Laura Graves and Verdades: A Whirlwind of a Year

Laura and "Diddy" at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

Laura and "Diddy" at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo: Shannon Brinkman)

The use of our Carol Lavell Advanced Prize training Grant began in May of this year, when my horse, Verdades, and I were selected as part of the top eight combinations to participate in the European Tour for the United States. This tour would eventually culminate with our selection for the 2016 US Dressage Team for the Olympic Games in Brazil.

Our season in Wellington had been a busy one, starting earlier than usual in December with the Festival of Champions. That was a highlight for me, with Diddy performing well and bringing home our first national title! We continued through the season, with my ambitious plan to ride at the World Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden. In the end, the long trip to Gothenburg ended up not fitting in with our main goal of peaking at the Olympic Games.

That is a funny thing we think about in dressage- “peaking” our horses. It is often in the climb to the top of this peak that I find myself questioning everything I do and wondering if I even really know how to ride at all. That climb is nowhere close to being steady, and you can find yourself taking some tough tumbles along the hike. It is during times like this, when reaching such a peak is so important, that I am thankful to be able to rely on my great trainer, Debbie McDonald.

Debbie had agreed to travel to Europe as needed. She was the coach of another rider on the tour, Kasey Perry-Glass.

I always like to fly with my horse, so after a long day (and the most perfect flight ever), Diddy and I arrived at our host farm in Belgium on May 14th. Our first competition was scheduled for the Nation’s Cup in Compiegne, France on the 19th. Because Diddy shipped so well, we were ready to begin training when Debbie arrived a few days later.

I was excited to get back into the arena. The weather in France was unbelievably rainy and cold! Coming from Florida, my horse was feeling particularly fresh! We had a few extra days to school before our 5* began (there was also a 3* running at the same time). Both Robert Dover and Debbie had a hard time finding fault with my horse and I felt confident in his schooling. I was selected to ride as team anchor and follow my teammates’ great rides! Unfortunately, Diddy was SO incredibly hot that I could barely contain him and the tension caused some uncharacteristic mistakes.

When I come out of the arena, I always look to Debbie for her reflections and she has such a way of knowing exactly how it felt. She laughed and said, “He just gets hotter than heck in there!” I did not really feel like laughing, but I knew this was something we would have to work through. The rain continued through the night and by morning, the arenas were dangerous. It was clear that no teams were to ride in these circumstances, so the rest of the competition was cancelled. This meant that my chance to practice working through Diddy’s tension was also on rain delay.

I made the decision to start Diddy at the next event at Roosendaal, Netherlands. This was a bit scary for me, as Debbie would not be able to be there with me. Luckily, we discussed a plan and decided that we may need to change our strategy if Diddy continued to be so hot. Normally I would walk into a stadium, wait for the bell, and pick up canter and ride. This is because he can be so spooky around the perimeter, but feels safe inside. Debbie suggested that I should try cantering around to help him focus and blow off some steam. Without my fearless leader, I did. I spent our time cantering around the outside of the arena and Diddy was so quiet. SO quiet. TOO quiet! Even though our scores from that show were not our top, the quiet environment (in the middle of the forest) allowed me to practice something that was scary for us. Would it pay off in Rotterdam?

The final mandatory event for the nine combinations in running for the Olympic team was the CDI at Rotterdam, Netherlands. In the days leading up to our departure for Rotterdam, Debbie really helped us turn a page in our training. There happened to be some ringside construction at the farm and this made Diddy very hot – the perfect training opportunity! I rode him through it, with a focus on tempo control. Example: when he gets hot or spooky, he cannot slow down or speed up. To the observer, it may not have looked very productive, but it was a major breakthrough. I rode him again that afternoon and he was much softer and relaxed, even where he was spooky in the morning session.

It was pouring rain and we were up to our ankles in mud as we unpacked into the stables at Rotterdam. This was another Nations Cup event so we had a team of four (which I was on) and then the other riders competing as individuals in the 3*. I had visited the show two years ago, so I knew a little about the stadium. It can make some horses nervous with the seating above their heads and the VIP section so close to the short side at A. But Diddy was schooling fantastically and I was excited. Our major goal leading up to this show was riding the patterns as they ride in the test. I tend to focus a lot, sometimes too much, on the training and not necessarily training for the test. It is hard for all of us to practice the difficult things. For Diddy and I, that includes: turning off the rail in passage, corners, the final centerline and tracking left in general (ha!). Thankfully, Debbie is mean and makes me practice. Lots of turning in passage, again, focusing on not letting it become bigger or smaller. Tempo control is the name of the game and then tempo control in combination with adding and subtracting volume.

Diddy also likes to get very hot on our final centerline. It makes it difficult for me to talk myself into putting my leg on, but if I don’t, he gets too open and away from my seat. Then, because I don’t have control of his volume or tempo, he can make a mistake in anticipation of the final halt. We practiced lots of those halts, too. Our other major focus leading up to our Grand Prix was use of my corners. It is harder, but more important with a bigger horse, to ride your corners. While practicing our tempi-changes, if I did not ride deep enough into my corner, I found that I didn’t have time to get him straight on both reins before I had to start my changes. I end up chasing him and usually we end up with a mistake.

We, again, rode as anchor for our team. This was a particularly interesting competition for us, because all of the top horses for USA and Netherlands (our biggest threat in Rio) were all in one place. We had a couple small faults in our Grand Prix, including a major stumble in our final extension, but I finished on a 76% and second place. I was looking forward to the Special. It is normally a great test for my horse and I felt in our training that if I really focused on those details, I could make some improvements. Even though our score reflected that we were the same as we had been, both Debbie and I knew we were on the brink of something incredible. The feel Diddy gave me, from start to finish, was the 80% I knew we were. So team USA gladly accepted our silver and went back to Belgium to put on the polish.

Debbie went back to the States for a while, but returned just before Aachen. Even though we were not competing, we took it as an opportunity to see the German horses in the flesh and support the US riders who were competing. We were able to review the tests with Debbie and concluded that our horses were just as high quality as the European horses. We really dialed in on what the judges were giving high marks. We would watch the classes all day, then drive back to Belgium, and try to be better than Isabell Werth at night! Focus was on accuracy of transitions and regularity of paces.

Debbie was able to stay with us right up until we left for Rio. In that time, we schooled 4-5 days per week and Diddy was on a whole new level. He has always been a very forward thinking horse, but with the confidence he has built in the last couple of years, I sometimes did not have control of the forward. We worked a lot on basic things; walk-trot transitions, walk-piaffe transitions, piaffe-extended walk transitions. Do you sense a theme? Transitions. Making sure my hands could be light and he could stay active without pulling me forward. With horses that move so big and want to be so forward, balance is imperative. Diddy was thriving and I was just hoping he could stay on form through the travel and the Games.

A few days before Debbie left, Robert Dover arrived to the stables to check on the horses before we left for Rio. The entire team rode a test of their choice, tailcoats and all. We reviewed the videos and broke them down to check the progress in our work. I was so happy to watch my video. Up until this year, I still felt that the Grand Prix test was just so hard! Even though I have a great horse that is well-schooled, I usually come out of my test thinking, “dressage is hard.” I guess because of that, I don’t often push myself to ride the entire test at home. That mock show was the first time that I had felt like I could pick up the reins and ride it again if I wanted. Progress.

We meticulously packed and labeled our tack trunks and we were off to Brazil. The media left us all to have a little stress about the situation we would unload into, but we were pleasantly surprised. I was not able to fly with the horses or meet them at the barn right when they arrived, so I got very little sleep, but the horses shipped like the pros that they are and they rested up by the next day.

We arrived in Rio a week before our jog. This was a good buffer in case one of the horses needed time to adjust. My big fear was keeping up with the competition adrenaline for two weeks. Diddy was very fit and the weather was milder than I was expecting.

Debbie and I continued to school in small doses, with Diddy only needing about 20-25 minutes of real work, mostly checking my half halts in the walk and then turning in passage. Each day, we would touch on a movement or two, making sure to keep them all tuned up without overworking him. One of my big lightbulb moments came the day before our Grand Prix.

We were schooling our half passes, one of Diddy’s best movements. Yes, he always goes sideways and yes, he is always scopey and bending, but how can I make this 8 a 10? I get so excited and want to show off my horse, that I can end up chasing him through the test. Just like the work we had been doing in the warm-up (transitions), I needed to keep him quicker and not so long in my half passes. He reaches so much in front, that if I push him off his balance, he is too long to keep proper bend through his body. Same in canter - if I push with just one leg, he shouldn’t run longer in front. I was so excited to ride my test, I couldn’t believe it.

We were sailing through our first Olympic test and having what felt like our best Grand Prix to date. I learned from watching the Germans at Aachen, that if I earned enough points in the trot tour of my test, I could still keep a high score with a mistake in the canter. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to us. We missed the last change in a great zig-zag and also a short change in the ones. Both double coefficients. These were major point losses, but still a personal best by two percent!

Our big focus on the next day was riding clean. This meant triple checking my transitions in the warm-up and making sure I kept Diddy in balance. After the first three teammates’ rides, I knew I had to deliver in order to take the Bronze medal from the Dutch. Diddy was the best ever! All of our hard work paid off. He was completely on my aids, had the best scoring piaffes of his career, and blew me away with his trot tour. I thought to myself as I made my final halt, “If this doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will.” We exited the arena to our teammates running to meet us with the good news – we captured the Team Bronze and another personal best for Diddy and I - over 80%!

For us, the hard part was over. The freestyle was just individual and the pressure was off. Although, being as competitive as I am, I had noticed that more than one judge had me in third place in the Special. I thought, “If I can convince a couple more, maybe I have a chance at an individual medal…”

Even though that wasn’t meant to be, I don’t think it was possible for me to have learned any more this summer. Because of the funds made available by Carol Lavell and The Dressage Foundation, we were able to increase all three tests by two percent. Even though I had a very well-trained horse last year, the details we were able to improve on this year helped move us into a very elite group and finishing as the number four ranked combination in the world! I learned that in retrospect, getting to the Grand Prix is rather easy, excelling at it will take a lifetime.

Not only did I have great success at the Olympic Games, but I have also just returned home and I find myself riding my other horses with a higher degree of precision. Even though I am a trainer myself, experiences like this remind me how important it is to take the time to continue our own education. It pays off for all of my horses and students.

I am forever thankful for this opportunity. It is hard for me to think about how this year may have ended without this grant. I hope I am able to continue to share my knowledge and experiences.




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