The visual of Sinead Maynard’s (née Halpin) face as she determinedly laid down the cross country trip of her life to lead the field at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, just her third start at the then-four-star level, is still burned into my mind. She lands off of a combination aboard the much-loved Manoir de Carneville and adjusts her reins, her jaw set and her eyes laser beam focused on the next question. She rode with a fire, with something to prove. “Would that be one of the great rounds of your life?” Samantha Clark would ask Sinead at the finish. “Yes. For sure,” came the answer without hesitation.
She wasn’t the only one on a mission that weekend, late in the summer of 2012.
The London Olympic Games had come and gone, taking with them a mixed bag of results for the U.S. eventing team. A few weeks prior to the Games, the short listed riders, among which were Sinead as well as Allison Springer, who’d traveled to final team training in England were gathered in a room to hear the final selection of the team.
To be clear and fair: U.S. eventing and its team selection process and training have made great strides since 2012. But this particular team announcement, which gave some the best news of their careers at the same time as their friends got some of the worst, left those who weren’t on the team awash in disappointment. They packed their trunks, unsure of where to go next after pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into training over the last year. We talk often about the elation of representing your country in the Olympic Games. We don’t mention as often the rebuilding that comes when you don’t make the team.
Exhausted, is how Allison Springer describes her feelings after receiving the news that she would not be traveling to London as a member of the squad. This was her second attempt at making a World Championship team (she was named a traveling alternate for the 2010 World Equestrian Games). “You just feel so deflated,” she recalls now. “After so many years of dreaming (of going to the Olympics), to be so close … I just remember feeling overwhelmingly exhausted.”
The decision to pursue a competition overseas is daunting. There are still bills to be paid at home, a business to keep running, clients to keep happy. Yet on the other end of the spectrum dwells another force: career goals, achievements that lend themselves well to keeping the aforementioned business running. It’s the eternal dichotomy faced by every professional rider: do you go big, or do you go home?
And so, in the wake of the heartbreak that comes alongside missing out on your first Olympic berth by the skin of your teeth, Sinead and Allison packed their tack trunks and headed to Jacky Green’s Maizey Manor Farm to prepare for the unlikeliest of plan B’s: Burghley Horse Trials.
“How does Burghley end up as your backup plan?” Allison can’t help but chuckle at the irony as she looks back on that weekend now.
Nestled just shy of two hours to the west of London, Maizey Manor Farm has played host to countless overseas guests through the years. Championship teams and individual riders alike come to make their final preparations for important events with Jacky as the ever-welcoming host. It was here where the paths of several women, all carrying the burdens the year had laid on them, converged at the most opportune of times – and perhaps when they all needed the camaraderie the most.
In my conversations with Sinead and Allison, we talk at length about these weeks spent at Maizey Manor and the healing power that it had on all who were there. There were just a few weeks until Burghley, so each rider kept her head down and stuck with her program, quietly turning the sting of failure into the determination to come back from it.
“Jacky creates such an amazing environment,” Allison says. “It was just the mending your heart needed.” Sinead echoes this sentiment. She says she lost her way a bit after the emotional rollercoaster that was the Olympic selection. A soft landing at Maizey Manor was “like coming home after a rough tumble,” she adds. “It was a very comfortable space. We all needed that.”
Fellow Burghley-bound riders, Germany’s Bettina Hoy and Ireland’s Elisabeth Power, were also a part of this accidental sisterhood the women found themselves members of. It was the perfect incubating space in which to repair confidence and mend broken hearts.
Day by day, the women continued their training, each with their own personal fuel pushing them to make Burghley a weekend to remember. “I don’t know if desperate is the right word, but we weren’t going to leave Burghley with a poor result,” Allison says.
Be Prepared, Be Present
How does one take the emotional sting and the devastation that comes with the dashing of an Olympic dream and turn around to compete at the most testing event in the world just a few short weeks after? To have to come to terms with the emotional disappointment and regroup in time to aptly navigate a five-star event is a feat some may underestimate.
Women are often unfairly labeled as “emotional” or “unstable” when a situation elicits an emotional response. I’m unsure how you could possibly apply either of those labels to these women, who arrived on the grounds of the famed Burghley House, heads held high, quietly determined to allow their riding to speak for them.
Sinead had long worked with her sensitive Selle Francais gelding to coax out the best work on the flat. An exercise in staying present, she recalls ticking through each movement, not feeling particularly like they were knocking the test out of the park, but at least feeling reasonably confident that they’d come in under 40. When she looked up at the board, she did a double take. First place on a score of 36.3, the only pair who would score below a 40. Allison’s score aboard Arthur – a 40 on the nose – would put the U.S. ladies in first and second place following the first phase.
“Be prepared, then be present,” Sinead says of her mental strategy going into the weekend. She’d kicked around Burghley the year before with “Tate”, and the fact that the track in 2012 ran in the same direction gave her an opportunity to have another crack at some of the same questions she’d already seen. She spent time watching riders such as Andrew Nicholson on the previous year’s track, comparing the lines he took to those she had chosen, finding the precious seconds he saved that she had left on the table. This year, she would be more prepared.
“As soon as I went out of the box, I had gone through it so many times in my head and I knew how I would ride each complex,” she says now. Small adjustments here and there brought her home clear inside the time to hold the lead ahead of the show jumping finale.
This was Allison and Arthur’s second trip to Burghley; they’d come the year before but were eliminated on cross country, so the pair had some additional demons to put to rest this weekend. And put them to rest they did, storming around Capt. Mark Phillips’ testing track without jumping penalties. In hindsight now, she sees the spots on the course where she could have caught the time, but the effort was enough to land her and Arthur in the top 10 after cross country.
The win would elude Sinead the next day, but show jumping on Burghley’s fabled (or infamous, depending on your results) grass proved tough for the rest of the field, too. Sinead would finish in second, adding her name to the list of eventing legends who have graced the Burghley podium, this year accompanied by Andrew Nicholson (Avebury) and William Fox-Pitt (Parklane Hawk) on either side. It’s disappointing to lose out on a win, and Sinead found herself unsure of how to feel once the final results were tabulated. But one look at the massive group of supporters who’d congregated at the in gate told her all she needed to know: no matter what, this was a huge victory on many levels.
Allison would finish in sixth place overall, taking home additional prize money for coming third in the HSBC FEI Classics competition as well as winning the International Pairs competition with Oliver Townend. “It was probably the best year I’ve ever had for prize money,” she laughs.
Ice Cold Lemonade
A few weeks prior, Sinead sat at the kitchen table at Maizey Manor with Jacky, contemplating the summer and trying to reconcile her emotions. Where was one to go next? So much of the year had been spent on the Olympic grindstone. It was hard to see the next goal. Yet here she was on the other side of the Atlantic with a fit horse in his competitive prime. Jacky looked at Sinead across the table. “Sinead,” she began. “You have a bloody Burghley horse. You’re going to Burghley.”
Both Sinead and Allison – and, if I had to guess, the other riders who based at Maizey Manor would agree – credit the welcoming and comforting environment Jacky created as a pivotal part of their eventual success at Burghley. At Maizey, they had time to process the months prior and train in an environment that was free from pressure. They had each other to bond with over bottles of wine and swapped stories in the evenings.
Bettina would finish 10th with Lanfranco that year. Elisabeth would get her first Burghley completion with September Bliss in his four-star debut. In all, a successful weekend for the women who’d experienced their own lows throughout the months leading up to the event. In the face of it all, tenacity and the encouragement they provided for each other made all the difference in the world.
“I learned a lot that year,” Allison reflects now. “You’re always learning so much about mental game and toughness. After everything, you just have to kick on and do it.”
Kick on and do it you certainly did, ladies. Three other American riders, Kristi Nunnink, Kate Ditchey, and Erin Kanara (née Sylvester) would also complete the five-star event that year. It’s the stuff of stories told by coaches looking for a last minute pep talk, by young riders who’d fallen in love with the sport and hung pictures of Arthur and Tate on their walls in the weeks after. It’s a true tale of life’s ultimate lemons and how to best make them into ice cold lemonade.
We’ve got a special treat for you! The Burghley media team has graciously honored our request to release the video of Sinead’s cross country round from the archives. Be sure to tune in for more Burghley’s Greatest coverage happening this weekend at burghley.co.uk.