Laura Graves & Verdades Make History: Their Journey and Where it Goes Next–Part 1 of 2
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Oct. 2, 2018
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Laura Graves is waiting to see what Verdades decides to do while taking a break from the competition arena after making dressage history as the first American combination to rank No. 1 in the world and achieving the best ever finish at an Olympics or global championship with two silver medals.
Both accomplishments came within just weeks at what may be the pinnacle of a career for the partnership that at the top of the sport was bracketed by four years between World Equestrian Games–Normandy in France in 2014 and Tryon in North Carolina in 2018.
“In 2014,” Laura recalled, “I was just riding for the experience. Now, we’re not riding for the experience, we’re riding for a medal every single time.
“It’s a little bit emotional because in a way I’m counting down the number of rides I have left on this horse, whether it be next year or whenever, I don’t know. But you know you’re at the peak of something and you know you’ve reached that.”
The partnership between Laura and Verdades began more than 16 years ago in Vermont, a horse-loving teenager with big dreams and a foal by Florett AS out of a Goya mare from Holland she and her parents bought from a video. Unusual for America at the time when often the horses on United States teams were already at or near Grand Prix when bought by wealthy owners for the talented and relatively small cadre of riders at the highest level of the sport.
The dream Laura had back then and the work to make it reality never changed.
“I don’t ever have a little dream,” she laughs. “If you know me on a personal level, I don’t do anything just a little bit. If I’m going to relax I’m going to relax hard. If I’m going to ride I ride for a gold medal.
“Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean I stop trying.
“I’m not the kind of person who has a dream and then sits back and watches the clouds roll by. I’m the person who has a dream and says, ‘OK, what do I do today to be where I want to be tomorrow.’
“That plan changes all the time, especially with horses. I’m lucky in a lot of ways. If it hadn’t been this horse or who I am then things would have turned out very differently.
“To look back, it’s a very solid, solid path that we’ve built behind us. I think that’s why he is such a valuable team horse. It’s a very secure thing to have.”
That solid path began in earnest in the show ring in 2010 after moving to Florida, as many from the Northeast United States do in search of warm weather. In Vermont the winters are long and cold, followed by the mud season that passes for spring, then after a short summer, winter is heralded by the breathtakingly beautiful colors of fall foliage.
Her story the first few years in Florida is similar to many young anywhere chasing their dreams–working too many hours at whatever to earn enough while trying to keep their eyes on the goal they’re striving for. Tougher with a horse to house, feed and take care as well as train in addition to doing all that for yourself.
Did she imagine it would be as hard as it was?
“I don’t think so,” she says now, “especially my first year in the sport and, to be honest, my first many years in the sport, not riding on teams was very intimidating.
“I don’t come from a lot of money. I don’t have the means to hang out with these people and live in the towns where they live and eat and, God,” she laughs, “drink the wine that they drink.
“But, dammit, I knew I could ride that well. So that’s what I had.
“It was very intimidating, I felt extremely isolated.”
Then in 2014 along came Debbie McDonald. Debbie, who had retired Brentina at an emotional ceremony in Las Vegas in 2009, and was focusing on training up-and-coming riders, put Laura under her wing.
Debbie’s success on the mare Brentina had made her a legend–the former jumper rider who took up dressage late in life because of back problems, to become the first American World Cup champion, two Olympics earning a team bronze, team silver at the 2002 World Games, team bronze at the 2006 WEG. At a slight five feet (152cm), she needed to use ways other than strength to make her horses perform, skills she has passed along to her students. In addition to Laura, they include Adrienne Lyle and Kasey Perry-Glass–three of the Tryon WEG team members. Later this year, she succeeds Robert Dover as the U.S. team coach.
At the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington in 2014, under Debbie’s coaching Laura and Verdades then 12 years old debuted at Big Tour, scoring in the mid to high 60 per cent in the Grand Prix and Special. People were taking notice. But the results did not appear sufficient to earn a start at the U.S. Festival of Champions, the selection event for the world championships in France, an opportunity that came along only once every four years.
Laura and Verdades made a last-ditch attempt by going to a CDI in Lexington, Kentucky, an effort not unnoticed by some riders low down in the standings. Some dropped out so the new kids on the block could have a chance at a start at the Festival of Champions. It worked. They were confirmed as the 14th of 16 combinations on the start list at the festival at historic Gladstone in New Jersey. Laura was determined to be one of eight pairs selected to go to Europe from which would be chosen the team of four horses and riders to represent the U.S. at WEG.
In a script written in Hollywood, a star was born–Laura at the age of 26 fulfilled a dream with Verdades, becoming reserve United States Grand Prix champions to champion Steffen Peters on Legolas. They were on their way to Europe and a shot at their first American team.
Their first ever competition in Europe was at Fritzens in Austria, a premier event, also one of the friendliest and in a stunning mountain setting. Laura and Verdades showed they belonged, placing second in both the Grand Prix and the Special to Victoria Max-Theurer on Blind Date, a star rider already with three Olympics and a World Games on her record.
At the Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany later the same month the duo led the U.S. team of four combinations to clinch a start at the World Games a month later, their first international championship.
Part 2: The gold, silver and bronze years of Laura Graves and Verdades