Laura Graves Determined to Help USA Back to Medals Podium

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Laura Graves and Vardades at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves and Vardades at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Dec. 11, 2014

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Laura Graves rode her Verdades from obscurity to become the top American at the world championships in not much more than half a year but that success has made her more determined than ever to help the United States get back on the medals podium.

Laura is not satisfied with the fourth place for the team or finishing fifth in the Freestyle on a score of 82.036 per cent that for an American has been exceeded by only Steffen Peters on Ravel and Debbie McDonald on Brentina.

“Knowing I have the ability and the horse to be at the top makes me more competitive,” she told dressage-news.com in a year-end reprise of the pair’s Grand Prix career that now puts them 22nd in the world after their debut ranking of 336 in February.

“Finishing fourth as a team and eighth and fifth individually was amazing but knowing how close we were to a medal makes fourth and fifth not good enough for me.

“If we can get that close, there is no reason we can’t be on the podium.”

And her main goal in 2015 is to improve their Grand Prix scores that “hopefully we can push the numbers near 80.” Attaining 80 per cent at Grand Prix would put the pair in the highly exclusive club of which Steffen and Ravel is the only American duo among the dozen members.

The success of Laura and the 12-year-old KWPN gelding came after moving from Vermont where the weather is often too cold to snow but where she developed “Diddy,” as she calls Verdades that her mother had bought as a foal from a Dutch sales video.

She initially moved to Florida and the sub tropical weather she prefers to train with Anne Gribbons, before moving to the Orlando area to set up her own training business. Early in 2014, she began working with Debbie McDonald who moved her winter base from California to Wellington, Florida.

The real life fairy tale is now well known–making it to the U.S. championships when other contenders ahead of her dropped out and earning selection to the World Equestrian Games team.

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

Performances were marked by harmony between the slightly built Laura and Verdades as well as admiration for their almost unheralded rise to the top of the sport.

Since the World Games in Normandy, the 27-year-old rider gave Verdades  Diddy “a well-deserved vacation from the arena.” She moved from the stables she had rented in Geneva to a community less than an hour away. There have been no competitions

“The plan is to have him back at full power soon as we gear up for the season,” she said, referring to the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington that begins a lineup of seven CDIs over 12 weeks beginning early next month.

The plan is to work with Debbie as often as possible over the winter.

The experience in Europe that included competing at Fritzens, Austria and Aachen, Germany as well as the WEG helped her “to build confidence in my training and show preparations.”

America's Laura Graves and Verdades competing ar Aachen. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
America’s Laura Graves and Verdades competing ar Aachen. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“This summer was a definite turning point in my career and in my life.

“Confirmation of my horse’s quality and my own riding abilities has allowed me to think longer term. When you aren’t earning a living doing the horse thing, it is important to keep your mind open and stay grounded by the fact that your riding career may never take off.

“Now I feel like it makes sense for me to stay in the business and we can think about investing in more horses or an equestrian property.”

She has what she describes as “a couple of very exciting new horses” in her barn–a five-year-old gelding and a three-year-old mare.

“My goals have always been to bring out the very best quality in the horses without the pressure of time,”Laura said “Whether or not they compete this year is still up in the air. When I feel that they have a chance to be more than just successful, we will compete.”

She also bought two Dutch colts this summer that are being raised with her parents in Vermont. They will move to Florida in a couple of years.

Competing in Europe against the best in the world has not changed her attitue about dressage or training.

“My attitute has always been to approach the horses with compassion but I can be tough as nails when I need to be,” Laura said. “I think that with the compassion the horses are more willing to rise to the challenge than a horse who never feels rewarded.

“Our training has not changed–though I like to think it gets better all the time. But isn’t that the point? It is important to continue your education as a rider and trainer.

“I never want to reach a point in life where I feel like I have nothing left to learn or to practice.”

Next year brings the Pan American Games in Toronto in July that are the highest priority for the United States. Only one team can qualify through the Pan Ams that will use a unique format of mixed Big and Small Tour combinations, a maximum of two Grand Prix horses and riders on the team of four. A team seeking to qualify for the Olympics must have at least one Grand Prix pair.

Before the Pan Ams, though, is the World Cup Final in Las Vegas in April.

The North American League gets two slots, though the last time the individual annual championship decided by the Freestyle was held in Las Vegas in 2009 and won by Steffen Peters on Ravel three United States and one Canadian combination participated.

United States dressage team at the World Games of Steffen Peters, Laura Graves, Tina Konyot and Adrienne Lyle. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
United States dressage team at the World Games of Steffen Peters, Laura Graves, Tina Konyot and Adrienne Lyle and Robert Dover. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

She’ll discuss options with Robert Dover, the U.S. chef d’equipe, and Debbie, who is not only her trainer but also the American developing coach.

“I think everyone would agree that the Pan Ams have to be at the top of the schedule for this country,” Laura said. “If we prove that we are still a top combination, we will go and we will give it our best. It would be an amazing opportunity to ride on another U.S. team.”