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Even before there was a talented, unruly horse in Laura’s life named “Verdades,” there was a little girl’s dream of equestrian success. As a fifth grader contributing to her class’s time capsule, Graves chose to include a clay model of the Olympic rings in the box the students buried that day. She had not only hope but plans to make it to the biggest stage in the world of dressage.
Her parents knew of her love of horses, and to satisfy her and her sisters' passion, the family now famously traded a washing machine and tumble dryer for two ponies that they kept in the backyard.
As Laura's ability progressed and her natural talent for riding became obvious to all who watched, her family once again began the search for a young horse that she could train and learn with. Buying an older, more trained horse wasn't affordable. So, in 2002, with a modest budget, they were able to purchase a 6-month-old
weanling from Holland that they had reviewed on VHS tape footage. Laura was 14 at the time, and Diddy appeared well-balanced on the video. But, as soon as Diddy arrived, the family realized how strong and sensitive he was. It took three men at the quarantine station to help the family get him on the trailer, and he was only 6 months old.
“He really tested our patience. Some days I would say, 'I just can’t ride him today. He’s not rideable,'” Graves said of Diddy. In fact, on some days she couldn't clip him or saddle him. Until he was 7-years-old, Laura couldn’t even get a mounting block close to him. She just had to climb up on top of him. But as she would grow frustrated, Diddy would redeem himself with Laura. “He always gave me this incredible feeling. This feeling that everything is so easy,” Graves said, adding, “but he also had this switch. If he got panicked, he would buck and launch me.” On one of the occasions that he “launched” her, Laura suffered two fractured vertebrae in her back.
Laura's Advice To Riders That Want To Pursue It As A Career“You have to be prepared to work hard, not just physically but emotionally as well. Be prepared to fail and turn it into a learning experience to be better.”
“I was a teenager, and I had this big dream of riding for a U.S. team. At the time, I was thinking, ‘this is never going to happen with this horse. This is not what a 'team' horse is like,'” Graves said. She decided to forego her Olympic dream and do what seemed a safer, easier path. “I wasn’t necessarily up for the challenge during those couple of years.”
For a few years, Laura had been balancing her two passions: dressage and cosmetology. When her frustration with Diddy peaked, and she had just finished cosmetology school, she made the tough decision to offer him for sale. She felt that they weren't progressing how she had hoped. Though she knew he never meant to hurt or scare her, she felt he was too dangerous and unpredictable for her to continue riding.
But Diddy was a hard sell. Prospective buyers couldn’t even sit on him, much less ride him. Even the trainer that was charged with selling him had a hard time getting his foot in the stirrup before Diddy would just take off! “He was broke for me, but he was just not trusting of another stranger,” Graves said.
The Vermont girl shifted gears and pursued her career as a hairstylist. As with everything Graves does, she took it seriously, focused on success. But Diddy remained unsold and on her mind. The fifth grade Olympic dream kept nagging at her. “I had moved to Boston, and that’s what I was going to do. But then I said to myself, 'I have this horse in my life who, if I had to buy him at this age, I could never afford. I'm at a point in my life where I can take an escape from what I’m doing for a job … now is the time.'”
“There were just so many weird things I didn’t know he would be able to overcome, and now, 14 years later, I look back and I just have to laugh. The things I do with this horse.””— Laura Graves, Olympic Bronze Medalist, 2016 Team Dressage, Platinum Client Since 2016.
In a made-to-be moment, Laura talked herself through seizing the opportunity she had once walked away from. If she continued on her current path, she’d never know what her and Diddy could do together. He was the best horse she’d ever sat on but also the one that threw her off without warning. Graves packed up her belongings and moved south to Florida to give her dream a final effort, leaving nothing on the table of her life. She found a stable where she could work in exchange for lessons and kept training Diddy, trying to bring him up to the Olympic level. After a few years, she stepped out to open her own training business. She had poured
every extra cent into Diddy, and she knew it was time to see how he stacked up.
Laura sent an email to the US Dressage Team coaches asking them to scout her at a competition. But, Graves thought none of them showed up to watch. After her performance, she felt disappointed. As her mind raced with confusion about her next move, Debbie McDonald, one of the US Team coaches ran up to her in the barn and offered to coach her. She said, “I watched you ride. Whenever you can come for a lesson, I’ll be available for you.” An alltime low turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. That was January 2014.
Laura and Diddy both flourished in their new training opportunity. “I shadowed Debbie everywhere she went. I traveled with her students. We watched each other train and show. We videoed each other and reviewed the video. It was a real program.” Six months later, Laura and Diddy finished second in the country at the National Championships behind renowned rider Steffen Peters. The duo was then named to the US Team, a dream realized. At the World Equestrian Games, they scored 82.036% — only the fourth American duo to post a score above 80 in a world championship.
The dressage world was suddenly forced to take notice. They were now the leading American dressage pair in the world. In a span of 12 months, Diddy had come from not even being on the ranking list of more than 700 riders, to being a top-10 horse in the world. “I knew very early on that riding horses was in my soul,” says Graves. “But when things are difficult and when you’re young, it’s easy to choose a smoother path. And that’s what I did for a little bit, but my heart couldn’t keep me away. Whatever I did, whether it was hair or makeup or horses, I was determined to be the very best at it.”
In Spanish “Verdades” means “Truth,” and Laura knew that while he was unpredictable at times, he was also a truly honest horse. Diddy never meant to hurt her or scare her. He was as honest as the day is long. She says his spirit hasn’t changed at all since then. He has a great sense of humor and can be the life of the party. But when he’s tacked up, he knows it’s time to perform, and he’s all business.
From the outside, their success appeared to be so sudden. But the French word “dressage” means “training” and is a lifelong pursuit of improvement for both horse and rider. Graves' temperament, discipline and attention to detail make her the quintessential dressage trainer. She prepares with intention, perfecting every movement with purpose. The goal of the discipline is to develop a horse’s natural ability, willingness and attentiveness to the rider. Laura and Diddy have literally grown up together, and the trials in his training seem to have made the two even closer. He took twice as long to get to each level of training, but their relationship has been bolstered by it. Laura says, “it’s not just about the sport for me, it’s about the journey. I was a little girl when I got Diddy, and he was a baby. We’ve grown up together.”
When Laura and Diddy were named to the Olympic Team in 2016, it was a fifth grade dream come true.
On day one of the Grand Prix, Laura and Diddy led all American pairs and finished fifth overall, which secured a third place finish for the team after the first round of competition. The next day was the Grand Prix Special, where the team medals would be decided. Graves anchored the American team and rode into the arena under immense pressure. With a personal best, Graves would secure a medal for Team USA. If not, the Netherlands was waiting in the wings, since Germany and Great Britain had just locked up the gold and silver. Laura and Diddy were outstanding, earning 80.664% and leaving no doubt. Laura’s diligence had truly paidoff
with the ride of her life at the exact right moment. Members of Team USA were Olympic medalists in dressage for the first time in 12 years!
A few days later with an Individual medal on the line, Laura and Diddy once again earned a new personal best, leading all US riders with 85.196% and fourth place overall.
“I’ll probably never feel this way about another horse,” admits Graves. “It’s amazing. We’re so connected. He’s so comfortable. I ride a lot of other horses, and I can’t help but compare how they ride to riding Diddy. He’s amazing.”
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