The Fairy-Tale Horse

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Laura Graves and Verdades on their way to the Grand Prix Special silver medal at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (Jennifer Bryant photo)

Superstar US dressage horse Verdades made dreams come true

By Jennifer O. Bryant

Even Cinderella couldn’t have made it to the ball without the proper escort.

A lot of talented dressage riders are like Cinderella: unable to break into the big leagues for lack of that special mount. As many aspiring international competitors learn, even deep pockets don’t guarantee success.

The chances of an unknown and relatively green rider making it to the world stage aboard a famously difficult horse that her mother purchased as a foal are practically nil. But that’s exactly what Laura Graves accomplished with Verdades, and that’s why the pair’s story captivated the dressage world from the time of their out-of-nowhere international debut in 2014 until the horse’s retirement in 2020.

Graves was just 15 and growing up in Vermont when her mother, Freddie Graves, purchased the 2002 KWPN gelding (Florett As – Liwilarda, Goya) from his breeder in the Netherlands. “Diddy,” as Verdades is known around the barn, arrived with the registered name Victor C. Laura Graves later changed the horse’s name to Verdades, which means truths in Portuguese. Many people think “Diddy” was derived from the name Verdades, but Graves had already nicknamed her horse before she came up with his new formal name, she told The Chronicle of the Horse in 2015.

The powerfully-moving Verdades was loaded with dressage talent, but he proved more than a handful to train. He was fearful and spooky—so much so that Graves didn’t dare do more than walk him around the outside of the competition arena until well into his international Grand Prix career. As a seven-year-old he dumped her and broke her back. For years she couldn’t get on without lungeing him first. In 2011 he broke his jaw in a stable accident and required extensive surgery. Graves actually tried to sell Diddy at one point, but there were no takers.

In one of those life-changing “fork in the road” moments, Graves realized that she had a choice to make: double down on Diddy’s training and try to make it to the upper echelons of dressage, as she had dreamed; or give up on the horse and pursue her intended career in cosmetology.

She chose dressage, of course, moving herself and Diddy to Florida to become a working student for international dressage judge and competitor Anne Gribbons. With Gribbons’ help, Graves brought Diddy up to the FEI levels. Although those who knew the horse thought he was of international quality, Diddy and Graves were still largely unknowns, even after they won the Intermediate II Open championship at the inaugural US Dressage Finals in 2013.

Then came 2014, and everything changed.

It was June, and the selection trials for the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) US dressage team were under way. Not surprisingly, WEG and Olympic Games veteran Steffen Peters was leading the way aboard his current top mount, Legolas 92. But in second place was…who? Laura Graves? Never heard of her, most of the reporters and audience members agreed—yet here was this twentysomething woman with her powerful 17.1-hand horse, piaffing to the reserve national championship over such established names as Tina Konyot and Adrienne Lyle (who ended up competing at the WEG in Normandy along with Peters and Graves).

To come out of nowhere and make a team was surprising enough, but then the dressage community was even more stunned when Graves and Verdades became the highest-scoring US pair at the 2014 WEG, finishing fifth individually. The Cinderella story captivated the equestrian press, who couldn’t get enough of the attractive young woman and her regal-looking horse.

Their success was not a fluke. Now training with the coach she would have for the remainder of Diddy’s career, Olympian and later US national dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald, Graves showed her growing confidence as an international competitor to be reckoned with. In 2015, she and Diddy finished fourth at that year’s FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas, then won team gold and individual silver medals at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. The pair won team bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. For three years running, 2017 through 2019, Verdades won silver at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final (in Omaha, Paris, and Gothenburg). They won team and individual Grand Prix Special silver medals at the 2018 WEG in Tryon, North Carolina. All the while, Verdades racked up prestigious wins in Florida and was named the Adequan®/USDF Grand Prix Dressage Horse of the Year in 2017 and 2018. He was immortalized as a Breyer model. Arguably the pair’s crowning achievement was their becoming, in 2018, the first American horse-and-rider combination to top the FEI Dressage World Ranking list.

By now the anchor horse of the US dressage team, Verdades was favored to lead Team USA onto the podium at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But even before those Games were postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early January 2020 Graves announced the retirement of her great horse, saying that she’d realized Diddy, now aged 18, was not going to be able to return to top form.

In December 2020, the USDF inducted Verdades into its Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame.

In her tribute during the virtual induction ceremony, an emotional Debbie McDonald said, addressing Graves: “Your story is not one that is normal. You bought a foal and took him to number one. That’s rare, but what you’ve shown us is that it’s not impossible.”

“I credit him for bringing the magic back to American dressage,” Graves said in her Hall of Fame acceptance video. “He made us all believe that anything is possible. He brought us together in a way that no horse or no human had been able to do for a long time….For the six years that he led the American dressage team,” she said, her voice breaking, “he never once let me down.”

Verdades never let any of his fans down, either, and our sport is the richer for his having been a part of it.

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