August 2015 - Horse People: Catherine Rose Chamberlain
Written by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 04 August 2015 20:52
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Discipline and drive produce magic in young dressage star.

by Kim F. Miller

“Sport ambassador” is a label that carries a lot of responsibilities. It’s often affixed to 20-year-old dressage rider Catherine Chamberlain and she takes it seriously, yet wears it lightly. In late June, she represented the United States’ first appearance at the CDIO-PJYR Hagen, Germany (with Ayden Uhlir) and was preparing to defend her three 2014 gold medals at the North American Young Rider Championships in July, her fifth showing there. (Newsflash: They won Team gold and Individual silver!)

Catherine & Vito at last month’s Young Riders Championships in Kentucky, where they contributed to Team gold for Region 7 and earned Individual silver. Photo ©Inspire Grace Photography

The Hagen show was Catherine’s first trip to Europe. It was “a little intimidating” to be surrounded by a very high caliber of horses, riders and training and to be one of the first U.S. young riders the Europeans had welcomed to the event. “And then I realized that it was just another horse show and I went back to my philosophy of being able to leave the arena knowing I did the best job I could do on that day.” She and Avesto van Weltevreden met their goal of “having a good showing for the U.S.,” Catherine says. “It was really all about having a good experience and building up toward the future for U.S. dressage.”

Catherine is poised, professional, passionate and, most of all, prepared. “She leaves no stone unturned,” says trainer David Wightman, of Adventure Farms, where the Arizona native is a working student. And perhaps that’s the secret of her graciously executed and ongoing ascent in American dressage, an intent she’s held since her pre-teen years. “The more prepared I am, the more relaxed I feel,” Catherine says of her approach to her European debut and the preceding competitions in which she’s been excelling these last few years. “I don’t have any rituals that I do leading up to a competition. But if I feel that I and my horse are as fit as we can be and that I’ve taken care of all the little details, then it’s easier to be relaxed and that’s when I perform best.”

Kim Pribble was one of the first to spot Catherine’s potential. The longtime amateur rider and breeder knew of Catherine from her success as a junior in Arizona. Catherine made a particularly strong impression while clinicing with Shannon Peters several years ago. “She did such a lovely job with her horse and I thought she was a beautiful young rider with so much potential,” Kim recalls. She had no intention of becoming an “owner” and still seems somewhat surprised by the trajectory she’s been on since Catherine took over the ride on her Avesto van Weltevreden, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Gribaldi x Krack C). Kim had been doing very well with “Vito” herself, but when he mysteriously got “naughty,” sent him to David Wightman and Kathleen Raine’s Adventure Farms in Riverside County’s Murrieta for professional help.

Catherine & Verdicci. Photo ©1881 Western Photography Company

This was around the time that Catherine, at 18 in late 2013, had moved to Adventure Farms as a working student with her own two horses. David got Vito back on track and performing well at Third Level, with Catherine filling in, first occasionally, then regularly. At a show at Thermal early this year, the idea of Catherine taking Vito through the Young Rider ranks was thrown out. “I don’t think any of us had any idea the match would be so phenomenal,” Kim recounts.

It was. Very high 60s in Vito’s first Prix St. Georges, then first CDI, brought blues. His only defeat came at the hands of Catherine riding her own horse, Verdicci, at a Del Mar show. “It’s been a whirlwind ever since,” Kim laughs, and a gratifying one at that. So much so that she’s curtailed her own competing to keep investing in Catherine and Vito’s partnership. “It’s been incredibly gratifying to be part of a super talented young rider taking my horse to a level I never could have.”

Arizona Upbringing

Catherine confirms that she’s always wanted to be a professional dressage rider and trainer. The family’s horse bug may have been planted by Catherine’s grandfather, who owned racing Thoroughbreds. Her mom, Annie, rode throughout her youth, even contesting the North American Young Rider Championships herself. Catherine’s aunt, Shari Patterson Blaylock, got Catherine (and her sister) riding at 9, doing a little of everything - jumping, western, whatever, she recalls. “Dressage was always my favorite, even though the other kids thought I was a little weird.” At 12, she settled on that discipline.

With her aunt’s guidance, Catherine opted for a nice moving young horse, the then-5-year-old Verdicci, over an older schoolmaster. The pair has proved an exception to conventional wisdom that young horses and young riders don’t  mix well. Eight years later, they are embarking on the Under-25 Grand Prix circuit. “He had a great personality,” Catherine explains. “He was pretty relaxed as a young horse and always very willing and forgiving.”

“He’s goofy and he’s always loved it when we play around,” she adds. Flapping his lips and tongue are among his barn aisle antics, and he’s also gotten friskier as he’s gotten fitter. “By then my riding had progressed, so that’s never really been an issue.”

“We have learned so much together and I am so grateful that he has been forgiving of my mistakes,” Catherine says. “It’s been a dream come true to take a young horse and make it together to the top levels of dressage. It’s really fun and he is always going to be a very special horse to me.”

Catherine and Verdicci competing in San Juan Capistrano this spring. Photo ©Kim F Miller

Last summer, she and Verdicci, aka “Chance,” were triple gold medalists for USDF Region 7 at the North American Young Riders Championships in Kentucky. It was the pinnacle of four appearances there, the first as Junior Rider entrants in 2009. They were both young, new and, understandably, nervous then. Returning more confident in 2010, they finished with individual silver. “I learned how to deal with a little bit of pressure and that’s when I first realized that I could be competitive.” While preparing to return in 2011, Catherine sustained a shattered elbow when a horse kicked her while she was lunging him. “I wasn’t supposed to be riding, but it was my first year as a Young Rider, I had worked really hard to qualify and, naively, I thought it would just all work out.”

Not so much. “I put pressure on myself because I was freaking out because I knew I really shouldn’t be doing it,” she recounts. She and Chance did well in the team test, but “the individual was a disaster.” Then, minor injuries sidelined Catherine and Verdicci for the 2012 and 2013 Championships. In her view, however, all of that contributed to the remarkable 2014 effort that produced the three golds.

“By then I was much more mature in my perspective on everything and my priority was to go and enjoy it,” she explains. “We had been through so much with the injuries that I promised myself to have fun and just do the best job for myself. I was much more relaxed and we ended up winning three gold medals. “

The benefit of focusing on riding over results was an indelible lesson. “It did take some time to come to that conclusion,” she notes. “It’s what everyone says about the more experience you get, the better your thought process can be.  I’m glad I went through all that because everything we go through contributes to who we are and how we deal with things.”

With Avesto as her mount for her fifth and final go at the NAJYRC Championships, Catherine and Verdicci are moving onto the Brentina Cup national competition for riders 25 and under. At press time, they were ranked fifth in the country, with a very likely prospect of being among the top 12 invited to contest the final, which is set for the USEF Festival Of Champions Aug. 19-23 at the Lamplight Equestrian Center near Chicago.

Gratitude & Magic

“She’s an old soul,” says Kim Pribble, owner of Avesto van Weltevreden. Here, Catherine hanging out with Vito, a good book and a cup of coffee.

Gratitude toward family and friends who’ve supported her journey dominates Catherine’s attitude. Adventure Farms’ David and Kathleen are top recipients. “I knew that I needed to move to California at some point,” she explains of her relocation after finishing high school in just three years. “I had ridden with Kathleen at a clinic and had seen them ride at shows for years, and I just had a good feeling about them. I’ve come to trust my instincts about those kind of things.” The trainers took their own leap of faith and the successes of the ensuing two and a half years have proved everybody right.

“Catherine was already very good when she came to us,” says David. “We’ve just worked with her to take that to the next level.” She’s a self-starter with oodles of self-discipline and drive, he confirms, so a perfect fit as a working student.
“David and Kathleen are great trainers and people who have been super supportive of me,” Catherine says. “They’ve created a great atmosphere at their barn.” She lives in an apartment at the stable and “does basically everything – grooming, barn chores, tacking up horses – and I’ve had the opportunity to ride a lot of horses.”

CCatherine, Avesto and crew at the CDIO Hagen PJYR in Germany in early June. From left are USEF Young Rider co-coach George Williams, Adventure Farms’ trainer David Wightman, fellow Young Rider teammate Ayden Uhlir and friend and rider Jessica Hainsworth.

She arrived at Adventure Farms with Verdicci and Sophina, the now 6-year-old mare she imported from Germany three years ago on the recommendation of former trainer Ashleigh Luca Tyson. “She sent us a video of the mare running around loose in the arena and we decided to bring her over.” Catherine laughingly admits to “being a little free spirited” about decisions like that, but so far they’ve worked out rather nicely. “Sophina is a bit sassy, with a fiery personality, but she likes to work hard and she is a fun project and is growing up really well.” Tackling Third Level with the mare this season, Catherine notes that “every horse teaches you something and seeing her progression, and mine along with it, has been really rewarding.”

Although Catherine is happy with a life immersed in horses, she pushes herself to maintain a few other interests. “I’m not the best at that, but if all you have is horses and things are not going well, that can be a problem.” Conveniently, she enjoys running and doing various core exercises, which are great for her riding. (She’s also a vegetarian.) As her Harry Potter-themed Freestyle music hints at, Catherine is fan of fantasy fiction and credits reading and music with helping to “keep me sane” no matter how things go at the barn or a show on any given day.

Having her family, mom Annie, dad Glenn and sister Elizabeth, make the five-hour drive from Arizona is another favorite diversion, and a frequent one because they attend most of her competitions.

Determination, talent and the appreciated support of many have put Catherine on track for more stardom in the sport.

Catherine is sponsored by:
~ YS Nutrition
~ Custom Saddlery
~ 2kGrey
~ Intrepid International
~ Equine Arnica Gel
~ Essential Arnica Gel