By Lauren R. Giannini
When Laura Graves and Verdades exploded onto the international scene at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, their “overnight” success captivated people around the world. For horse and rider to accomplish this level of success in less than one year of competition at the Grand Prix level is like a modern fairy tale. In reality, their meteoric rise was 20 years in the making for Laura, who spent 12 of them bringing Verdades from weanling to his current megastar status.
In early 2014, Laura and Verdades began competing in international Grand Prix. You can follow their steady improvement throughout the year by watching their tests on YouTube. They also enjoyed some good luck, especially in terms of the United States Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions, in June 2014, at the USET Foundation Headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey. Laura and Verdades were ranked below the top 15 Grand Prix horses and riders who would be invited to the Festival, which served as the WEG selection trials. When combinations ahead of them withdrew, Laura and Verdades advanced into the top 15. They made headlines by finishing runner-up to Steffen Peters, who won his eighth championship with two-time national title partner Legolas 92.
Earning the reserve championship meant that the rookie duo joined the veteran champions as guaranteed members of the WEG team. There were other bonuses, too. On the strength of Laura and Verdades’ second-place finishes in the Grand Prix Special and the Freestyle, they weren’t required to compete in two mandatory CDI outings, at Schindlhof in Austria and Aachen in Germany. Laura opted to compete in both shows for experience. At Aachen’s World Equestrian Festival, Laura and Verdades were the highest placed American pair, finishing 13th with 73.000 in the Nations Cup Grand Prix. In the Grand Prix Freestyle, they scored 76.900 percent, tying for 10th with teammates Adrienne Lyle and Wizard.
“I saw in Europe what 80 percent means about performance — come here, be a little fish, learn how to swim, but you have to do the work at home, otherwise it’s a waste of money,” said Laura. “I’m lucky I teamed up with Debbie McDonald. She has a reputation where people in the industry respect her and she has great respect for her riders and students. Whenever I said my horse needed a day off, Debbie backed me up. I felt totally supported. My situation was unique. Nobody knew this horse except me, an unknown rider. We were a wild card and they had to trust me.”
The rest, of course, is history: Laura and Verdades wowed the judges and the world in Normandy. She became the second American to break the 80-percent mark in international competition when her freestyle scored 82.038 for individual fifth. She had qualified for the freestyle in the Grand Prix Special by finishing eighth on 77.157, her personal best at the time. Laura was the highest scoring member of the U.S. team, which placed fourth overall at the Normandy Games.
From The Beginning
The finely tuned relationship between horse and rider resulted from dedication, patience, perseverance, consistency and a great deal of luck, but the most important ingredient has been love. Under the best of circumstances, training horses to FEI-level dressage is challenging and without guarantees. Verdades can be described quite aptly as a “special needs” equine: he tries for Laura, but their path to glory had its shaky moments. Even more amazing is the fact that their partnership began when Verdades was 6 months old and she was a kid of 14. Laura had to earn — and justify — his trust every step of the way.
“Verdades — I call him Diddy — was very difficult,” said Laura. “We use natural horsemanship on all our horses, but he was pretty wild and we sent him to the trainer for two weeks. By the time they got to working with tarps, they couldn’t halter him. We brought him home and I broke him myself. What we had going for us is that it was always the two of us. I literally try to make conversation with him all the time. He’s just very reactive and sensitive. In some ways his behavior will never make sense to anyone else, but he is very gifted in other ways. If you look at him like that, it makes sense.”
Laura grew up with an older and younger sister and parents Freddie and Ron Graves Jr., whose motto might have been “always do your very best.” Laura was quite young when her parents traded their old washer and dryer for two ponies. Shortly thereafter, her mother found a free barn, which her parents dismantled and re-erected in their backyard. Laura learned to ride bareback on opinionated, free and rescued ponies.
“Over the years, we accumulated a number of free horses,” recalled Laura. “We had 30 acres or more and, in the summer, neighbors let us graze the horses on their properties. We would bareback them to various grazings. When I was young, I had no desire to take riding lessons. I was in 4-H, my mom was a 4-H club leader, and I wanted to do in-hand presentation. I would scrub the horses and the tack, clip them, all that. I decided to start riding at 4-H camp.”
Change Of Goals
Laura’s parents purchased a super little Quarter Horse gelding, Koko’s Eternal Sun, aka Sunny, who proved instrumental in advancing Laura’s equestrian education. “I was in the sixth grade of a K to 6 school and for graduation you get a little extra space in the yearbook for your will and your goals,“ she said. “I wrote that my goal is to represent the U.S. on the eventing team.”
Sunny was 4 and relatively unbroken, but Laura was a conscientious rider even then. She had been taking lessons at Breckenridge Farm with Judi Whipple, who studied for years with Sally Swift and Jane Savoie. Laura and Sunny spent their first few lessons on the lunge line. Laura was a diligent student and soaked up everything about how to use her seat and legs without tensing up, and how to be soft and tactful with her aids. Sunny’s reaction to strong aids and rider tension was bucking.
During summer 1999, the Breckenridge kids prepared under Judi’s tutelage for Lendon Gray’s First Annual Northeast Junior Young Rider Championships, which would be held that September at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Connecticut. Each division consisted of a dressage test, group equitation class and written test, and would-be participants had to earn qualifying scores.
Laura’s goal changed that summer. She still wanted to represent the U.S., but in a different discipline. She and Sunny finished second in their division at Lendon’s show at Ox Ridge, but her passion for dressage had ignited during the training process. “When I had my first dressage lesson, that pretty much did it for me from day one,” she said.
Over the next four years while Laura trained Sunny to Fourth Level, she took him on trail rides, jumped him in lessons, clinics and 4-H shows, and even went foxhunting once. They enjoyed each other. They also earned their USDF Bronze Medal. Now 20, Sunny is a lesson horse at Laura’s farm, CrossTies LLC, where he continues to school other riders to use the lightest of aids.
The Quirky Diddy
When Laura was 14, her mother, Freddie, spotted Verdades, a Dutch Warmblood by Florett AS out of Liwilarda, by Goya. “I saw him at 3 months and again at 5 months — that’s when I pulled the trigger,” said Freddie. “It was a VHS tape, three-and-a-half to five minutes of film and none of the slow motion stuff of today, but Diddy had everything. He could move, he had the build, he was so sure of where he put his feet. He moved with complete ease. It may sound corny, but I thought he had the look of eagles.”
They imported Verdades, weaned but still a baby, from Holland. “Diddy is the first horse I trained to Grand Prix,” said Laura. “I went to cosmetology school, I was working in a salon, doing hair, working retail in a clothing store, and I took a lesson here and there. I didn’t really have a trainer. Then I had a lesson with Madeline Austin, who has a business in Vermont with a top stallion and super quality Dutch horses. She said, ‘You know, your horse is international quality’ — I had no idea.”
Diddy was, and still is, extremely challenging and quirky, but he had something special and Laura loved him. She decided it was time to move to Florida and be a working student with Anne Gribbons. “I stayed for three years and trained with her through the small tour (Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire-I tests),” said Laura. “In 2012 I went out on my own.”
Laura started her training business, CrossTies LLC, in Geneva, Florida, at a property leased by her boyfriend, Curt Maes, who took to the horses like a fish to water. “That was very important,” said Laura. “Curt can do it all. He hasn’t learned to ride, but he has quite an eye for the dressage. He has been a big supporter. I couldn’t have afforded to do all this on my own. He drives my trailer, helps to pay for shows or an extra lesson. He would just offer. He got it. He’s really special.”
In November 2013 at the U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, Laura and Verdades won the Intermediaire-2 Open Championship. Even with that kind of affirmation, she kept working to improve. Concerned because their passage was “meh,” as she put it, Laura did lots of online research, looking for exercises other people used to improve the various movements.
Working To Be The Best
“I don’t start anything if I’m not going to do my best to be the best at it,” she said. “I look for help. I study every video. You can’t compare what we do over here to what goes on in Europe. Those riders have a different level of hunger and I think that they ride better because of that hunger. You either want it or you don’t. It’s a heck of a lot of financial struggle and heartache if you don’t want it.
“I spend 18 hours a day in my barn, brushing horses, shoveling manure — people think I’m crazy,” Laura added. “I watched my test videos any time I wasn’t on a horse. I relentlessly pursued the help that I so desperately needed. All the top trainers are busy, but I felt in my gut that we were good. I needed to know why our scores weren’t better. I would show up every day, hunt them down at shows and text them until I got the help I needed.”
Laura has a vivid memory of the show where they didn’t do a great Grand Prix test. It proved to be a turning point. “I was overwhelmed by financial stress and all of the money spent still didn’t seem to be getting me where I wanted to be,” she said. “But after that not-so-great Grand Prix, Debbie McDonald came running up and said, ‘Robert (Dover, U.S. Dressage Chef d’Equipe) and I just watched your test and the potential we saw — you tell me when you have time for a lesson and I will meet you there.’ I had had a lesson or two before that with Debbie, but after that Global show in Wellington at the end of February 2014, it all started coming together.”
In 2010, the USEF made Debbie McDonald a Developing Dressage Coach. Her competition credentials include medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2006 and 2002 WEG and 1999 Pan Am Games. In 2003 in Sweden, Debbie, riding longtime partner Brentina, became the first American to win the FEI Dressage World Cup Final. She knows what it takes to get to the top.
“I had observed Laura when she was doing Developing Grand Prix,” said Debbie. “Anne Gribbons told me that was definitely a nice horse and needed some polish, but the horse did it all. Last year, Laura came to Wellington, again needing a little polish, but you could see the talent. They have such a great relationship. That horse totally trusts her. It’s magical to watch.”
To The International Stage
As the Gladstone show approached, Laura took Diddy to Betsy Juliano’s Florida barn, Havensafe, to continue training with Debbie. “Laura was committed and it all came together at the right time,” said Debbie. “She was quite low in the rankings going to Gladstone, but because she was diligent and hard-working, they rose to the occasion. It continued in Europe — they just kept getting better and better.”
Debbie and Robert had no clue how the judges would receive this unknown combination. “The judges didn’t really take notice until that first extended trot,” said Debbie. “Then the scores went up. He’s a big horse with magnificent eyes and the kindest expression, but until he moves, you don’t see his brilliance. That horse has so much scope. I think he has the ability to be one of the best horses in the world.”
Laura, too, will enjoy a successful career, and Debbie will continue to work with her. “I told her we have to work on the training, not just shows,” said Debbie. “She knows what it takes to have that world class horse and go into the ring. She is the coolest competitor I think I’ve ever come across. To have the pressure she had on her at her first European competitions, at WEG, and to ride Verdades the way she did — I still get goose bumps and teary-eyed.”
Verdades in Spanish means truths. “My faith in Laura and Diddy has never wavered,” added Laura’s mom, Freddie. “The whole family was there at WEG. We were in the kiss and cry area and they stick cameras in your face. I do not cry in public, and I told my husband, ‘Well, that will stifle all emotion.’ But I was wearing sunglasses and I cried.”
Tears of joy, of course — pretty much a given if you watch the WEG video on YouTube of Laura and Diddy’s freestyle. In the electric atmosphere of the World Championships, they dance with great power and harmony, creating a special place where dreams really do come true.