early for Pam’s lesson and caught a little bit of one of the earlier groups jumping small crossrails.

The first thing I heard Sinead say was, “I’m not looking for a perfect distance at the lower levels. You just need to get to the fence and get over without tripping.” Well, I thought to myself, am I ever in the right place, as the search for the perfect distance is my own version of the quest for the holy grail.

Sinead Halpin and clinic participants
at Bow Brickhill Stables
She then told the group "if you can walk up a set of stairs without tripping, you can find a distance." At this point I started to worry, as I've been known to trip going up a flight of stairs, but heck, I grabbed a donut and a chair and settled in for some learning. (Note: You do still have to worry about distances, just not for the purpose of the exercises the riders were doing at that time.)

Pam's session (Beginner Novice level) started with Sinead asking each rider about their previous experience, their horse's experience, what they were currently working on and their goals for that horse. It was a varied group of riders of varying ages and experience and horses ranging from fairly green to "been there-done that". She then asked the riders to warm the horses up as they normally would, and as everyone began circling the ring she discussed her philosophy of training:

"Riding is about communication. When you get on a horse you need to have a set expectation, and you need to be very clear and honest about that with the horse. You want to be friends with the horse; you want a mutual respect."

Sinead asked the riders to begin a series of transitions, and to pay close attention to the horse's response to their aids. When leg was applied, did the horse move off immediately and willingly? When brakes were added, did the horse slow down at once or did it take a few strides. Was the horse heavier in one rein or the other?

Sinead had the riders walk 4 steps, then trot 6, then halt and back up 3 steps. Then she'd ask them to trot 8 steps, walk 7, and ask for right lead canter. After a few minutes, she asked the riders to come to the center and tell her what they'd noticed.

As expected, the riders reported issues with stiff sides, acceleration issues, and brake failures. Sinead's response was to acknowledge the issues and then tell the riders that the issues were things that would not be fixed in a day, but at least now they were really present to what was going on with their horse on that day, and to be mindful of that when riding the upcoming exercises. If you had a phlegmatic horse, you'd need to be ready to ask for more pace, or less on a horse with more engine.

Sinead then talked about what she called the the "Rider Responsibilities." You can tell she's spent some time hanging out with David O'Connor, current coach of the Canadian Event Team and heir to the position as American team coach once Capt. Mark Phillips retires, as these are the exact points he discussed at 2012 International Eventing Forum. (For more on David's take, read Kerry's coverage here.)

The Rider Responsibilities as defined by Sinead at the clinic are as follows:

1. Direction - This isn't just steering, it's being able to control the front of the horse, the hindquarters, and more importantly, knowing how to position them where you want them.

2. Speed -Is that line 5 forward strides or 5 short strides? If it's 5 short strides and you go in with your tail on fire, you're gonna have some issues.

3. Rhythm - Do you have the magic canter, as defined in my Eric Horgan clinic recap, and are you able to maintain it? Is your horse's hind end engaged and is he pinging off the ground in a regular pattern of beats.

4. Balance - Are you and your horse in a state of mental and physical equilibrium? Are you confident, centered, steady?

5. Distance/Measurement (this is what my notes say Sinead called #5, but if you read the David O'Connor post, he calls it Timing. In either case, it boils down to the rider's ability to control numbers 1-4 or to then react to any changes and figure how to fix the situation.

Excercise 1
Sinead had the riders pop over a series of flower boxes. The purpose of the exercise was to test the rider's ability to control Direction and Speed and Rhythm. The first rider handled the Direction and Speed elements, but lost the Rhythm when her horse popped into a canter just before the fence. Sinead explained that the horse was genuine, forward thinking and eager to do his job. She suggested the rider needed to be more centered and keep her position, and that her tendency to soften too much before the fence gave him contradictory messages.

Sinead told the rider to keep a consistent conversation with the horse that told him, "Nope, we're trotting," and asked her to think about where her belly button was located and to stay centered around it.

This next bit was a revelation for me. Sinead stood in front of and about 15 feet before a cone. She told everyone that the "Eye for Distance" starts in your core. She then walked to the cone and asked where the cone was relative to her eyes. She returned to her starting point, then walked back to cone while leaning forward. She then walked to the cone while leaning backwards. "What changed?" she asked. My trainer has told me not to lean forward before a fence because it will mess up my eye. I thought I "got" the concept, but it wasn't until Sinead and the cones that I GOT the concept, and how my center of gravity and the horse's center of gravity were tied to seeing a distance.

Excercise 2
The next exercise incorporated a crossrail to a crossrail oxer. First, the riders rode in at the trot and cantered out on 7 strides. Then they cantered in and out on a more open 6 strides, testing the horse's rideability on a more open line after doing such tight precision work over the boxes.

After all riders rode through the line, Sinead had riders who needed to get their horses more attuned to their aids ride the crossrails on a bending 3 to the two angled flower boxes.  This forced the riders to really focus on their Direction and Speed and making sure their horses were responding immediately to their requests.

The riders who needed to work on their positions as related to application of the aids and Rhythm rode the crossrail line around to the parallel flower boxes.

There's a lot more learning to come, however, it seems to me that it makes sense to dilute this into two posts.  So look for more here and on HJU shortly.


  1. Now this was just what I needed before my next jumping lesson! THANKS for posting!

  2. Glad you guys liked it -- Part 2 is coming soon!

  3. Thanks for the very detailed notes. I find the notion of seeing your distance being linked to your centre of gravity quite interesting. What makes total sense to me is that we have to stay totally balanced and still and that that will assist. I have been walking up and down shifting forwards and backwards and I can see that that makes a difference. Even a small shift makes a difference. So you have really helped! Thanks

  4. Dear Horse Thought-- So glad to have helped! That was a real light bulb moment for me as well. Sometimes seems the simplest things always are!