There’s a much-touted dressage duel brewing at the upcoming Aachen CHIO—between the United States’ young sweetheart, Laura Graves, and the veteran German star Isabell Werth.
Graves and Verdades came a close second to Werth at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final (Neb.) in March. The U.S. dressage rider is one of the few whose recent scores show they could knock dressage superstar Isabell Werth from her throne. And that is exactly the goal the 29-year-old has set herself with her exceptional horse Verdades.
The Aachen press team visited Graves while training in Belgium to prepare for Aachen and asked her what she thinks about Werth, what makes the CHIO Aachen the CHIO Aachen and why she had to urgently visit a music shop the first time she competed in Aachen.
Question: You and your horse’s story is extraordinary…
Graves: He was an absolute lucky strike. He came to me as a foal; he was 6 months old. We only bought him based on a video and now he has made me what I am today. Last year, he carried me to an Olympic bronze medal [at Rio in 2016], to the World Cup Final, we have competed at the [2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France)] together and now I am training for the World Championships next year.
Question: Your own story is also different to that of most of the top riders…
Graves: It is easy if you are born into a family whose life already revolves around horses. That is not so in my case and yet horses have always been part of me ever since I was born. They are in my soul. Nobody else in my family rides competitively and yet I already knew from a young age that I need horses around me.
Question: Where do you see your sporting career going? The next World Equestrian Games are in your home country in Tryon, N.C.
Graves: It is fantastic that we are staging the World Championships next year. It is a great honor for us to host these championships in North America. The fans will be behind us; the stadiums will be sold-out. Any opportunity to represent my country is unique. I have succeeded in making it onto the team here in Aachen, now I just hope I will also be nominated for the World Games team next year.
Question: You have come to Aachen as the No. 4 in the world ranking list. What are your expectations? The U.S. Chef d’Equipe, Robert Dover, said: “Laura really wants to win.”
Graves: (laughing) I always want to win, whether that happens is a different matter altogether.
We train hard and have come to Aachen in top form. Anything less would be unacceptable for Aachen. And of course we would love to take the victory. I know they are going to be tough competitions, but that is precisely what makes us perform better.
Question: Who do you see as your biggest rival?
Graves: Without a doubt: Isabell, she is No. 1 in the world ranking list. It is a shame that the two other German riders who rank second and third [Kristina Bröring-Sprehe and Dorothe Schneider], can’t compete. That is quite disappointing for me, because I would like to compete against the best opponents at the best show.
We’ll have to wait and see what the actual outcome is—Catherine Dufour also put in a super performance at the Danish Championships. One thing is for sure: It is going to be an exciting show for the spectators.
Question: How do you rate Isabell Werth’s performances in comparison to the last years?
Graves: No comparison can be made there. She hasn’t just got one horse she is successful with. Because of the way she rides she succeeds in schooling one horse after another up to top level sport. She demonstrates incredible precision in the dressage arena—by the way I try to copy this in my daily training.
Question: What could perhaps make the difference between you and the other riders?
Graves: Verdades and I have a special connection. We have been together since we were children. He will never say “no,” if I ask him to do something. Not every horse is like that; he is incredibly unselfish. If it comes to the crunch that could ultimately make the difference.
Question: How do you rate the U.S. team’s chances in the Nations Cup?
Graves: We have a very strong team this year [with Olivia LaGoy-Weltz on Lonoir, Adrienne Lyle on Salvino and Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet]. I am more or less the old hand in our young team. We have two new horses competing this year—they are all very strong and are capable of scoring over 75 percent. But at the end of the day we have to actually perform well on the day.
Question: You are here in Aachen at the moment, you prepared for the show in Belgium. What do you miss most when you’re here in Europe?
Graves: I miss my dogs—and my boyfriend. It is always hard being away from the family, from the children—or in my case the dogs and the horses (laughs). The fantastic thing about Europe though is the fact that horses are part of life here. I am here with my trainer, Debbie McDonald, and I am very focused on improving my performance, that is what it is all about.
Question: You already know the CHIO Aachen. How did you find the atmosphere?
Graves: I have only ridden in Aachen once, that was in 2014, my first Grand Prix year. It was so motivating, the best riders in the world compete at the best show in the world here. It is very exciting to have been invited to compete again.
Question: Why is it competing at the CHIO Aachen so exciting?
Graves: The history of the show is incredible; it is not comparable with any other show in the world. Everything is world-class. That starts with the stables and ends with the perfect way one looks after us riders.
Not to mention the spectators! They are so knowledgeable and know what our sport is all about. Dressage is a complex discipline. It is not like jumping where you know: The pole fell so the rider picks up faults. One can see how much expertise the spectators have from how well they use the “Judging-App” that the CHIO organizers offer. It is nice to see how our sport has established itself here. That really is a great feeling!
Question: And the music was missing when you competed for the first time in Aachen…
Graves: Oh yes! I remember that all too well! I was actually supposed to be preparing for my competition, but everything was so impressive, I just kept looking to the left and to the right.
For example, Charlotte Dujardin was also competing. After a while my trainer said: Right Laura, a little more concentration, please!
But I was so haywire, I could hardly ride. Somehow or other I managed to qualify for the freestyle, but I hadn’t prepared anything, didn’t have any music either. So we drove into the city and looked for music in a small shop and had it burnt onto a CD on the spot.