Steffen Peters on Laura Graves’ Rise with Verdades to Top in America–Part 1 of 2

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Laura Graves on Verdades at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves on Verdades at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

July 24, 2014

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Steffen Peters finds it “truly inspiring” that Laura Graves, almost half his age, could become the rider with her Verdades to assume the mantle of leadership of American dressage that he has borne for the past eight years.

“It’s about time someone else takes the lead,” he told dressage-news.com in a candid interview just two days after Laura turned 27 years old and a month before the World Equestrian Games where she will ride on her first United States championship team.

“I’ve been doing it for the last eight years,” said Steffen, who turns 50 years old later this year, not in a resigned manner but clearly excited at Laura’s performance among the high quality of competition at last week’s World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. He had to sit out the world’s premier horse show to deal with severe pneumonia instead of riding Legolas for the American Nations Cup team. He was impressed with the quality of the competition that he thought was a preview of the WEG with “hats off” to the performance by Totilas ridden by Matthias Alexander Rath.

“I find it even more incredible if it is one of your own team mates, and it was so especially with Laura.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Laura goes higher than Legolas. I don’t think it’s clear that Legolas is in the lead any more. I find that truly inspiring. I thought the Grand Prix scores for Laura could have been higher.”

He watched most of the dressage rides, including all the Americans, and the score of 73.000 per cent for Laura and Verdades was the highest for the Americans. The four Europeans on the five-member panel awarded her marks of 72.600 per cent to 76.100 per cent while Australia’s Susan Hoevenaars marked the pair at 69.900 per cent.

He loved the rides by Adrienne Lyle on Wizard in the Grand Prix Special and the Freestyle and described as “wonderful” the performance by Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O in the Grand Prix.

“I sat there with a smile on my face and watched very good dressage,” he said of Laura who lives in the Orlando community of Geneva, Florida and her Verdades.

The rise by Laura from obscurity to the global stage has been meteoric even if more than a decade in the making.

Laura Graves riding Veradades on the Florida winter circuit. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves riding Veradades on the Florida winter circuit. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Her mother bought Verdades, a Dutch Warmblood (Florett AS x Goya) as a yearling from a sales video sent from Holland. For much of Verdades’ life, they worked in central Vermont where her parents operate a small business.

Laura swapped the frigid cold of Vermont’s winters for sub-tropical Florida. She spent three years training with Anne Gribbons, the former U.S. team coach who is based not far from Orlando. Laura was competing Verdades at small tour in 2011 and 2012.

Then Laura leased a six-stall barn and set up her small teaching and training business that restricted her competition schedule to a handful of local shows and national competitions in Wellington, a three-hour drive south. By year’s end the pair started Grand Prix.

With Verdades aged 12 and Laura confident they were ready, the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington this winter became a launch pad for the partnership.

Although on a tight budget–entry fees and stall fees for CDIs typically run well over $1,000 a show, with horse transportation and hotels and meals adding thousands of dollars more–the pair were doing well but not outstanding in a year of competition from combinations hoping to make it to the national championships and a shot at the WEG.

Laura Graves riding Verdades to reserve in the US Championship Grand Prix Special. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves riding Verdades to reserve in the US Championship. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

What turned out to be more important than the competition was the connection she made for coaching from Debbie McDonald, who rode Brentina to Olympic and WEG medals for the United States and was the first American to capture the World Cup.

‘Hindsight is 20/20,” Laura said. “If we’d been abe to connect with Debbie sooner, there’s no doubt we’d be a little further ahead.

“I know for a fact I would not be in Europe if I had not teamed with Debbie, there’s nothing I’m more certain of. I would not have made it to the trials. She’ll deny it but it’s true.”

Making it to those trials was her grit and the last-minute qualifying score she obtained when, in debt and with one last CDI in Kentucky she made it to the U.S. national championships that were also America’s WEG qualifying competition. The pair actually finished out of the top 15 that would be invited but some combinations dropped out and she was in. Laura pointed her horse trailer east to Gladstone.

Steffen Peters, who had entered the championships as the favorite on Legolas, said he recognized the talent on first sight at Gladstone–“it was world class the first day,” he recalled.

Steffen’s influence on American dressage cannot be underestimated.

His record in the past eight years–fourth overall on Floriano and the top American at the World Games in Aachen, Germany in 2006. At the Olympics two years later he rode Ravel for the same placing, in 2009 on Ravel became only the second U.S. rider to win the World Cup then followed it up with two individual medals at the WEG in Kentucky. And he rode Weltino’s Magic to double gold at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara in 2011. At the 2012 Olympics he held the unusual position of rider-coach, a role he says was so stressful he won’t do it again.

The results of the national championships made up of the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle stunned American dressage.

Steffen and Legolas 1st, Laura and Verdades 2nd.

With those top two placings, they both automatically qualified for the American WEG team and a trip to Europe as one of the eight top combinations to compete and train together before the WEG in Normandy in a month

The Schindlhof CDI4* in Fritzens and the Aachen CDIO5* confirmed Laura and Verdades as more than deserving of their status.

Steffen Peters and Legolas and Laura Graves and Verdades celebrating success at the U.S. Championships. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Steffen Peters and Legolas and Laura Graves and Verdades celebrating success at the U.S. Championships. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I truly believe Laura has not realized that she and Verdades have moved into the top 10 in the world,” Steffen said.

“I don’t think it has really sunk into her. When it does in France it will sink in pretty quickly.

“It’s really pretty exciting that we could have two horses with 75 per cent, maybe a little over.”

Her success has made an impact with the European media.

In the midst of her success at Aachen, this correspondent was swamped with questions about Laura and Verdades, on a couple of occasions becoming mini news conferences (dressage-news.com has no connection with the U.S. federation but was in Aachen as with many other shows on both sides of the Atlantic as a reporter).

What should Laura do to get to the next level?

“I don’t think Laura should do anything different,” Steffen said. “Debbie’s done a wonderful job.”

Part 2: The Future of Laura Graves and Verdades