Laura Graves rides Verdades at the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final on April 6, 2019 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
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Laura Graves and her horse, Verdades, rose to the top of the dressage world and were the go-to duo anchoring the U.S. team in the years before and after the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
A year ago, however, Graves knew that it was time for Verdades to retire. Although that meant there wouldn’t be a second Olympic Games for the two, who led the U.S. to a team bronze medal in Rio, the decision wasn’t difficult.
“There just came that point where I didn’t want to have to go into an arena and question anything,” said Graves, 33, who announced Verdades’ retirement on social media in January 2020. “We were known for coming in last in the competition for our team and always being clutch, and that was one of the most special things about our partnership. I didn’t want to go in at 50 percent. Even if he was fine physically, I didn’t want to be holding back from the performances that we were known for because I was worried that maybe he was going to hurt himself. It was definitely a group decision between myself and our veterinarians and trainers. At the end of the day, as hard as it was, because we love what we do, it can’t go on forever, so it was a very easy decision.”
The Graves bought Verdades — also known as “Diddy” — when Laura was a teenager and he was just six months old. It was not, she said, love at first sight. Verdades was a wild child and it took a lot of work and time spent learning about one another to build the immense level of trust that’s so crucial for success in the sport.
But in 2012 the duo made their international debut and two years later their international Grand Prix debut. At the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. was sitting in fourth place going into the last ride — Graves and Verdades — of the team dressage competition. They scored 80.644 percent, a personal best for Graves at the time, and secured the team bronze medal. It was the first time the U.S. dressage team medaled at the Olympics since 2004. Individually, Graves and Diddy finished fourth.
In 2018, Graves and Verdades achieved a No. 1 FEI world ranking, making her the first U.S. rider to hold that position. In 2019 they finished second at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final, but that would end up being their last competition together.
Graves said she knew retirement was looming last year when Verdades, who was 18 years old at the time, wasn’t as eager to come back from his annual fall break.
“Usually by Thanksgiving, and definitely by Christmas, he was just a lunatic and it was like, ‘OK, it’s time for him to go back to work,’” she said. “He was just like that. To be perfectly honest, he’s still a little like that but it didn’t come as quickly as normal and I didn’t feel I was going to be able to get him to the level of fitness required to qualify for the Olympics.”
At 18, Verdades was well into what’s considered senior age for a competitive horse. And just like human athletes, Graves said, there’s a lot of wear and tear on a horse’s body. Of course, what’s different is that the horse can’t say his leg hurts, or is sore, or that something doesn’t feel great.
“It’s up to us to try to find other ways to listen to them and make smart decisions,” Graves said. “Because they can’t speak for themselves, I think I would always rather be safe than sorry.”
Verdades may be retired from competition, but he still works a few days a week with Graves at her barn near Orlando, Florida, where she is a trainer. He was inducted recently into the U.S. Dressage Foundation Hall of Fame.
And while Graves isn’t thinking toward Tokyo in 2021, she does hope to return to the Olympics one day.
“Even before his retirement, but definitely in the past year, I’ve been fortune enough to have a handful of very talented young horses come my way,” said Graves, who recently married her longtime partner, Curt Maes. “If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll be ready for Paris in 2024. And I would really hope with this pipeline that I’ll be building something for Los Angeles (in 2028) as well. It’s different (in equestrian) … athletes my age usually have to go into coaching so I’m lucky I’ll get to try again.”