Laura Graves and 'Diddy': An equestrian fairytale

(CNN)She was a cosmetologist. He was bad-tempered and dangerous. Together, they took on the world.

He is also a horse, and she could be America's latest sporting fairytale.
"I was a hairstylist," says Laura Graves, thinking back to 2008. "I had moved to Boston, and that's what I was going to do. But then I said to myself: Now is the time."
Graves abandoned her career for a shot at turning the unruliest horse on the circuit into a dressage superstar. Seven years later, the 27-year-old's dreams are coming true.
    It's a journey that began with a video tape of a horse named Verdades.
    To many people, "Diddy" -- his nickname -- was unmanageable. Too unpredictable, too hard to train. Few riders, at any level, would gamble a decade on their ability to make Diddy do dressage.
    But this was what Graves had to work with, after her family bought him on the basis of a video sent from the Netherlands.

    Wild and explosive

    Their budget had been nothing special, by global dressage standards. Graves says they could either afford "something a little bit trained and maybe not great quality, or something really young and maybe a little better quality."
    After looking at dozens of videos, Verdades seemed the best bet for the money. But the video didn't tell the whole story.
    "As soon as he arrived, we realized just how strong and sensitive he was," she recalls. "Everything was so difficult with him.
    "It took three men at the quarantine station to help us get him on the trailer, and he was just six months old. He really, really tested your patience."
    Diddy grew up on the family farm in Vermont. Graves waited to see how he would develop. Diddy didn't.
    "We tried, unsuccessfully, to sell him," she tells CNN. "He was just extremely wild and temperamental, to the point where he was dangerous because he was so explosive. Not ever mean, but not controllable.
    "Some days I would say, 'OK, I just can't ride him today. He's not rideable.' Until he was seven years old I couldn't get a mounting block close to him, I just had to climb up.
    Laura Graves, right, with her sisters and cousins at a family barbecue.
    "It was all so honest. You couldn't be angry with him. But it felt like an awful lot of defeat."
    Diddy, though, had talent. On the days when Graves could actually get on the horse, things would click. Dressage competitors value that bond between horse and rider above anything else. "Harmony," top riders call it. Diddy was a handful, but harmony? He had that, too.
    Graves made a big decision. Hairdressing would not make the cut. She was going full Diddy.
    "I was young and had never sat on a horse of this quality before so I had no idea," she says. "So I said to myself, 'OK, this is it, I have this horse in my life who -- if I had to buy him at this age -- I could never afford, and I'm at a point in my life where I can take an escape from what I'm doing for a job.'
    "And I went and tried to make it happen in Florida. I packed up everything and moved."

    'You could see the gifts'

    The strange thing? Graves didn't see this as a gamble. Many people might not be persuaded to drop their fledgling careers for a horse -- particularly one on which they can't even ride, depending how the horse feels that day.
    "You know, I guess I never think of it that way," Graves concedes.
    "People who don't have the dream might think of it as a life gamble. But I was young enough that I was still living on dreams. I didn't have any kids or a boyfriend, my responsibility was really pretty low. To me, what was the gamble?
    Laura Graves with boyfriend Curt Maes at Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
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    "I go to Florida, I learn to ride some, and then maybe I sell the horse in Florida. But at that point I had decided this horse was mine and this was going to be my horse for the U.S. team, and I was going to make it happen."
    In 2014, she made it happen.
    Robert Dover, the man in charge of the American national dressage team, had a call from Debbie McDonald, an Athens 2004 Olympic bronze medalist now charged with finding the next great U.S. talents.
    "She told me to watch out for this young lady, who looked like she was both talented and on a talented horse," says Dover.
    "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.
    "She was walking out of the arena, so I introduced myself and I told her that if she was really that serious about trying out for the team, she had to make some big life changes."
    Graves changed the lot: where she lived, who she trained with, whatever Dover told her.
    This was the dream she had pursued when she moved to Florida almost five years earlier, and nothing should now stand in the way.


    Posted by Laura Graves on Tuesday, 27 May 2014
    By early 2014, Graves and Verdades were popping up at significant international events.
    Come the middle of the year, they were in the top 10 at world-renowned tournaments like Aachen, open only to the sport's very best.
    Their breathtaking surge was completed with fifth place at the World Equestrian Games, less than a year after Dover had first seen them. They were the leading American duo at the sport's biggest event outside the Olympic Games.

    'Type A'

    Graves and Diddy are now ranked 10th in the world. In January last year, they didn't even make the ranking list of more than 700 riders.
    Understandably, Graves had decided she quite likes Diddy -- despite everything.
    "We saw it all in one year. That seems a little crazy. I'm so thankful," she says.
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    "Some people work like this all their lives and never get the opportunity to experience what I have. So much of it is the horse, and I feel blessed every day to have such an explosive horse."
    Graves does practically everything when it comes to caring for Diddy. Where other riders employ teams of assistants, Graves is renowned on the circuit for doing the menial tasks herself. Only when forced to give interviews after competing does she reluctantly hand the horse over to someone else.
    "I'm extremely Type A," is her explanation. "I like to do things myself."
    Diddy, she says, has not changed with fame and fortune. In the five years she spent slogging out in Florida, she simply got to know him better.
    "He still has 100% of the spirit. I think I'm just used to it," says Graves. Diddy can be easily startled and doesn't like having too many people around, she has learned, so Graves prepares in advance and keeps him out of the spotlight at events.
    "He's an extremely kind horse and will do everything he can not to make a mistake, but that doesn't mean he's not going to be afraid," she adds.
    "He's a very happy horse. There are horses who are sulky, or silly, and they don't care about people. That's the big difference with this horse.
    "It's the chance of a lifetime to work with a horse like this and there's a lot of luck involved. I didn't have any big horse sponsors in my life -- I own this horse and so, financially speaking, even though it was a difficult road, if this horse didn't work out I couldn't have afforded another one.
    "And of course, I'm so emotionally involved that this horse is not for sale."
    July's Pan-American Games in Toronto are next for Verdades and Graves, before the battle for Rio 2016 places reaches a climax.
    Dover says she remains "well-grounded ... and getting better and better." Reporters at the World Equestrian Games called Graves' lightning-fast ascent a "fairytale."
    She's happy to play along with that metaphor -- while being careful not to gloss over the years she spent outside the limelight.
    "A fairytale is exactly what I feel like," she says.
    "I was Cinderella and all it takes is Prince Charming to turn your whole life around. I've always had my Prince Charming -- just maybe he was a frog for a while.
    "But I think it's important to remember how hard Cinderella worked before she caught a break."