Laura Graves On Two Months Training With Debbie McDonald in Idaho Ahead of Pan Am Games

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Laura Graves on Verdades beside "Brentina" sculpture at River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho.
Laura Graves on Verdades beside “Brentina” sculpture at River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho.

June 30, 2015

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Laura Graves begins the journey with her Verdades this week to the Pan American Games with her spirits refreshed and riding skills improved after two months training with Debbie McDonald in the Idaho mountain retreat in Sun Valley.

In a couple of days she will join her American team mate Steffen Peters with whom she is also ranked in the top 10 in the world and the small tour combinations at Gladstone, New Jersey for the journey to Toronto. There, the U.S. team will seek to win gold at the continental championships and, more importantly, the single berth up for grabs to start at next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The meteoric rise by the 27-year-old Laura that took her to the World Equestrian Games in Normandy last summer where she placed fifth in the Grand Prix Freestyle, the highest of the Americans, re-building her equestrian business near Orlando, Florida then the intense Florida winter circuit and competing at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas had left her “literally running on empty.”

She confided to dressage-news.com of a “very emotional conversation” she had during the Florida circuit with Debbie, whose partnership with Brentina was legendary for becoming the first American to claim the World Cup title, win Olympic team bronze in 2004, World Games team silver in 2002 and bronze in 2006 as well as Pan Am team and individual gold in 1999.

She became Laura’s trainer just 18 months ago.

From that point, Laura and her “Diddy” that she had nurtured and ridden from a foal imported by her parents in Vemont emerged from obscurity to a player on the global stage.

The months striving for success at the United States championships in 2014 followed by competitions in Europe in preparation for the World Games and then the world championships slowed her efforts to build her horse training business. After he return from Normandy she moved her training business to Plymouth, 50 miles (80km) on the other side of Orlando from Geneva where she had been based.

Although there was no doubt she would win selection to be among the eight Big Tour and Small Tour combinations to make an European competition swing before the Pan Ams, Laura decided to ask to be excused from the trans-Atlantic circuit. Instead, she wanted to try for the World Cup Final, the annual individual global championship that this year returned to Las Vegas.

“Full barn, long days, clients coming out of my ears, things I had been dreaming of since I moved to Florida,” Laura said of the move to the new training center at Plymouth, Florida.

“I was finally making ends meet. But it was clear that I was exhausted, stressed and not focusing as much on myself as I should.”

Debbie invited her to spend two months to re-focus at River Grove Farm, owned by the Thomas family that had bought Brentina for Debbie to compete. made such large donations to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas that the Thomas & Mack Center was named to honor Parry Thomas and has hosted four World Cup dressage and jumping finals so far this century.

“As easily as I said yes,” Laura recalled, “the decision was equally as stressful knowing that I would be sacrificing the business that I had worked so hard for and and which provided the financial support when you are your own horse owner.”

Then right before the World Cup the international accounting and auditing behemoth Deloitte stepped in and awarded Laura one of the biggest commercial sponsorship deals in United States dressage.

“I am eternally grateful to Deloitte whose support has allowed me to be in in such intense training with the focus on the Pan American Games and 2016 Olympics.

Verdades being worked by Laura Graves in the indoor arena at River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho.
Verdades being worked by Laura Graves in the indoor arena at River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho.

“Being here is nothing short of inspiring. With Debbie, we have been focusing on the details–transitions and rideability. Always with Debbie we work on the connection and the ability to make adjustments with body language  as opposed to major corrections.”

The weather during her time in Hailey “has been amazing and Diddy is thriving!”

And it was also the second summer in a row that she was able to spend a large amount of time with Adrienne Lyle, not much older at 30 years of age than Laura who has been mentored by Debbie for the past several years. Adrienne competed the Thomas family-owned Wizard for the United States at the Olympics in London in 2012 as well as being team mates at Normandy last year.

“I have the great joy of being a sponge here and get to watch Adrienne school a variety of horses every day,” Laura said.

“I am not only benefitting for my current top horse but am seeing things that I can bring back to Florida for my younger horses.”

It was “really exciting” to see the new partnership of Adrienne and Sandronnerhall, the gelding that was bought two months ago by a small group of Americans willing to invest in the future of dressage in the U.S.

“It was very clear this spring with the U.S. dressage squad in Europe that we have developed incredible depth,” she said.

That depth includes Legolas and Rosamunde trained and competed by Steffen Peters, Allison Brock on Rosevelt, several pairs that are training and competing in Europe this summer as well as several talented Small Tour horses whose move up to Grand Prix was delayed until after the Pan Ams.

“I am very excited about all of the combinations and know we will have a great time in Toronto,” Laura said, and admitted that though Hailey is “amazing” for the horses and the restaurants in Sun Valley also make it so for humans she’s excited to head back to the East Coast and the convenience of a city like Orlando.