Between the Ears: Kate Chadderton on the Complexity of Confidence

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

In this edition of “Between the Ears”, I caught up with U.S.-based Australian 5* rider Kate Chadderton. Kate has produced several horses up to the Advanced/4* and 5* level and has also competed in FEI-level dressage and Grand Prix show jumping. She now finds herself in a new phase of life, where she is focusing less on her personal competition horses and more on her students and sales horses. Her business is based in Cochranville, PA and splits time during the winter in Aiken, SC. With years of experience in the equine industry both in Australia and stateside, Kate shares some important insights as we go between the ears…

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

How did you get your start in eventing?

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Growing up in Australia, I was pretty much born on the back of a horse. I lived on a farm in Queensland, which was pretty far out in the sticks, but where I was from every kid had a pony even if they didn’t have much money. So I kept my pony at home, and because we didn’t have a trailer I would ride to get to Pony Club.

It was probably a two-hour ride there and a two-hour ride back and my mom would follow me in the car to make sure I didn’t get hurt or lost because I was only about 6 or 7 years old. I started out camp drafting — which is basically our form of cutting and I also took a liking to show jumping. It wasn’t until 1992 when Australian rider Matt Ryan won the gold at the Barcelona Olympics that I found my love for eventing.

When I turned 18, I worked for Boyd Martin in Australia while he was starting his career in the sport as well. During that time I was very lucky to be able to ride some nice horses, all Thoroughbreds, that helped me get some miles in the sport and then I lived in Germany for a bit and focused on dressage.

In 2008, still determining what my next career move should be, I took a chance on the advice of Boyd and came to America, ending up in Maryland and now, Pennsylvania.

Can you tell me about a time when you lost your confidence?

Kate Chadderton and Collection Pass. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Confidence is a complex subject and I think it is one of the most important things that a rider needs to be successful. I was a very brave and bold kid, and for a long time, not a lot bothered me when it came to being in the saddle. Then I broke my back in a riding accident, and I started to realize that I wasn’t bulletproof.

I had a series of accidents, including breaking my leg while riding a racehorse, and I found myself needing to work on my confidence, especially on cross country. The fences started to feel really big to me, but at the time I had a horse who was a really solid show jumper.

I found that I was more comfortable in the show jumping ring, and I was able to take that horse Grand Prix, which made the heights seem much more attainable. I then would build cross-country questions and exercises in my field out of show jumps, because I felt more comfortable and understood the dynamics — and there were fewer consequences to making a mistake. I was able to practice the skills I needed without the fear of messing up, and that helped me learn what I needed to go back to the solid fences.

Outside of the saddle, I’ve always been shy by nature, and being in a sport that forces you to connect with owners and ask for financial help has also tested my confidence. I found myself creating a persona for these encounters, where I was someone who wasn’t afraid of what people thought of me, even though that was the opposite of how I felt.

How have you managed burnout throughout your career?

Kate Chadderton teaches students learn how to train their horses to make improvements. Photo by Gillian Warner.

I’ve learned to become friends with the feeling of burnout. If I’m feeling burnt out, it usually means that I am pushing myself and doing something worthwhile. Someone like me who doesn’t come from any financial backing has to compete with individuals in the sport who do have that backing, and that competition has usually manifested itself in hard work.

That being said, I think the other side of that hard work is knowing when to take the pedal off the gas, and having breaks to look forward to. I usually can take a week of downtime at some point in the summer and I take advantage of the off-season to go home to Australia or take time away from the horses.

I always look forward to the feeling of being done for the year; getting in my truck to drive home from whatever event is our last and putting my flip-flops on (regardless of what temperature it is outside) to symbolize the start of relaxation mode!

You’ve recently transitioned your focus from competition yourself to more lessons and sales, can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve adjusted to that mentally?

Kate Chadderton and VS McCuan Civil Liberty at the 2015 Blenheim Palace CCI3* Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

I feel very fortunate to say that this has been one of the biggest mental struggles of my life. There are so many people out there in challenging situations that don’t involve their life passion, but I’m still navigating it.

The transition didn’t happen in one day, and it’s not even really a decision that I made or wanted to make, but several things have come up that have forced me to restructure the way that I run my business. My business has always involved training, teaching, sales, and competition and now I am mostly focused on teaching and sales.

I’ve been chasing competitive goals for over 20 years and without it, it feels like part of my identity is missing. I’ve had to channel the passion that I do have for sales and teaching to sustain me while I figure out what this phase of life and business means for me.

What advice would you give to someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?

Kate Chadderton and Collection Pass at Rolex. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Overall, I would say, don’t forget the horse. The horse and the horse’s emotional state are the most important things in our industry. They do this because they like us, not because they have to. And I think it’s incredibly important to respect the animal and to treat the animal with kindness. Things will get tough, but the love and passion we have for our horses can get us through anything.

When faced with adversity, there’s a hundred percent guarantee that if you push forward and just keep trying, you get to the other side. As a coach, I see a lot of my students go through tough times and I feel like part of my job is to help them through, which doesn’t end when I walk out of the arena.

There is a mental side to dealing with setbacks, and the path forward will depend on what kind of problems the person is having. For instance, if someone had a bad fall, I try to help them learn from the experience so that they feel like they have tools and not just the emotions of the experience.

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