Jessica Bortner-Harris talks to four-star rider Sinead Halpin about Killian, her first upper level horse, whom she describes as “half amazing athlete and half crazy.”
Every horse that we ride has a lot to teach us. The longer we ride, the more we can pick out skills that specific horses have taught us along the way. However, there is always one horse that starts it all for us. The one that teaches about riding and makes us into the rider we are today. This new series is going to tell the stories of the horses that started it all. This week, I got to chat with Sinead Halpin about her first three star horse, Killian. Photos are used with Sinead’s permission.–Jessica
When Sinead was 18 and naive, she had big dreams of going to the Olympics by the time she was 21. In her own words, she was too big for her britches and had no clue what she was doing. At the time, she was riding and working for Stuart Black and owned a horse named Adrenaline Rush, or John. John was an athletic horse that later went on to do big things, but he was too much horse for her. Stuart was riding him for her, and he took John and another horse, Killian, to the Radnor 2 star. Killian was gotten off the track by Ashley Leith and ended up with Stuart. He had competed through the 2 star level.
That weekend, John coasted around the 2 star course with no problems, while Killian stopped at the 5th fence, where Stuart pulled up and decided the horse needed more work. Sinead really enjoyed Killian’s personality in the barn, and she liked him much better than her own horse. About two weeks later, Sinead and Stuart decided to do a straight trade. Looking back, it seems almost crazy to have done such a thing, but it ended up being a great decision that would teach Sinead a lot about the eventing world.
Killian was soon referred to as “Killer” in the barn. He had a bit of a crazy side and was known for rearing and falling down while being ridden. It was always random and he always fell down left to right. Sinead would just get up, dust herself off, and get back on. Killer was half amazing athlete and half crazy.
She took him to his first Preliminary, which he rocked around. She was so pleased.
“I thought, ‘Sweet!’. I’ll move up to Intermediate, and then do a two star, and then a three star next spring and a 4 star the following spring. I’ll be ready to qualify for the Olympics by the time I’m 21. I just had these crazy ideas. I was so sure that my plan would be easy to achieve. Killian had other ideas.”
On their next outing, Sinead decided to move up to Intermediate. She did her dressage and moved on to show jumping. They jumped the first fence and he stopped at the 2nd fence, where she promptly fell off. She dusted herself off and got back on. She made it around to the 5th fence, where he promptly stopped again and she fell off. This was embarrassing, but rather than moving back down, she figured they just had a bad day.
Red Hills was next for yet another Intermediate. Again, they did their dressage and went on to show jumping. Killian cantered around and came to the first fence. He slammed on the brakes, and Sinead flew over the fence to the other side. She was mortified. She lay there and would not get up. She distinctly remembers seeing David O’Connor at the side of the ring as she was lying there. She didn’t know him at the time, but she remembers that he gave her this raised eyebrow look like, “Kid, you have no idea.”
Finally, Sinead had the realization that they needed to take a step back. She worked very hard and competed at the Preliminary level that spring and did very well. They went on to do the CCI* at Bromont that June. She was winning after the dressage and had an amazing XC round. She went into show jumping with quite a large lead and had two rails, which kept her in the winning position. She was ecstatic.
At their first two star, she was in 13th after dressage and went on to XC. Killian was dragging her around the XC, and her arms were so exhausted from pulling. These days, she would have been pulled up for dangerous riding, but he was such a good jumper, that no one said anything to her.
“I remember going around the course and hearing Brian O’Connor announcing. Killian was pulling and pulling, and I was basically just pointing him at the fences and letting him do whatever. As I crossed the finish line, I heard Bryan announce that I had just moved up from 13th to 6th. Everyone was so excited. However, I was so exhausted from my round, that I didn’t have the energy to celebrate. He had been completely out of control.”
The following spring, she was set to do her first three star and was feeling a bit big for her britches again. Somewhere during the spring, she had missed a horse trial qualification, so she requested to run on special permission. At the time, this was pretty common. The officials from Foxhall called and said they would allow her to jog up, and the ground jury would discuss whether she would run or not. She thought, “I am 19 and a bit behind in my plan, but if this goes well, I should be able to catch up!”
Killian trotted up and was given permission by the ground jury to compete. They did their dressage, and it was not anything to write home about. Sinead says, “It was so bad, I have blocked it from my memory.” The ground jury had warned her that she could run XC, but she needed to be sensible. All eyes would be watching her, as she was riding on special permission. Sinead came out of the box with the pedal to the metal. There were only 10 horses inside the time, and Killian was one of them.
Later that day, David O’Connor said to her, “Girl, you have to slow down.” She had no idea what he was talking about. She had rocked around clean and under the time. What was his deal? That day also brought Capt. Mark Phillips up to her requesting that she jog the horse up for the team after show jumping. Sinead was thrilled. What was DOC’s problem? She was going to jog up for the team!
Show jumping day arrived, and Killian entered the arena. Unfortunately, he completed the course with 5 rails down. This disappointment came with Capt Phillips returning to Sinead. “He said, nevermind, we don’t want you to jog up for the team. You have a lot of training to do, and he suggested a few people I should ride with.”
Sinead realized that she had learned a lot from Stuart, but there were just too many distractions at his farm with working and riding. She decided that she needed to go somewhere that she could be selfish with her education. She, Rebecca Howard, and Hawley Bennett all picked up and went to work and ride for the O’Connors.
Killian was the first horse that she rode with David, and he thought Killer was nuts. However, they trained hard and were aiming for the three star at Fair Hill. Unfortunately, he came up with a small tendon tear after Morven and had to miss Fair Hill. At this point, Killian was 14 years old. He had never had a vacation from work in his time off the track. Unfortunately, due to this, Killian’s body did not adapt well to the downtime required for the tendon to heal. It did heal eventually, but he never really got back to his former self. Sinead laughs and says,
“The vets were practicing with new equipment at the time. They told me that if they could use Killer as an experiment horse, they wouldn’t charge me. They x-rayed all of his feet and pasterns. The vet couldn’t believe this horse was ever sound. He told me it was a good thing I hadn’t had the horse vetted, as he never would have passed. He had chips everywhere. He should have been a lawn ornament when he was 7! His x-rays were like swiss cheese. I never iced him in all of the time I had him. I saw other people doing it, but I had no clue why they were doing it. He was lucky if he got standing bandages on after an event. I was just clueless. I remember saying to the vet, ‘Can’t you guys just fix him up for a few years? I should be able to qualify for an Olympics or a World Games in 2 years.'”
It was decided then that Killian should retire. He still lives in the first field on the right at The Fork. He comes trotting up when people come to the fence, but he really only wants a carrot. He could care less if anyone pets him. Sinead’s mother takes care of him, and he is sound and happy at 24 years old.
Sinead believes that Killian taught her the most about coming up through the ranks in the sport. He gave her a taste of the upper levels and what it meant to have the team interested in you and then changing their mind. He gave her the hunger to continue in the sport and to achieve big things.