Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

Laura Graves and Verdades: Busting the Elitist Myth of Dressage

© 2015 Nancy Kotting   All Rights Reserved   Reproduction by Permission Only

Authors Note: History was made today! Congratulations to Laura and Verdades who scored a stunning 80.364% to secure team Bronze for the U.S.A. in Rio. What a ride!

N.K. August 12, 2016


There is a reason Hollywood movies with an equine-based story line have never lost money: America loves our own historic, at times mythological, relationship with these beautiful creatures. Add to that a rags-to-riches or journey of redemption angle and you’ve got a box office smash on your hands. The only element that can make them even better is when the script is based on a true story. The latest script is being written by a young woman named Laura Graves and her big bay horse ‘Verdades’.

Laura and Verdades are currently representing the U.S. at the Pan Am Games being held as I write in Toronto, Canada.

Photo Credit: USEF/Stockimages.com

Photo Credit: USEF/Stockimages.com

From middle America, Laura was pursuing a career as a hairstylist, albeit had been a rider since childhood, in her home state of Vermont. She and her parents bought the young Verdades off of a video from Europe, imported him at 6 months of age and went on to raise him on their own farm. Unable to finance the normal trajectory of competitions most rising equine stars follow up through the levels of difficulty, Laura and her temperamental Verdades forged on, attending the competitions they could afford, and continuing their training to the highest level recognized in competition, that of Grand Prix. The work paid off. In 2014, they rocketed from obscurity to occupying a place in the top ten rankings in the world in the sport of Dressage.

While Laura is touted as “America’s latest fairytale”, her classic story of hard work leading to success despite the odds has the power to finally put the art form into the consciousness of mainstream America as a spectator sport accessible to all, not just the elite.

I met Laura several years ago at the Olympic training headquarters, simply known as Gladstone, in New Jersey horse country. The Olympic Technical Adviser and the Developing Coach for the dressage team were conducting an open evaluation session, seeking future talent that might be flying under the radar shall we say, and not necessarily known as up and comers in competition circles. Kind of an America’s Got Talent format for riders and their horses, a very noble and egalitarian approach. It worked. Laura was ‘discovered’ and asked to stay for the two-day intensive training session that followed.

As a life-long and self-funded rider, I’ve practiced the art of Dressage now for over 35 years and have in that time seen a lot of change and growth in the sport, all for the better. However, there remain obstacles to the continued growth of this glorious endeavor, misconceptions that prevent it from garnering the media coverage, and resulting spectator support, it so rightly deserves. Here in the states, classical horsemanship remains at the fringes, far fringes of recognized sport. It is generally dismissed as an elitist hobby, success in it often being viewed by non-horsemen as a direct result of ones ability to ‘pay-to-play’ rather than talent. This general perception by the ticket buying public, that Dressage is a decadent past time of the wealthy, is not only utterly false but has been nothing short of devastating to the growth of the sport as a spectator driven form of athletic entertainment. If the average American spectator knew the truth about the sport, as most Europeans do given its prominent place as an economic engine and it’s integral role in the culture itself, much like baseball in the U.S., I believe we would see literally millions more enjoying and supporting it as a true test of athleticism.

With my hand on my heart, I will tell you there is nothing more difficult than what we do as Dressage riders in the world of sport, NOTHING. Like many of you, I have long admired the strength of the football player, the patience of the baseball player, the speed of the sprinter and the dexterity of the gymnast. I marvel at their feats on the track, in the field and on the mat. And then I smile and wonder how long they would last as a Dressage rider? You see, we riders must not only obtain the coordination, strength, flexibility and grace of prima ballerinas, athletes in our own right, we must also create the same level of development and skill in our partners who happen to begin the journey as 1200 pounds of ‘raw clay’, locked within the limitations of their own instinct-based language.

But it does not end there, with two highly trained athletes. Over the years of building our selves and our horses as supreme athletes, we must also build a seamless relationship based upon an acquired vocabulary, a ‘third language’, beyond that solely of the horse and solely of the human, one clearly understood by both rider and beast where the two meet and create what is nothing short of living art-in-motion. It is this level of difficulty that ultimately defines the great riders as the very essence of all we expect to find in a world-class athlete.

Success as a Dressage rider has nothing to do with money and everything to do with grit, strength of character and selflessness. We do not train, excel, compete and then go on to our lives outside of the training center. Due to the nature of the relationship with our horse required for peak performance, we view this discipline as a commitment to a life, not just a sport, for it is a life. dirty-hands-e1424124760875This morning, like all the mornings prior, I rose and walked into the barn aisle at 6:00 a.m. to greet the horses and begin my day with a muck bucket and a pitch fork. I fed, checked legs, dumped buckets, cleaned stalls, turned out horses, swept aisles. Then I went for a run. Then I groomed and tacked up horses, worked each, untacked, iced legs, bathed horses, cleaned tack and groomed again. I wrapped legs, checked hay prices, scheduled the farrier only to then fall into the afternoon and evening cycle of chores, a quick trip to the gym for weight training, ending with the last night check of the horses. The practice of Dressage is a life that happens to be built around a sport. My partner is a 1200 infant of sorts that requires the same degree of attention as a human child. We never put our ‘equipment’ on the locker shelf and go home. The work becomes our home, the horses our family.

Given the extreme nature of commitment this sport requires and the incredible degree of difficulty, only those ‘hungry’ enough for it historically reach the highest levels. The great Masters of Dressage throughout history (the practice itself is 2000 years old) rarely came from wealth. Yes, just like hockey, baseball, football and tennis, our sport/art is also contingent upon wealthy ‘owners’: we require  expensive facilities with perfect footing, just like hockey players require enclosed arenas and perfect ice. We require expensive equipment, much like Formula One drivers needing the very best cars. As professional athletes, we require those of means to step forward as facility owners, equipment buyers and training expense underwriters, just like ALL athletes working at the top level of sport in the U.S. However, the riders themselves, like so many of our famous athletes, usually come from modest beginnings, kids with a dream, talent and meager financial resources. Like Laura, the true dressage superstars are motivated by pure desire to achieve and this alone constitutes the inner drive, the inner hunger required to overcome the difficulty that often breaks those of weaker constitution.

Yes, the sport takes financial and technical support. However, that support is NO DIFFERENT than that required of a world class Formula One driver, a world class golfer, a Heisman Trophy winner or a Stanley Cup contender. The idea of calling Dressage elitist only serves to support the destructive myth and discourage those with dreams from believing it is achievable. That is a disservice to our youth, our sport, it’s history and the horses themselves.

It is my hope that Laura’s accomplishment not only inspires other young riders to begin the story of their lives no matter their starting point, but that America begins to see beyond the false elitist label and embraces the beauty, talent and devotion to the work found in the performance of world class Dressage.

Update: 7/13/15 Congratulations to Laura, Verdades all the team members on wining the gold yesterday in Toronto!

© 2015 Nancy Kotting All Rights Reserved Reproduction by Permission Only


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