It’s all thanks to the determination of his only rider that this sensitive gelding defied the odds to become one of dressage’s inspirations, discovers Alice Collins
WHEN Verdades landed on US soil for the first time, the long journey from Europe hadn’t treated the weanling kindly. In fact, the young horse who would go on to be an American dressage sensation spent the first weeks in his adopted country living in a vet hospital having pus drained from his skull.
For a horse who ended up as world number one, he overcame tremendous adversity. But where he finally found his groove was as a reliable, high-scoring international grand prix competitor. It was only through his young owner Laura Graves’ bloody-minded determination and unwavering belief in the talented, sensitive gelding that he became anything of note at all. Laura was his only rider and their steadfast bond was the foundation for their greatness.
The pair helped the US team to win medals at both the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon.
British Olympian Richard Davison, a big admirer of Verdades, says: “The story of Laura and ‘Diddy’ is magical and will continue to inspire many for years to come. It’s about a little girl’s dream finally coming true – but only after a journey of sacrifice, physical pain, doubt and dedication. It’s wonderful and it should be made into a film.”
WHAT was so remarkable about this particular ascendance?
Rewind to the first time Laura ever saw him, as one of a dozen foals in the Netherlands on a VHS tape. Laura was 15 and she and her mother were horse shopping on a limited budget.
“Mum and I were so excited about him,” she recalls. “But the others from the barn weren’t that into him – they were paying more for horses than us – and I was deflated.”
Still, they pressed on with the purchase. The gawky weanling landed in New York a few months later. Laura and her mother loaded a companion pony onto the trailer at their Vermont home and drove the six hours south to New York.
Back in 2002, communications were not as slick and when they arrived at the airport, they discovered that Verdades wasn’t yet being released from quarantine, so they scrambled to find somewhere to accommodate them and the pony. The following day, “a handful of men funnelled Diddy onto the trailer”.
“There was no time for hugs and it wasn’t romantic,” says Laura. “The trip had been stressful, and when the adrenaline wore off, we had quite a sick foal. He had an infection in his guttural pouches that had to be drained and flushed, and he had to have meds around the clock.”
Once healthy, it soon became clear that the young Verdades was no ordinary horse. He could not be pressured through any kind of situation and if he said no, that was that. Once under saddle, Laura had to employ some unusual tactics.
“If I knew I had to give him a kick, I’d do it away from the fence and I’d take my other foot out of the stirrup in preparation for him flicking me off,” she says. “Or if he flicked up the footing on to his stomach he’d buck, and he was so powerful I’d come off.”
Still, she persevered. The combination of Verdades’ atypical breeding, his resulting unusual movement and his extraordinary sensitivity made him a powder keg of talent and energy.
“People asked why he trotted like a hackney pony,” remembers Laura, who moved to Florida to train with Anne Gribbons in 2009 and took the seven-year-old Verdades along too. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I think it’s cool!’ This was about the time that Totilas was winning everything and he moved a bit like that too, but it was all brand new and the shape of horses in dressage was changing.”
IT took Diddy a long time to figure out where to put his legs and he found life away from home stressful initially. So young horse classes were “not an option” and he accrued scant show experience. Yet by the end of 2013, Verdades was – remarkably, given everything – ready for grand prix.
Their first international at the level, in February 2014, was not a smash hit and gleaned 64.94%. But their scores quickly climbed that winter season.
Laura was by then training with Debbie McDonald and set off on a long road trip aiming for the American championships, with the pipe dream of selection for the upcoming World Equestrian Games in Normandy. It proved a pivotal journey.
“We trailered to New Jersey for the selections and decided to hit Kentucky CDI on the way,” recounts Laura. “They invite the top 15 to the championships; I was about 14th and training was going well. But our score in Kentucky was so low [64.92%] that it dropped us out of the top 15. So we were halfway there, with my dog and my whole life on the road, and it looked like we wouldn’t be invited.”
Laura dithered, eventually deciding to press on and pray for an invitation. After nail-biting days of uncertainty, the crucial email finally landed, confirming she’d made the cut by the skin of her teeth.
“I wanted the team slot so badly, but I was still under the impression that nobody was watching us,” says Laura. “I thought nobody cared if I flunked.”
Not so. The moment the young rookies finished runner-up to Steffen Peters in the grand prix, all eyes swivelled to them. They ended up reserve national champions, crowning the week with a thumping 78.425% freestyle. The result sealed them an invitation to Europe and, ultimately, a place on the WEG 2014 team.
There, they boosted the USA to a fourth-place finish and claimed fifth in the freestyle – best of the Americans – with a tremendous 82.036% that announced the nascent pair’s arrival in resounding fashion.
It was a portent of their mesmeric rise, often right in the mix of top horsepower including Valegro, Damon Hill, Parzival, Cosmo, Bella Rose and Mount St John Freestyle.
There ensued a consistent spell of high-scoring, high-profile appearances. Verdades was thrust to the forefront of American medal hopes, and their scores helped clinch a seismic team bronze medal at Rio 2016, where they finished fourth individually.
In fact, it was only Isabell Werth and her clutch of star partners that came between Verdades and a huge haul of gold medals over those years. She had to settle for silver to Isabell on Weihegold three years in a row at the World Cup Final.
Richard Davison watched the whole fairytale unfold in awe.
“What Laura went through is a shining example to every aspiring rider,” he says. “The fact that Verdades wasn’t easy to train should inspire so many and help identify the true qualities needed for success.”
WHATEVER the value of Diddy, Laura wasn’t open to any offers.
“Before the 2014 nationals, Debbie told me people would be interested in buying him,” says Laura. “She asked me if there was a number I had in mind. I told her, ‘There’s no number. He’s not for sale. I never want to hear a number.’
“It was no secret that I could have used a large chunk of change, but I was lucky to have people around me protecting me and we made it clear that I wasn’t selling. He’s such a strange horse anyway that he’d have probably come back like a boomerang,” she laughs.
Strange is one way to put it. Even in his late teens, with plenty of show miles on the clock, he’d often explode out of the ring after a prize-giving, carting Laura back to the stables. The fact that she was able to toe the line in tests – maximum power with controlled energy – was what made the pair so spellbinding.
Eventually, in January 2020, it was time to retire Diddy. He was rising 18.
“He told us he wanted to retire,” explains Laura.“I always promised I’d listen and make the right choice for him when the time came and it became clear he wasn’t going to return to his usual top form in 2020.
“I always rode every step full throttle; that was the pure joy of him. I never had to ride him with fear of injury and I’m proud to have retired him when I did, because I didn’t ever want to compete him with that fear.”
EVEN in retirement, Verdades is no dope on a rope.
“He’s always been serious, and he still is,” reports Laura, who still rides him three times a week.
“When you pick up the reins, he only has one gear: full-on. I’ve let a couple of people sit on him, but the feeling he gives is pretty scary – it can still even scare me sometimes. If his rider makes a mistake, Diddy feels guilty, so it’s important to respect him in his retirement.”
It’s a fitting end for a horse who has given his rider absolutely everything. And it’s not just the fans who’ll miss him.
Richard concurs: “Without their hard-hitting scores, the US team has lost its anchor. Verdades was a powerhouse on springs and as light as a feather. He was truly magnificent.”
When Laura looks back over the undulating landscape of a stellar career, what stands out?
“Diddy brought the feeling that everyone involved was part of his amazing journey,” she says, stifling tears. “I owned him myself, with no big sponsor, and he really brought people together. We relied on that support, all those people helped build our success; it was a puzzle of a million pieces.”
Laura’s highlights reel includes her breakout show in Normandy, her silver medal ride in front of a home crowd in Omaha at the World Cup Final (“that’s one of the few times where I will say Diddy was robbed”), breaking American records and his top form in Paris, Tryon and Rio.
“The whole journey’s so vivid,” she says. “He’s built my whole career, and he’s the reason that all the other stalls in the barn are filled. He was never a horse you’d stop and look at on the cross- ties and say, ‘Wow!’ but when he put it all together, he was magical.”
Verdades: the judge’s view
FIVE-STAR judge Isobel Wessels identifies Verdades as one of her favourites of all time. She spotted his talent early on when she judged him in Wellington in March 2014. Verdades had begun his international grand prix career just the previous month.
“He and Laura weren’t well known, but I was blown away and I had them so much higher than the other judges,” she laughs. “He had little mistakes, but I clearly remember the half-passes with their unbelievable bend, suspension and elasticity.”
Isobel had him to win on 71.3%, but the other judges’ scores dipped as low as 64.3%. It wasn’t long before judges the world over started dishing out chunky scores to Diddy.
“We saw this slim girl on a tall and powerful horse, yet it all looked so easy,” remembers Isobel. “He had so much inner willingness to go. Watching him was like the Totilas factor; it gave you that stir in your insides and goosebumps outside.”
She describes the pair as the embodiment of the FEI requirement that a horse should appear to do for himself what the rider is asking.
“Laura sat so beautifully and quietly and Verdades offered her everything. His mechanic and how he could bend his hocks and articulate all his joints was unbelievable; he looked like he was on a trampoline.”
THERE are no great surprises on the sire side of Verdades’ pedigree. He is by the Florestan son Florett As, who won the dressage portion of his stallion licensing and went on to compete at grand prix.
It is Verdades’ dam-line that delivers the surprise. His dam Liwilarda is a Dutch harness horse, bred for carriage driving. They typically have very high knee action and a high-set neck. Although they are extravagant movers, their high-stepping gaits don’t always mesh that well with upper level dressage.
But luckily for Verdades, he inherited extravagant movement from his dam coupled with dressage talent and conformation from his sire.
“Verdades brought his breeders, the Crum family, a lot of pride,” says Laura. “They only breed one foal a year, so for this to happen was really special.”
Verdades in numbers
3: The American record scores Verdades holds. They broke the grand prix record with 81.537% at Tryon WEG. At Aachen in 2017, they set a special record (81.824%) and they smashed the freestyle record with 89.083% in Paris in 2018.
6: Between 2015 and 2019, Verdades contested 37 tests in Wellington, Florida, and was only beaten in six of those.
1: Following their double silver in Tryon, they became the first American duo to sit atop the FEI dressage world rankings.
Less than $10,000 (around £7,000): The total cost of buying Verdades as a foal, including importing him to the USA.
H&H, 11 February 2021
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