By Amber Heintzberger
For the first time in history, a U.S. dressage rider is ranked number one on the world rankings: following her performance at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon in September, Laura Graves and Verdades, the 16-year-old KWPN gelding that she owns with Curt Maes, are placed one point ahead of German powerhouse Isabel Werth and Weihegold OLD. Their impressive team Grand Prix and individual silver medal Grand Prix Special performances at WEG increased their point total to 2,714 and ultimately edged them up to the top of the Leaderboard. (Read more about the changes to the FEI Dressage World Ranking list and view the updated standings.)
Laura and “Diddy” have a fairytale story that has seen them rise to the top of the sport from humble beginnings. Lacking the funds for a “made” horse, her family purchased the unruly horse when he was only six months old and the two of them grew up together. There was a point when Laura decided he was too much for her, but she was unable to sell him because he was so difficult to handle. She even began a career as a hair stylist but decided that while she had a high-quality horse in her barn, she should follow her dreams. So she moved to Florida and devoted herself entirely to making a career with horses. Clearly, her willingness to take that chance and her hard work has paid off.
Photo by Shannon Brinkman.
As a child, Laura dreamed of becoming an Olympian. Asked whether she had dreamed of taking the number one spot on the world rankings, it was definitely on her bucket list. “We had an idea after WEG that it could happen, even without the Freestyle,” she says. “Isabel has so many horses to beat me with and she’s a fierce competitor, but she’s always respectable – I think we admire that in each other. I might beat her in the Freestyle one day, but she’s the kind of person who rides better the next day; the WEG was exceptional in that regard with [former world number one] Charlotte [Dujardin, of Great Britain] being on top too because she is also a fierce competitor. It’s always exciting!”
While she doesn’t love being in the spotlight, it is something Laura deals with since it goes with the territory of being a successful athlete. “I’m very much an introvert. I like to stay home and keep to myself, and I try to enjoy what privacy I have left - which these days is very little,” she says. “But it’s part of it: without the fans and sponsors and media we wouldn’t have the sport that we have."
"I have this ability to compartmentalize and put things on a shelf and come back to it when I have the energy. During the WEG nobody heard from me because I put everything into the competition."
Typically she sets aside time each day to devote to her horses and turns off her phone to focus her undivided attention on riding. “If it’s an owner on the phone or something pressing, I will take a call,” she says. “This morning I have to pick up a horse at the vet clinic, so I’ve got three hours in the car and I can talk on the phone, too – but normally I’d be riding in the morning.”
It comes naturally to her to focus on her riding and put everything else aside. “I’m lucky in that regard, though I think in my personal life it makes me a somewhat difficult person. I have this ability to compartmentalize and put things on a shelf and come back to it when I have the energy. During the WEG nobody heard from me because I put everything into the competition.”
Joy and a Love for the Horses
Laura credits the coaches and riders on U.S. Dressage Team of Adrienne Lyle, Kasey Perry-Glass and Steffen Peters with creating a supportive environment in which she thrives as a rider and competitor. “It’s amazing – Olivia [Lagoy-Weltz], the reserve rider, included: we all live the same lifestyle. I think it’s hard to look from the outside in and understand that; family members and spouses think they know what’s going on, but the teammates are the only ones who really understand what it’s like. We can pick up the phone or see each other at the start of the season in Wellington and it’s like no time has passed.”
Most of the teammates are young women, and then there’s Steffen Peters, who has been representing the U.S. in international competition for a couple of decades; he is the only man on the team. “Isn’t Steffen so lucky?” Laura laughs, adding, “He’s great, he does his own thing a bit and I’m sure we girls are exhausting when we travel, but we all get together for dinners and things. The cool thing about Steffen is he has a great sense of humor and he really enjoys what we bring back to the sport: the freshness, the lightness, the humor."
"...when the joy and the love for the horses is at the forefront, that’s contagious.”
“There was a while when I first came into the sport when things weren’t so lighthearted. There was tension between other riders and the pressure of competition that trying to make teams puts on people and what it brings out in them. I think when it’s like that, it’s like a parasite and it’s negative for everybody. But when that stops being tolerated and when the joy and the love for the horses is at the forefront, that’s contagious.”
Making a Name for Herself
It was around the time she qualified for the 2014 WEG in Normandy that people really took notice of Laura, and since then she has become a household name among dressage enthusiasts.
The person who first noticed Laura’s talent and took her under her wing was Debbie McDonald, who will be the new coach of the U.S. Dressage Team as Robert Dover retires from the position this year.
“It’s special to look back on her support, to think she believed in me when no other trainer would,” Laura says. “It’s amazing what we’ve achieved together; her training is so supportive of the way I want to be with my horses every day without sacrificing the competitiveness.”
She credits both Debbie and Robert with helping her achieve the world ranking and also made a point to thank Hallye Griffin, Managing Director of Dressage at the U.S. Equestrian. “She is outstanding at her job. She takes such good care of us, and of course Betsy Juliano is a longtime sponsor of mine – she’s literally a part of every medal I’ve ever won.”
Photo by Sportfot.
Indeed Laura's phone has been buzzing with messages of support since her ranking as world number one was announced. “It’s really funny, I keep getting messages from people all over the world who have been a part of this – I know his breeder, I know the guy who found him for us in Europe – and it’s really something to be connected in that many ways. I don’t think a lot of people have that luxury. I don’t think there’s anything more special than having a horse since he was six months old to being ranked number one in the world. That’s an amazing journey.”
Life Beyond “Diddy”
With an indefatigable work ethic, laser-like focus on the future, and a joyful spirit for her horse, Laura may have reached the top of the world rankings, but she’s not finished yet. Though the strong U.S. result in Tryon qualified the team for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Laura declined to name the Olympics as a goal for Diddy.
“At his age, having some closer goals than Tokyo is important; I haven’t ridden him since WEG and don’t plan on getting on him this month. I’ll probably jump on him early November or maybe this month if he’s going crazy. I’d like to look forward to the World Cup in Sweden and take it from there.”
For now, the superstar is having some downtime. He’s out in the field all morning, comes into the barn around noon and has a bath and lunch, then is hand-walked for a while in the afternoon.
Photo by Erin Gilmore.
While she has other horses in training, Laura says she doesn’t currently have the next “Diddy” in her barn – but she is looking. She is headed to Europe this fall to look at horses and is cautiously optimistic that she will find something. “He’s got big shoes to fill, and things constantly change with horses. Producing a horse like him is a tough road, for sure,” she says.
Getting to Know Laura Graves
Asked what she would do if she were elected ruler of the world tomorrow, Laura laughs, “I’d take a big fat long vacation and then buy a lot more horses and live a very different life than I live now. I don’t think it’d change that much except I’d have control of every horse I ride, which is not the case for most professional riders.”
As it is, she has a small training barn in Geneva, Florida outside of Orlando. “I do clinics but not a lot of teaching at my farm because I like to spend a lot of time with every horse that I have in training,” she says. “I have 7 or 8 horses in my barn, and I don’t want to change that. I love to teach and I think there’s a real lack of quality instruction in this country, and that’s a problem in fielding teams to get on the podium. Teaching people to ride and how to manage these horses is a big part of it, so I think it’s important that those of us who are willing to do that, do it.”
Photo by Shannon Brinkman.
Laura has logged a lot of travel miles with the U.S., but the only thing she really can’t leave home without is her horse. Although for a while she tried to bring an orthopedic pillow on the road because she has ongoing neck pain from a car accident.
“Always when I travel we stay in these hotels and the pillows are terrible and I’m crippled and the team PT has so much to work on me,” she says. “I have an orthopedic pillow I tried to bring with me to Paris and I left it everywhere – first I left it in the truck, then I left it in the hotel in Amsterdam. It never did make it to Paris; they mailed it to me in Florida, so I’ve given up on that idea! Really though, my horse is the only thing that counts.”
While her teammates have taken up Pilates, yoga and Orange Theory to stay fit to ride, Laura says that she’s just lucky to have a naturally slender body type and an extremely active lifestyle.
“I can’t take a lot of credit for taking good care of myself, but you won’t find me sitting home not doing anything,” she says. “When I’m not riding I’m pulling weeds or dragging the arena or helping the girls pick stalls in the afternoon. The lifestyle is very physical. I like finishing my day and knowing everything has been taken care of. That for me is a nice feeling; I get a lot of personal fulfillment out of completing a project.”
Laura lives at the farm and while her life at the barn is pretty all-consuming and doesn’t leave room for outside interests, she enjoyed gardening as a kid and is looking forward to getting back into it when she has the time.
"Teaching people to ride and how to manage these horses is a big part of it, so I think it’s important that those of us who are willing to do that, do it."
While she has been busy riding her way into the history books, Laura has not lost sight of her beginnings. Most of her family is still in her home state, Vermont, and one of her sisters is in Boston. While they are not actively involved in horses, they are her biggest fans.
“It’s funny because my sisters and I grew up riding together, but that kind of fell off the map for them and they picked up things like soccer and basketball and tennis – I think the horses just took too much time. So all through our childhood they stopped riding, and now it’s fun to see them finding joy in the horses. My sister has kids now, and it was fun seeing the joy it brought them and the joy that it brought my 80-something-year-old grandmother, too. It’s very special.”
Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.