The Ride of Your Life – Charlotte Bredahl- Baker: “Winning Will Come to You”

This Olympic medalist and youth mentor believes that if you act with integrity and persistence, the accolades will follow.
Charlotte Bredahl-Baker smiles with Chanel, an 11-year-old Danish Warmblood mare whom Charlotte currently owns and rides. She bought the horse as a 5-year-old. Last year she performed a Grand Prix pas de deux on Chanel with Jan Ebeling at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final in Las Vegas. | © Kate Burke

Q: What has made you so successful in dressage?

CBBI: am incredibly persistent and I have a very strong sense of responsibility. Whether it is a project, a horse in training or the pursuit of judging, I will just stay with it. I also think honesty and integrity are the most important characteristics. I believe people can count on me to always tell them the truth. Whether it is about a horse in training, selling a horse or something they need to be kept confidential, people know they can trust me 100 percent.

Q: What important values did you learn growing up?

CBB: My parents set a good example by being very hard workers. My mom worked full time in an office and then taught typing one night a week. She took care of a household with four kids and a big dog. When she wasn’t cooking, cleaning or taking care of us, she was painting the house or gardening. I don’t remember her ever taking time for herself. 

My dad was a policeman and gone all day. On the weekends he worked in the yard while waiting for his racing pigeons to come home. Later on, we moved to a small farm and my dad took care of the land and helped take care of the animals we collected. 

Q: How did you begin riding?

CBB: My parents didn’t have money to afford riding lessons so I used to muck stalls at a barn in Copenhagen. I would get coupons for each stall I cleaned, and that would buy group lessons. I think when you have to work to get something you want, you appreciate it so much more.

When I was 10 or so, my father moved our family to Moen, a small island off the coast of Denmark. I had more access to horses there. I went to the farmers and asked if I could ride their horses. These were workhorses, big draft horses, some not broke to ride, only to plow. The farmers were happy to have them exercised so I was able to ride them for free. 

Q: How did that early start with the farm horses develop your riding?

CBB: I didn’t own a saddle, so I always rode with a bareback pad. They taught me to stay on and develop a good feel. I fell off many times but just got right back on. Most of the horses were huge compared to me so I had to figure out a way to get them to do what I wanted that didn’t require strength. 

One of those horses was named Donna. She was a more modern driving horse, and I ended up doing basic dressage and some jumping on her. I went to some local shows where I would do dressage in the morning and jump in the afternoon. She was the first horse I ever showed.

Q: Were you always in love with dressage?

CBB: When I was younger, the love for the animal was the driving force. When I started, it wasn’t about dressage, it was about riding. I did jumpers, I raised trotters, anything as long as I was involved with horses.

I became a little chicken as I got older. When I was about 17, I had a horse who was a naturally good jumper. As the fences got big, I started thinking, this is not for me, and that was the end of my jumping career. I have no problem with that decision—I probably lived longer!

It wasn’t until I got to California in 1978 that dressage became my main focus. My first job in California was at a place called Bell Canyon Equestrian Center, and they were specializing in dressage. I realized quickly that I was able to do a good job training even the difficult horses in the barn. I discovered that I had a natural talent for dressage and that I was able to have that partnership with the horse.

Q: What is it about dressage that you love?

CBB: It is an amazing feeling when you have one of those rides where you almost feel your horse is reading your mind. The communication between horse and rider is really a beautiful thing. 

Q: You have many good relationships within the dressage industry. How have you achieved this? 

CBB: I have learned it is critical for me to avoid conflict. A lot of people have said to me that they think you need to play politics to move up in the ranks in both riding and judging. I say, ‘No, you don’t.’” Just try not to get people mad at you. Don’t burn bridges. Be a team player. Don’t get in people’s faces. Try not to be critical of others, especially in public and never on social media. 

I use Facebook to raise awareness of all the mentoring I am involved with. It is always positive. I try to teach all the young riders that whatever they put up on social media, don’t put up anything negative. Always show your sport in a good light. 

Q: What is the most stressful part of the sport?

A young Charlotte has fun riding in Denmark. | Courtesy, Charlotte Bredahl-Baker

CBB: I find judging quite stressful. It is a huge responsibility; I know what riders go through to get there. The stress is to get it right and do a good job for the rider. Now there is added stress that all scores are on the Internet and every score gets scrutinized. You may give thousands of scores, but if you make one mistake, everyone goes crazy. There is not a lot of reward and the pay is not much. I still love what I learn from all my continued education. I also love discussing the performances and hearing the different perspectives from my fellow judges. We all learn from each other. 

Q: What is your goal now?

CBB: My focus is not on showing anymore, although I still love to train a horse to the GP. I have always loved mentoring youth, and now I have a dream job where I get to do that. The young riders are so appreciative. Often you get cards and letters. They make you feel as if you are really making a difference. It is very uplifting and rewarding.

I feel lucky to have gotten this job [USEF assistant dressage youth coach] at a time where our top U.S. dressage riders are incredible role models. They all ride beautifully, they respect their horses and they are wonderful team players. I want to influence the next generation to continue that trend. I am very proud of American dressage and very proud to be part of the USEF coaching staff. 

Q: What makes you a good mentor in this sport?

CBB: I think I am a good role model because I try to lead by my own example. I want young riders to believe that if you work hard, have a high level of integrity and do the right thing, then the sky is the limit—even without having much money to start with. I really do believe that. 

I want to help these young riders to develop qualities and character that will serve them not only in their riding but also in life. A strong work ethic. Being appreciative. Integrity. Patience. Persistence and honesty. If they can adopt those qualities, they can go very far.

Q: What is the most important thing you’ve done in your life?

CBB: I have always loved kids. As I was growing up, I had a dream to have a big farm with an orphanage. But I never had a desire to have my own blood. There were so many kids already out there in the world who needed help. So my husband and I raised two foster kids. That’s the most important thing I’ve done, raising Zach and Tyler, and how we helped change their lives.

Q: What is the most important thing you’ve done in your riding career?

CBB: I feel incredibly privileged that I made it to the Olympics and have a team bronze medal. That one thing opened up so many doors and gave me credibility that is hard to get in other ways. Most people understand it takes a certain kind of person to make an Olympic team. It indicates that you are a very hard worker, willing to commit and work for excellence in your field. 

Second to that was achieving the international judging [four-star] status. It takes many years of dedication, hard work and continuing education to get to be an international judge. 

Q: What has been your biggest failure?

CBB: I have had a lot of challenges but I never thought of them as failures, just as learning opportunities and character-building experiences. Whenever something goes wrong, you usually learn from it. Those moments make you appreciate the good times more. 

Q: How do you feel about competing?

CBB: It is always fun to win, but for me riding has never been that much about winning. It has been about making the horse better. When I train a horse, I want to see progress and as long as I have that I am happy. 

I don’t think you need to focus on winning to win. If you focus on doing a great job and on always doing the right thing, show appreciation, nurture relationships and have the highest level of integrity, great things will happen in all aspects of your life. 

When it comes to riding, all of the above still apply. But in addition, you need to be a great rider/trainer who respects your horse. You need to be willing to accept whatever time it takes to reach your goal. If you focus on having a great relationship with your horses, winning will come. 

Q: How do you handle things going wrong?

CBB: Horses are not machines, not predictable, you cannot expect them to be completely reliable. In my mind, I know that every top rider in the world understands that horses are horses and anything can happen. Then I tell myself that whatever happened, it happened this week. And in two weeks everyone will have forgotten about it. 

Q: What has been your most embarrassing moment on a horse?

CBB: I’ve had quite a few! One was at the 1992 Olympics, riding my 11-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding, Monsieur. As I was coming into the arena, people started clapping and Monsieur headed for the out gate. I couldn’t get him to go forward. So they rang the bell and I had to start the test. I knew if he wouldn’t go forward, I could always get him to back up. So I had to back down the long side to get into the arena. 

Once he was in the arena, he knew he was safe and he was great. We ended up tying for second place with Robert Dover within the U.S. team. As a team we won a bronze medal so we were all elated. So I was embarrassed only while it was happening. Afterward we all thought it was very funny and I have told that story many times. 

Q: Any regrets?

CBB: Not really. I am exactly where I could possibly hope to be. I have done everything I set as a goal. Now my job is to share everything I have learned. I love the sport I am in and have developed long- lasting friendships all over the world. I am also lucky to be married to a man who is just as passionate about horses as I am. What more could I ask for?

Q: What life lesson would you like to pass on to your children?

CBB: Follow your passion. If you love what you do for work, you are very, very lucky. 

Q: What one thing have you learned over your career that has been critical?

CBB: Never give up. My Olympic horse Monsieur was very difficult, and if I had given up on him, my life would have been very different now.

Q: How would you describe your career?

CBB: It has been a long road and an adventure, and it gets better all the time.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.


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