Laura Graves: Dressage star who tamed 'Diddy' on brink of Olympic dream

Story highlights

  • Equestrian rider bids for place on U.S. Olympic team
  • Graves has forged unique bond with horse Verdades
  • She won individual silver at Pan-American Games

(CNN)It's a bond that is unrivaled in sport -- the magical relationship between a rider and their horse.

American equestrian star Laura Graves, who is bidding for glory at the U.S. national championships this weekend, has developed an almost telepathic understanding with her horse, Verdades.
"I know exactly how he's feeling every day and what I can do to make him feel better if I need to," Graves told CNN.
    "If you don't know your horse quite as well, you may not pick up on little things. I think because of that it helps me make the right decision for him, and so far it's paid off."
    Graves decided to buy Verdades after watching a videotape of him 13 years ago. The Dutch stallion nicknamed "Diddy" -- not after the rapper, she insists -- was talented, but the video didn't tell the whole story. At first, he was almost impossible to ride and at one point she even considered selling him.

    'He could do a lot of damage'

    "(Riding him) was just so difficult, dangerous and not fun -- it was none of the reasons why I got into riding at all," she explains.
    "He was not a bad personality but just so physically strong, and when he was afraid he could do a lot of damage. Fortunately, we were stuck with him ... and by the time he'd grown up, the thought had long passed."
    Graves, now 28, took the bold decision to quit her job as a hairdresser in Boston and moved to Florida in 2008 to focus on her dressage dream.
    Her early performances in competition caught the eye of Robert Dover, the technical adviser to the U.S. dressage team.
    "I watched her and although it was all very much in the formative stage, you could see the gifts of both the rider and the horse," Dover told CNN in July.
    The hard work started to pay off in 2014 with top-10 finishes at world-renowned tournaments such as Aachen in Germany before finishing fifth at the World Equestrian Games.
    Further success has followed this year with a team gold and an individual silver at the Pan-American Games in Toronto.

    'He'll stay with me forever'

    On Saturday, Graves stands on the brink of another major milestone -- another strong performance at the national trials in Wellington, Florida, should fulfill her lifelong dream of competing at the Olympics.
    "This is the year that I've been waiting for my entire life. When I first had the Olympic dream, I didn't know it would be in 2016 or Rio. I just had this Olympic dream," she says.
    "To have it now less than 12 months away is exciting! I look toward the future, but I also stay in the moment. I'm very focused on what I'm doing right now so I can do the best when that Olympic day comes.
    "I'm a very forward thinker, so for me it's all about tomorrow."
    Making the cut for the U.S. Olympic team will be the ultimate honor for the former hairdresser. Whatever happens this weekend and in the future, she will always have that special bond with Verdades.
    "I've known this horse his entire life. We've been through a lot of extreme highs and extreme lows," she says.
    "It almost makes me sad that other competitors don't get the same high when they bring their horse to competition, because they've not experienced the lows -- it makes the high points really sweet.
    "When he retires, he won't go to another farm. He'll stay with me forever."