Laura Graves & Verdades–The Now and Future – Part 2 of 2

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Laura Graves enjoying the Wolrd Equestrian Festival CHIO at Aachen, Germany. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves enjoying the World Equestrian Festival CHIO at Aachen, Germany with no moving horse beneath her. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

July 29, 2014

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Laura Graves is quietly confident that she can ride Verdades into the Grand Prix 80 per cent club, a feat that would place her among the top handful of riders in the history of the sport and only the second American to do so.

After a lightning leap to reserve United States champion less than six months after starting not only her CDI Grand Prix career with Verdades but the first for Laura with any horse, her chance of reaching her goal should not be underestimated.

Although she admires the quality of the horses and riding in Europe and thinks that for her to stay competitive she should try to make it across the Atlantic at least once every two years, Laura loves being American and misses her life at home when traveling.

Laura has grit, a focus and determination that belie her years and experience–she turned 27 years old while on her first European competition circuit ahead of the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France in less than a month.

To describe her as slight is an understatement. She weighs in at 120 pounds (54 kg) “on a fat day soaking wet with rocks in her pockets,” jokes her boyfriend, Curt, and is ambitiously listed at 5 ft. 8 ins. (1.72m) on her driver’s license.

Even so, she has become what one European show organizer described as “the talk of the town,” a heavyweight talent already being sought after as a celebrity attraction at events, such as making a star appearance at the historic and certain to be glamor-soaked Central Park Horse Show in New York City, the media capital of the world, in two months.

No less a star than Steffen Peters, one of the most admired riders on both sides of the Atlantic, lauds Laura as someone who could take over as America’s leading dressage competitor after almost a decade in which he has filled that role.

Laura Graves onVerdades celebrating success at Fritzens, Austria. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage0news.com
Laura Graves onVerdades celebrating success at Fritzens, Austria. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage0news.com

Laura has carried with her the dreams she’d been having in the 12 years since her mother picked out a yearling in Holland from a sales video and imported Verdades (Florett AS x Goya) to their home in Vermont. Laura’s dislike of frigid winters led her to Florida and three years working with Anne Gribbons, the former U.S. team coach.

Since 2010, she has methodically moved Verdades up the levels, from third to small tour national classes and two years ago took on CDIs at small tour with mostly good but not outstanding results.

Then, she went out on her own, renting a six-stall barn to start building a business of training horses and riders. In 2013 she skipped Florida’s top  competitions to test Grand Prix, mostly at local shows.

In February this year she was ready.

Having scraped together enough money, she drove Verdades the three hours south from her training center in the Orlando area community of Geneva to Wellington’s Global Dressage Festival of 12 straight weeks of international and national competitions. The pair started in the mid-60 per cent range and a month later moved close to 70 per cent.

More importantly for Laura was working with Debbie McDonald, who with the mare Brentina became the first American ever to win the World Cup, and captured Olympic and world championship medals, who had shifted her training operation to Wellington.

She wasn’t qualified for the national championships in Gladstone, New Jersey but gave it one last shot by going to the Lexington, Kentucky CDI3* where Debbie was training her longtime assistant, Adrienne Lyle and Wizard. Laura and Verdades did well enough so that when a couple of combinations ahead of her dropped out she became one of the 15 pairs invited to the championships that were also the trials for the WEG.

Laura became reserve champion and automatically placed on the team for Normandy along with Steffen and Legolas.

Laura Graves and Verdades in Europe grew into becoming a top American combination. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves and Verdades in Europe grew into becoming a top American combination. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

With seven other combinations, she and Verdades went to Europe for two competitions, Schindlhof CDI4* at Fritzens, Austria and the World Equestrian Festival CDIO5* Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany that few would dispute its title as the greatest horse show on the planet.

The World Games are the pursuit for now, where Laura is “really hoping to boost our scores” beyond the 73 per cent at Grand Prix she has been awarded at both European shows.

Then the pair will go home with some serious rest and recreation for Verdades. She wants to get a treadmill for him to give his mind and back a rest as the horse doesn’t get a chance to recover from intense physical work training and competing.

Is 80 per cent possible?

“I do,” she said. “He’s so capable. We just need to push a bit more. People forget how green he is.”

Laura believes they can focus on getting eight for piaffe and passage, the movements with coefficients that double the marks, and making half passes 8.5 instead of 7.5. Equally, not making mistakes.

What she has seen in Europe has been an eyeopener.

Aachen provided what she described as a real appreciation for horse sport.

Laura Graves and Verdades in the honor round at the World Equstrian Festival in Aachen. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves and Verdades in the honor round at the World Equstrian Festival in Aachen. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“These are all the horses you read about and study and now you see them in the flesh,” she said, “it’s not the same as on video. You see what 80 per cent looks like, where we have to be every year if you want to touch the top.

“In America we have top quality horses but it’s tough–we’re riding for one to 10. Here, they’re riding for a 15 so if they make mistakes they still get a seven or an eight. It’s really buckling down and being tough in the show arena. In the training arena you need to be going in every day and being the same way. You make sure the horse has days off, but in the training you expect the same every day, keeping the bar really high, for ourselves, too. Otherwise we’re not going to be competitive.

“I’ve only been in two competitions and already I know I have to make it to Europe at least once every couple of years. They’re not going to come to us. If you think you’re a big fish swimming with these riders and horses you’re out of touch with reality.

“You have to come here and be a little fish for a while and learn how to win. The Europeans know how to win.

“We have to do the work at home otherwise it’s a waste of money.

“We’ve got to get a grip and send the real top horses. If you don’t have good horses don’t waste the money. Wait until you get good horses.”

Laura has no horse coming behind Verdades and that makes her pay close attention to the so-called pipeline to develop American dressage and the end of that pipeline, the most expensive element, is the Big Tour that she is now in.

Americans by nature do not live in a patient culture, she admits, but a society of drive-throughs and demands for immediate results. Translation: “the easiest way is the trained or made horse.”

“From my personal experience,” she said, “a horse trained by someone else is different than having a horse you’ve put all the miles on yourself and the riders will be totally different people.

“We have to find patient sponsors. Let’s get some yearlings, some two year olds and wait to see how they mature. They become nothing, or better as a jumper. I think peope are afraid of that.

All eyes in the packed Deutsche Bank Stadium at Aachen. Germany on America's Laura Graves and Verdades. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
All eyes in the packed Deutsche Bank Stadium at Aachen. Germany on America’s Laura Graves and Verdades. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“The Europeans are not going to sell us their best horses. We have to be willing to take the risk and find a rider capable of bringing along young horses, to work with a good trainer.

“It’s not thinking of it as failure when it doesn’t work out, that’s horses. You don’t know how smart kids are going to be until you put them in school.”

“We need to pair quality young horses with the right high performance riders,” and she wants to see more placing developing Grand Prix horses with top riders and saying, “now swim.”

“You can’t keep sending the same horses with the same riders and expect a different result,” she said.

She would love to have some young stock on her parents’ land in Vermont, to “eat grass, hang out in the mountains

It’s just not financially feasible for her.

“I think it’s really hard for owners and sponsors,” she said about developing young horses. “Everyone hopes their horse is THE horse. It’s unreaonable to think that as they are so few and far between. People have to be realistic.”

While she may want to see some changes in American dressage, there’s no doubt where her heart us.

“I love America,” she said while sitting in Europe. “I miss so many things about America.

“Being in Geneva, in Orlando, I like it. I like having access to help when you need it. I also like being private. I think the horses like that. When they’re not being worked they should be totally relaxed, they should not be bothered. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of Wellington it’s a little bit like a show for them all the time. I know how I feel. I want to go home and unwind.

“I think people and horses feel the same. They want to exhale.

“I love to cook, hang out by the pool with Curt and our dog. I love being on the property with the horses.

“I like to feed people. I never cook for myself… Thanksgiving, Christmas… I plan for it.”

Are children in the plans?

“I always thought I wanted to have kids,” she said. “I just don’t know when. How do you fit these things into your life.

“I want to be really secure in my business so when I’m huge and nine months’ pregnant, mucking stalls is not gong to fly.”