By Kimberly Gatto
For every little girl who dreams of becoming a Disney star, Kayden Muller-Janssen is proof that all things are possible. The multi-talented young actress has won countless fans through her role as the lovable Hartley on the Disney Channel’s popular TV show “The Villains of Valley View.” She is also a gifted singer and songwriter whose music brings happiness to millions of listeners. Few fans know, however, that Kayden is a lifelong equestrian with a deep love of horses. In fact, the young entertainer is as comfortable on the back of a horse as she is in front of an audience.
Kayden was born into “equestrian royalty” as the daughter of Sjef Janssen, coach of the Dutch national dressage team, and dressage trainer Kerensa Muller. Kayden and her sister, Klendy, were raised by their mother in Wellington, Florida, surrounded by horses. Kayden also has two younger siblings, Yannick and Ava Eden, through her father’s marriage to Olympic dressage champion Anky van Grunsven.
Growing up in the winter equestrian capital of the world, it was no surprise that Kayden developed an affinity for horses early in life. “I first sat on a horse before I could walk,” Kayden said. “Everyone in my family rides and loves horses.” Kayden began her riding career on a small—and sometimes naughty—pony named Panatomic Particle. “I nicknamed him Peter Pan because he liked to give me ‘flying lessons’ when he was bucking,” Kayden said. “But he taught me so much. We competed in leadline classes and had a lot of fun. Of course, as a little kid, I was most excited by winning the huge trophies and prizes that they gave to leadline riders. That was really my first memory of horse showing.”
As she grew, Kayden moved on to a large pony named Hayley, whom she still owns to this day. “I had a blast with Hayley,” Kayden said. “My friend Madison and I used to ride our ponies on five-hour trail rides; we had so much fun. We would go swimming in the canals and even ride up to the drive-thru window at McDonald’s! I think those were my happiest memories of riding.” Kayden also enjoyed competing with her family at various dressage shows—developing skills that would prove useful in pursuing a different kind of dream.
Dreaming About Disney
In addition to riding, showing, and caring for her pony, Kayden discovered a passion for the performing arts while still a young child. “I began doing musical theatre at school and really fell in love with performing,” she said. “It is such an adrenaline rush—playing a character and having to remember lines and always be on your ‘A’ game. I just loved it, and I told my mom that I really wanted to pursue acting and singing as a career.” With the support of her mother, Kayden was enrolled in local theatre and voice classes.
Kayden’s immense talent for the performing arts quickly became apparent. While attending a camp in Los Angeles that introduced kids to casting directors and producers, she was spotted and signed by a talent agent. Soon she was attending auditions and receiving callbacks—and even did some work on the Nickelodeon TV network. Like many girls her age, Kayden looked up to young superstars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, who got their starts on Disney shows and dreamed that she, too, would one day star in a similar production. “I began auditioning for Disney when I was 13,” Kayden said. “I auditioned for shows like ‘Andi Mack,’ ‘Henry Danger’ and ‘I Am Frankie,’ to name a few. I kept getting called back, but then I didn’t end up getting the roles. It was disappointing, but I just kept trying.”
After years of callbacks and rejections, Kayden finally got her big break with Disney in 2021 when she was chosen to play Hartley on “The Villains of Valley View.” “The COVID-19 pandemic was still ongoing, so I made an audition tape at home and sent it out. I really gave it my best shot and tried not to think too much about it afterward. In fact, I was thinking about competing in the jumpers if this didn’t work out.”
But fate had other plans. The week after sending her tape to Disney, Kayden received an email stating that she was being called back for a second audition. “I did a Zoom reading with Isabella Pappas, the actress who now plays Amy on ‘The Villains of Valley View.’ It was so exciting,” Kayden said. “The next week, I was called out to L.A. to work on the test pilot for the show. It was all like something out of a dream, and I am honestly still processing how it all happened. I am so grateful to be working with a truly amazing cast and crew. Working for Disney really is everything I dreamed of—and more.”
Kayden feels that her horse show experience gave her a “leg up” for auditions, as she had become comfortable performing in front of others while in the show ring. “When I was going to horse shows, I had to memorize my tests, stay focused and not become overstimulated by all the things going on outside of the ring. I had to ride my best under pressure, which is not much different than performing in front of TV cameras or an audience,” Kayden said. “When I’m shooting the TV show, there are about 50 different people staring at me. There are all kinds of lights and cameras around me, and I have to really stay calm. Working with horses and being part of the show world really did help prepare me for all of that.”
Kayden found that her horse show background helped her in another way as well, as the competitive aspect of horse showing is not unlike that of the entertainment industry. “When you’re auditioning for a role, it is very competitive,” she said. “Many people are vying for a single role and they all want it—they want to win. You really need to stay focused and believe in yourself. It’s very similar to competing in a horse show—you and your horse have to focus on your connection and perform your test to the best of your ability.”
Feeling in Song and Saddle
In addition to acting, Kayden has already released several hit songs and is becoming well-known for her songwriting abilities. Her debut single, “Kiss Kiss Baby,” was the #1 most played song on Radio Disney in 2019. Another single, “Walk,” was named the Music Choice National Kid’s Song of the Week in 2020, with over one million listeners. She has several other top singles and her debut EP, “Unraveled,” was released in 2022.
“I began writing songs as an outlet to express my emotions around things that were going on at school,” Kayden said. “I was always an ‘oddball’ who liked to wear big bows and tutus, so other kids were not always on my side and I was bullied. Songwriting for me became a way to spill my feelings onto a page. Music became my coping mechanism, as I was able to escape into my songs and tell my story. When I felt sad or insecure, the words just flowed onto the pages. In fact, when life is going great and I don’t feel much stress, I sometimes get writer’s block!”
While her busy schedule—which involves working mostly in Los Angeles—doesn’t currently allow much time for riding, Kayden continues to embrace any time she spends with her horses. “Since I don’t have much time to ride my pony Hayley while I’m working on the TV show, we sent her to live with some kids up north. They are happily living life together and she is teaching them horsemanship,” she said.
In Wellington, Kayden has a young horse, Diamonds Dancing, a.k.a. Diesel, who recently recovered from having his eye removed. “He is the son of one of my mom and sister’s dressage horses. I really enjoy working with him as he learns to adjust to having only one eye,” Kayden said. “Our connection is so important, as he is trusting me to guide him and essentially be his other eye. We have been doing some groundwork and building trust on the flat. We haven’t tried jumping yet, but maybe someday!
“I feel that horses have so much to offer us,” Kayden said. “They can be your best friend and partner. My pony Hayley seemed to know when I was having a tough day and needed a hug. Sometimes it’s much easier to communicate with a horse. We are so fortunate to be able to have these beautiful, majestic and powerful creatures in our lives.”
Helping and Inspiring Others
Despite her hectic schedule, Kayden always finds the time to help others. She is actively involved as a volunteer for Brooke USA, a charity organization that assists hard-working horses, mules, donkeys and their owners in third-world countries. “My mom and I have been involved with Brooke USA for several years,” Kayden said. “While we ride for pleasure, the horses in these other countries are working animals—the people depend on them for survival. The animals carry heavy jugs of water and hundreds of pounds of stone. The organization comes in and builds wells for the villages; they build stalls for the animals and bring veterinarians to help them care for the animals. It’s such an incredible foundation. It’s a great feeling to know that you are doing something to help others.”
In terms of her career, Kayden is thankful for her many opportunities. “I love that ‘The Villains of Valley View’ is a great family show. It’s one that an entire family can sit down to dinner and watch, as it appeals to both kids and adults. In some ways, it’s like one of the older Disney sitcoms that parents of today grew up watching. It’s a wholesome show and I am so happy to be a part of it. It has a great way of bringing people together.”
Kayden is also hopeful for the future, which involves inspiring others. “I hope I can show people that it’s OK to be yourself,” she said. “For so many years, I was hiding who I truly was for fear of being bullied. People will always say things about you, but what is truly important is how you see yourself. Find something that makes you happy and focus on that.
“I feel so grateful,” she said. “Not a lot of people get to say that their dreams really came true. I could not have asked for anything better.”
For more information, visit disneynow.com/shows/the-villains-of-valley-view
Photos by Melissa Fuller, melissafullerphotography33.mypixieset.com, unless noted otherwise
Photo by Eric McCandless