July 2016 - It’s OK To Struggle

Super successful young dressage star shares the “hard” version of her story – including eating disorder, injury, illness and depression -- in hopes of helping others.

by Catherine Rose Chamberlain

(This article first appeared on Kristin Posner’s As Told By blog.)

When I was first given the opportunity to tell my story, I had a decision to make. I could either tell the “easy” version, where everything went smoothly and I had success and it was all great. Or I could tell the “hard” version, detailing both the ups and the downs. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. But, I decided that at the end of the day this is the only story really worth telling. It’s honest, from the heart and I hope that maybe, just maybe, it will help others who are experiencing some of the same things.

Photo: 1881 Western Photography Company

So here it goes.

I was born in Laguna Hills, but I grew up in Chandler, AZ, with my family where I lived until I was 18. When I was younger I tried a lot of different sports and activities including dance, tennis and singing. I had fun with each one, but when I spent the summer riding horses at my Aunt Shari’s ranch, when I was 9, it truly captured my heart. From that summer on I decided to focus all of my attention on riding. My mom was a bit skeptical and tried to convince me ease into it, but I had fallen in love and was convinced that I would want to work with horses for the rest of my life. Luckily for me that has turned out to be true. I’m so grateful to my aunt Shari Patterson for taking the time to develop my passion and love for horses.

I tried a bit of every discipline, but quickly decided that dressage was my favorite. My parents bought me a pony we named Cole and I began my first competitions with him in 2004. I still remember how excited I got before my first few shows and how I could never sleep the night before because I couldn’t wait for show day. Cole taught me so much and he was the first horse that I developed a true bond with. I remember spending hours with him hand-feeding him hay and making sure he knew how much I loved him. When I outgrew him we found him a wonderful home with another little girl with a big passion for dressage.

I began working with a Thoroughbred we called Romeo next and was still doing both dressage and jumping at the time. He ended up being a “crypt orchid,” meaning he wasn’t gelded properly, so he ended up being quite a handful for me when I was 11 years old. However, I sure gained a lot of experience and it was my first time learning how to deal with a horse with a fierier personality. I spent a year working with him when I finally decided that I wanted to pursue dressage full time and made it a goal to participate in the USDF Junior/Young Rider programs. Romeo was a great jumper, so we found him a home as an eventer and began looking for a partner that could help take me to the NAJYRC in a few years. We started our search and I was excited to find a horse that could help me learn and move up the levels in dressage.

My mom found Chance online when I was still only 11 and he was 4, so it obviously wasn’t great timing just then with both of us being so young. He was in Seattle at the time, but my mom kept an eye on him because she thought he had something special, and a year later he popped up in California. We tried him on a buying trip and he was the one. At that time, he was 5 and I was 12, but we both worked hard to learn together and build a partnership we could fall back on when things got tough. Chance was the goofiest, most happy-go-lucky horse I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Just being with him every day was a gift. We began competing together at Training Level in 2007 and slowly worked our way up the levels. Since we were both young and newbies with everything we definitely encountered some struggles, but his positive attitude always kept everything fun and together we persevered.

Not All Perfect

Unfortunately, as I became more focused and committed to the sport I also developed issues that would plague me for years to come. When I was 12, I started to think that I wasn’t thin enough and didn’t have long enough lines to be a good dressage rider. While I am a shorter person at 5’4” and definitely have a more muscular physique, I had always been at a healthy weight and been a very active kid.

But all of a sudden I felt like I needed to look a certain way to be successful in the sport and I was so driven that I would do anything to accomplish it. I began online school in 7th grade to have more time to dedicate to training and traveling for competitions. In my online program I took a health class where I learned about calories, nutrients and how they affected your body. At 13. I finally had the tools to make the changes I had become convinced were necessary.

I started dieting and working out like crazy, first thinking that I was doing it to be healthy but soon it spiraled out of my control. I weighed a healthy 113 pounds when I was 12, but as I battled with the worst of my anorexia at 13 and 14 years old, I got down to 94 pounds. Family members expressed concern at the weight I had lost but I always brushed it off and got very good at hiding my dieting.

I was so happy that I finally thought I looked better but I eventually started to scare myself when I felt like I might pass out daily due to lack of nutrition. I finally realized that what I was doing wasn’t healthy and that I needed to put on weight in order to have enough strength to ride and compete. When I was 15 and 16 years old, I weighed about 107 pounds but still was very controlling and regimented with everything I ate. I loved feeling like I had that control but at the same time it is so exhausting and time consuming to micro-manage everything like that. You feel like you have control, but in reality it has control over you.

During this time, Chance and I started to have success in the Junior division. In 2010 we won the Reserve Junior National Championship and won Individual and Freestyle silver medals at the NAJYRC. That was a magical summer and I was so happy to have those accomplishments with my best friend.

In 2011, we made the push to move up to Young Riders. The qualifying season went very well and we were set to compete on the Region 5 team at the NAJYRC that summer when I had a bad accident in May. I was lunging a horse when he got rambunctious so I tried to bring him in and quiet him down, but when he got close enough he turned and kicked me. It shattered my elbow into six or seven larger fragments and a few bone chips. I went in for surgery to see what they could reconstruct and they put a plate and 12 screws in to repair it. A week later I had to have another surgery to get one of the screws taken out as it was impeding my range of motion. I was told I shouldn’t ride for six months and I was devastated, not only that I would have so much time out of the saddle but that I would miss being on my first Young Rider team.

I didn’t listen to the doctors, unfortunately. After a month out of the saddle I couldn’t handle it anymore and felt like I had to start riding. With a month to go until the NAJYRC, I was convinced I could still ride on the team. Needless to say, trying to ride with a shattered elbow is a really stupid idea. Lesson learned. (Kind of, I’m still pretty stubborn when it comes to injuries as most horse people are.)

I did go to the Championships and we were able to put in a solid ride for the team. Region 5 ended up winning team gold and I was very proud of that. It was my first team medal and it felt really special. However, the mental and physical stress caught up with me for the individual ride and Chance and I probably had the most disastrous ride we’ve ever had, finishing dead last with a 55%. I was devastated and felt like I had let everyone down, including Chance. I took some time to recuperate and finish rehab on my elbow, which was definitely the most painful thing I’ve ever had to go through. I was never able to regain full range of motion so my arm always has a slight bend to it.

Just when Chance and I were back in fighting shape and ready to take on the new season, injury struck again. This time poor Chance tore his right hind suspensory while playing in turnout. That meant a year of rehab to get him back to full fitness and able to perform at FEI level. Right when we were ready to go again in 2012, he bucked me off, ran around and tore his left hind suspensory. Could we catch a break?! Ha!

Although it was hard, I still enjoyed being with Chance just as much, whether we were riding or just doing daily care and maintenance. If anything, this period of injury only strengthened our relationship and he still kept me smiling each and every day with his antics. As I’ve said before, he was such a special horse and truly my equine soulmate.

New Health Challenges

During this time, I started to experience some new challenges as well. I have always been a person with a lot of energy and, despite my elbow injury, had always been in good physical shape. But when I was 16 and 17, I started dealing with bouts of fatigue and joint pain. It was really hard to feel so different physically and some days were really a struggle to get through. At the time it was chalked up to working long, 12-14 hour days at the barn, so I thought I just had to be tougher and work through it. This combined with a big workload at the barn and trying to graduate high school (I was talking extra courses as well so I could graduate at 17 in three years instead of four) led me to lose the strict control of my eating that I had maintained up to that point. I just didn’t have the time or energy to micro-manage everything like I had been.

While many would think this would be a good step, for me it was horrible. My body finally had the chance to grow up and change when I started eating more like a normal person, but I hated it and constantly felt like I had to get back to a strict diet and look the way I did before. All of this combined led me to start feeling depressed about myself and I constantly felt like I had to be better, look better and do better. No matter what I did I felt that it wasn’t enough and I was constantly in a struggle for perfection, setting unrealistic goals for myself and feeling like a disappointment when I couldn’t achieve them.

Funnily enough, this was also the time when I had the most success in the competition ring to date. In November of 2013, I moved to California to work with David Wightman and Kathleen Raine at Adventure Farms. Chance came with me as well as Sophie, who I got as an unbroken 3-year-old from Germany in 2012.

I began working for David and Kathleen and loved it in California. Chance was finally fit and healthy again and Sophie was so refreshing to work with as a young and talented partner. Chance and I got back into the Young Rider division in 2014 and had a stellar season. We made it onto the Region 7 team for the NAJYRC and had the competition of my dreams, winning team, individual and freestyle gold medals with our highest FEI scores to date up to 72%. It was so surreal and a summer I will remember for the rest of my life. Later that year Chance and I also debuted at Intermediate II and even competed our very first Grand Prix tests, earning my scores for my USDF Gold medal. I started to get the opportunity to ride more horses at the barn and I loved working there. Sophie was thriving in the new environment and getting better all the time. So externally, everything was as good as I could’ve dreamed.

However, the fatigue and joint pain I had been experiencing started to worsen and other symptoms began to pop up. I experienced bouts of sickness where I would also get a fever, a sore throat and just overall feel pretty run down. Then, I had a few times where my ears would get really hot and inflamed and would blister which was very strange. I finally started to see a rheumatologist and after a few months of diagnostics he finally diagnosed me with Relapsing Polychondritis. It’s a progressive autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of your cartilage, hence the blistering ears, painful joints and sore throat (apparently you have cartilage that lines your throat.)

Now that we know what we’re dealing with, my doctor has been able to try to help me find the best treatment to get me feeling better and able to keep working and riding through it all. It’s still very frustrating at times when it feels like my body is working against me and making even basic things so much more of a struggle, but I’m glad that it’s something manageable and I’m inspired by those who fight through many worse issues to pursue their dreams.

In 2015, Chance and I moved up to the U25 Grand Prix and I was able to start campaigning Kim Pribble’s Vito in the Young Rider division. Both boys had very successful qualifying seasons. Chance and I qualified for the Brentina Cup, something that had been a dream with him when I first got him in 2007. Vito and I qualified for Nationals and the NAJYRC and were also selected to represent the U.S. during the CDIO Nations Cup in Hagen, Germany.

I was so excited to have my first opportunity to compete internationally and it was such an honor to be able to represent my country. I spent almost month in Germany with Vito where we trained at Johann Hinnemann’s barn.

The competition in Hagen went pretty well for our first “big time” show, with our best performance being in the team test where we earned sixth place. We flew straight from Europe to the East Coast to compete at the NAJYRC, where we earned team gold and individual silver. Three weeks later I competed at the Festival of Champions in Chicago with Chance in the Brentina Cup and Vito in Young Riders. Chance and I had a rough first day of competition with many mistakes, but fought back with a much better ride the second day and 6th place overall. Vito had two of his best rides and pulled out the win to earn my first National title. It was a great year of competition and there were so many highlights. I was so thankful to the boys for trying so hard and giving me their all.

Over Controlling Urges Return

However, last year I started struggling with unhealthy eating habits again. After a couple years of being really unhappy with how I looked and felt, I began to get very controlling and restrictive again. After dropping about 20 pounds, I had those closest to me voice concerns about how much weight I had lost. Again I just brushed it off and kept trying to hide everything. But, I did finally confide in a couple very close friends about some of my struggles.

This was a big step as it was the first time I had ever talked to anyone about it. They tried to convince me that it would be beneficial to finally get some help with my struggles and be able to find happiness with myself, but I wasn’t quite ready to take that step yet and still believed that I could fix everything on my own. In October I also had surgery on my elbow to get most of the hardware taken out that was becoming bothersome, so I now only have four screws left in the joint. I also had my left knee injected to help with tendonitis and a torn tendon that I had injured the previous year. That meant I couldn’t ride for a month, and it’s always hard to sit on the sidelines when you feel like you should be out there working.

On top of that, in November, tragedy struck and Chance suffered a severe colic that required surgery. He recovered very well and was doing great, but a week and a half later he seemed to develop some complications. Over the next couple of weeks, he fought back and forth with peritonitis, an infection in the lining of the abdomen. Finally, his body started to give out and he began developing other complications as well. He fought so hard and kept his great attitude the whole time he was in the hospital. The vets tried to take him in for another surgery to lavage his abdomen and get him back on the right track, but once they had him open again they saw his condition was much worse than they feared and the only option was to put him down to end his suffering.

That broke me. After trying to fight through everything else, that really broke me. He had been my best friend since I was 12. He had been there for me through everything, all of the good and the bad. He was the only one that I had ever confided everything to. And he was gone. I felt like I should’ve been able to do more. I felt like I failed him. He was always there for me and I couldn’t save him when he needed my help the most.

I went back to work the following day but it was so hard, I was just trying to get through each day. There were times where I felt like it was all too much. There were times where I felt hopeless, like I wasn’t strong enough to fight through everything and times where I didn’t feel like I was worth fighting for. Between losing Chance, dealing with the autoimmune disease and struggling with the eating disorders and depression, I really felt like there was no way for me to continue.

Letting Others In – Finally

Finally, in March I confided to my parents and my closest friends about everything I was struggling with and I began to get professional help. I knew I had to do something because I couldn’t continue the way that I was. In a lot of ways, it was such a relief to finally be able to stop hiding what I’d been dealing with for years and to allow those who love me to offer comfort and guidance. It’s still been a transition and I don’t always know how to take their comfort or help, but it’s nice to know it’s always there when I need it. I know that I still have a long road ahead of me but I’m so happy to be able to take positive steps forward toward a happier and healthier me. I’m so lucky to have such a great support system and I owe them so much for standing by me.

I really tried to throw myself into my work with the horses when things were tough, and I found a lot of comfort and solace in them. Vito and I began competing in the Small Tour CDIs and were able to qualify for the Festival of Champions during our first season in the open division, even winning our first CDI Intermediate I. Sophie debuted at 4th level and then at PSG, earning qualifying scores for the USEF Developing Horse Championships. I’ve gotten to compete a number of other talented and unique horses; Steve Strunk’s Receloso XXXV in First Level, Vickie Hendershott’s Sunny in Training and First Level, Marti Foster’s Rosenball in PSG/I1 and Adventure Farm’s King’s Emerald in Training Level. I am so thankful to have so many wonderful horses to work with and care for and I owe them so much for giving me something to fight for when I really needed it.

This is my story so far, and I can honestly say that I am excited to see what the next chapters are. I still have a lot of work to do to push forward, but after a really tough year I’m finally getting to a better place where I can continue to work on myself and pursue my passions. I’m so fortunate for what I have and the situation I’m in and I’m looking forward to becoming the best version of myself to enjoy and appreciate it all. What I hope people take away from my story is that it’s okay to struggle. You can love your life and have everything you ever dreamed of… and still struggle. You can have success… and still struggle. You can be in the best situation surrounded by great people… and still struggle. You can be strong and tough and brave… and still struggle.

And that’s okay.

We all deal with different things throughout life. All we can do is try our best, ask for help when we need it and help others when they need it. I also wanted to say that I’m always here for anyone who might need help, support or just someone to talk to. Please never hesitate to reach out to me if you think I can help in any way or just be there for you. I still have a lot to learn but I know just how important it is to have a great support system. I’m so lucky to have amazing friends and family around me so I hope I can repay the favor for my loved ones and others. Thank you for taking the time to listen, I’ve always had so much support growing up in the equestrian community and it means the world to me.

On to the next chapter…