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Laura Graves and Verdades during their extended canter

Laura Graves and Verdades during a canter pirouette

Laura Graves and Verdades - piaffe

Laura Graves hugs Verdades after a great freestyle

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An American Dressage Cinderella Story: Laura Graves and Verdades

Written by: Amanda Oppold
Release Date: 2014-09-03

Caen, France - September 3, 2014 - With a beaming smile on her face, Laura Graves halted and saluted today at the end of her freestyle at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and then dropped the reins with relief and happiness to wrap her arms around her 12-year-old Verdades. The up-and-coming duo put in a fluid, harmonious performance to score 82.036 percent, finishing in fifth against the world’s top dressage competitors. 

Many in the dressage world have never heard of Graves, and that’s not surprising considering her rise to the top has been meteoric in speed and brilliance. For Graves though, it’s been a long road to international success, 12 years long to be exact - the age of Verdades whom she’s trained since he was a foal.
During those years there have been plenty of ups and downs. In 2011, Verdades got his head stuck in the bars of his stall and suffered a severely broken jaw. After intense surgery and rehab, he has made a healthy recovery, but it’s still something Graves monitors closely all the time. 

Back from the injury in 2012, Verdades returned to competition, showing at Prix St. Georges. Two years later, in February 2014, they broke onto the Grand Prix stage at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival CDI3* at Wellington, FL. They received scores in the upper sixties for their debut.  

As of mid-2014, Graves had no expectations of making the U.S. WEG Team. She was ranked 18th in the US and only the top 15 were invited to the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions presented by The Dutta Corp, which served as the Selection Trial for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. But several of the top 15 combinations were unable to make the National Championships, and Graves snuck in. She proceeded to blow everyone away by scoring second behind Steffen Peters, securing a place on the team. 

The qualification was her first time being named to a U.S. team in any capacity.

“To be here on a team is different than being anywhere else as an individual,” said Graves of her experience at the World Equestrian Games.

Despite her inexperience, Graves did not waver under the pressure, representing the US with poise and grace over the weeklong dressage competition. Her Grand Prix ride garnered a 74.871 percent and an impressive 10th place finish for one with limited international experience. The score was key in securing the U.S. team’s fourth place finish, just off the podium.

“I had a pretty good feeling before entering the ring,” said Graves after her Grand Prix ride. 

The pair only showed their inexperience when Verdades stopped during the walk sequence to check out the crowd, but Graves gently urged him on and the pair got back on track. With each ride, Graves and Verdades were gaining confidence and learning lessons about international competition. After the Grand Prix, Graves was focused on getting Verdades to calm down in order to improve their score for the Grand Prix Special. 

A more relaxed Verdades emerged on Wednesday and the change resulted in an improved score. They earned 77.157 percent for sixth place and put in the highest-scoring test by a U.S. rider. 

“There was a point in the ride, I think the canter extension, where I just kind of let go and knew that it was going to be pretty good,” said Graves.  “It’s amazing. I wasn’t even concerned with the score, and I know that it was high, but that’s just icing on the cake because he was so good. To have a ride where you go in and you can’t be too critical of anything is a nice thing to have.”
Graves’ top placement secured her a starting place in Friday’s Grand Prix Freestyle. She prepared carefully to compete her freestyle, which because of her limited exposure has rarely been seen in international competition. Following Aachen, she made several changes to the choreography to up the difficulty and make sure it suited Verdades.

Graves and Verdades held nothing back for the Freestyle. They showed off their challenging two-tempis on a half-circle and exhibited Verdades’ responsiveness in their extended canter to pirouette. The harmony and grace between horse and rider wowed the judges, who awarded them an 82.036 percent, the highest score they’ve ever received and their first time breaking into the 80s. The score gained them an incredible fifth place among the world’s elite competitors.

“I think they announced the score in French while I was in the bit check and I was trying to figure it out, and then someone showed me the score sheet,” Graves laughed. “It was a great feeling.”  

The ambitious Graves, who trains with U.S. dressage legend Debbie McDonald, is just getting started.

“We hit 82 and now I’m excited to see where it can go,” said Graves. “I’d been hoping to break 80 for a while, but it’s one of those things where even if your horse is talented, it takes time to get those scores. It has to be reliable, beautiful, strong and relaxed.”

“There’s still a bit of polish needed,” she continued. “He’s a trained Grand Prix horse now, but now we have to work on adding the difficult things like the passage half-pass. It’s all about refining at this point. I think we can make it more difficult, but you have to be careful because even though he’s talented enough to do the difficult stuff, you lose the visual aspect if it looks challenging. So it’s like building blocks -seeing how difficult we can make it while still having it ride nicely and look easy.” 

For now, Graves is letting the success sink in and enjoying the moment.

“Because I came in with no expectations - I wasn’t even expecting to come here, let alone ride on this team - it makes everything more playful instead of just pressure,” she said. “When you’re at the bottom, which I feel like I’ve been at the bottom for a long time, no one expects you to do well. There’s nowhere to go but up.” 

Graves entered the stadium today for the Freestyle more confident than ever in her horse. Commentators remarked with surprise about how she simply walked Verdades straight into the ring instead of cantering him around or practicing the passage/piaffe. But Graves knew what she was doing. 

“No one knows your horse like you do,” Graves has said. “My horse was so cool walking in there today and I think that was the most amazing feeling. I could feel how excited the spectators were and he just walked in there like, ‘OK, here we go.’”

After a whirlwind couple of months, Graves is ready to return to some normalcy at her home in Florida. 

“This has been an amazing experience, but in my soul I’m definitely an American,” said Graves. “I love where I live and I love my other horses and my routine. [Competing abroad] is necessary for anyone who wants to ride at the top, but you have to find time to be at home. I think everyone is looking forward to going home and having some time in the field. But hopefully for now, there’s some cold champagne at the barn,” she joked.

Check out for the latest news from the dressage world, including beautiful photographs that showcase the sport.
Alltech is the proud title sponsor of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Normandy. For more information about these prestigious global championships, visit


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