Dressage’s Olympic Cinderella

Update: 2:15 Aug.15 : After anchoring her team and helping the U.S. win bronze in the Grand Priz Team Dressage event on August 11, Laura Graves posts the highest finish of any American in the Individual and comes in just shy of a bronze today, in fourth. 


Dressage Individual Dressage Individual

In 2014, Laura Graves, a 27-year-old from North Fayston, and the horse she’d raised from a foal entered a soccer stadium in Normandy, France to compete in the World Equestrian Games Grand Prix Freestyle in dressage. This was the biggest event of her life. “We were the underdogs,” the former hair dresser from Vermont recalls. “We were the only team with zero experience and I really didn’t know how Diddy was going to react to a crowd.”

Diddy was the foal Freddie Graves had bought in 2002 for her daughter, Laura, then 15. Diddy had been difficult, once throwing Laura so hard she broke her back. “We actually tried to sell him and I sent him to a trainer to work with him. She called one day and asked, ‘Have you been riding this horse, because I can’t even get on him. You’re going to need to spend some more time with him before you can possibly sell him,’” Laura recalls. “

I think that’s when something switched for me,” says Laura. “As a teenager, you’re looking for things that please you and not thinking about what’s going to build character. Being stuck with him and finally having to put in the energy that he needed was good for us both and he turned around very quickly.”

That day in Normandy, Diddy came through. “I remember going in for the first ride and he just knew what to do,” Laura recalls. The horse and rider came out of the event in fifth place, becoming only the fourth U.S. duo in history to post a score above 80 percent in a World Championship.

Earlier in 2014, Laura had earned her spot at the World Equestrian Games by finishing a mind-blowing second behind Olympian Steffan Peters at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. In 2015, Laura and Diddy went on to win silver in the Pan American Games (and helped the U.S. score gold in the team event) and capped off the year by winning the Dutta Corp./USEF Grand Prix Dressage National Championship. Growing up, Laura was a 4-H rider who never heard about dressage.

Her mother, Freddie Graves, grew up on a farm in the Northeast Kingdom. Freddie knew horses as Laura’s grandfather had raised Morgan horses at Paramount stables in Richmond. When Laura and her two sisters were still barely toddlers a friend boarded two ponies at the Graves’ farm. The girls became so attached that Freddie Graves traded her washer and dryer so she could buy them.

“We didn’t even own saddles, the girls would go off on the two ponies and some time later the ponies would come back riderless and the girls would come back dirty and crying,” she says with a laugh. Soon that changed and Laura began showing at 4-H events and, eventually, heading to the dressage programs that trainer Lendon Gray put on around New England, which became “Dressage4Kids.” “Laura began winning a few events and earned some free clinics with Lendon,” Freddie Graves recalls.

“We’d show up at events in Connecticut where everyone had matching everything. Pretty soon it became clear that if Laura wanted to compete, she needed a certain type of horse.” Freddie began looking for a new horse. Laura was looking on the Internet, too, always watching videos of horses, recalled her mother.

One day they saw a video that a horse broker sent them of a foal named Verdades in Holland. He was in their price range and they bought him sight unseen. In dressage, where teams are judged by how effortlessly they perform 32 movements, the bond between horse and rider is critical.

For Laura and Diddy, that bond is especially strong: “Diddy knows that I’m his mom,” Laura says. “If he’s napping in his stall. If he hears my footsteps he wants to come out and play,” she says. “In dressage, what wows the judge with this horse is that he makes it look easy. Diddy just has an effortless way of going.”

Laura Graves & Verdades (1) And that’s thanks to a lot of effort Laura has put in.

Watch Laura compete in the dressage events, broadcast as follows:

Equestrian schedule Equestrian schedule Equestrian schedule