Laura Graves on training and safety with young horses

We met with successful dressage rider Laura Graves and asked her about her views on training new young horses for competition. She developed her top horse Verdades to international Grand Prix level by herself.

When you start to train a new horse, what is your approach?

– I always start with asking a lot of questions. I try to determine what the horse is understanding and what they are not understanding. So I find where the probable holes are in their training, which might prevent them from moving forward.

– For me the priority of that is safety, not just for myself but also for the horses. Because if they don’t understand, some of them are very very dangerous when they feel there is too much pressure. So that for me is the first thing I do when I get up on a new horse. I check the legs, I check how they understand the bridle. Then I start saying okay, here is what you are lacking for me to push you forward.

– I am entering this next phase in my life with more young horses than I have had in a while. And so I am learning to tumble and that is just part of it. It has been a while. With my top horse Verdades (e.Florett As – Goya) I have been having to keep myself very safe. Because everyone is counting on me, so if something were to happen with me on a young horse then I would not be able to compete with my top horse and that is not really responsible. So I had to be very safe.

– I tend to spend a lot of time on the ground and sort through a lot of these issues with the horses. It might be more of an American approach. But definitely, if I have a horse that I struggle with I bring in help. Someone who can help me assess from a safer position from the ground. It is important to figure out why the horse is afraid when you are riding. Because if you just continue without that knowledge, there is always going to be miscommunication. But if you can relax the situation then the horse can learn. If there is too much tension, they are not in a good position to learn.

When you look for new horses, what are the qualities you search for?

– The very first quality, obviously in our sport they have to have three really quality gates. Everyone is always blown away by the trot, but the walk and the canter in our test is actually worth a lot more points. So walk and canter have to be extremely high quality and trainable. But the next thing I look for is the great personality. A horse has to want to work with me for a long time and has to be a horse that is a fit for me. Everyone has a different taste, for me I can watch a beautiful horse go around and I can tell you that I don’t want to sit on it. Just because I know what I like.

Do you have any tips for people training at home?

– I work a lot with filming through the mirrors during the trainings. It is interesting because even looking in the mirror the image on the video is different than what you think you are seeing in the mirror. Because you are live in that moment watching yourself and to take it in from a third party is more like a judging perspective. I do think it is important to do on a weekly basis, and leading up to competitions we are videoing just about everything.

How do you prepare the young horses for the big arenas?

– First, we make sure they have the skill set to cope with it. If they tend to be nervous or you know something about them that might make it more difficult for them to cope, they might have to wait until longer. You want to give them a good experience. So I make sure I have put them in enough situations so they become confident enough before. You also need to make sure that they can do the job at home that you want them to do at the show. It is all about given them clear directions so that they listen all the time when I ask something of them and give me their full attention.

– I will not be able to expose my horses to everything that might come up at a competition, it is always going to be something different. So if I can have a skill set that makes them focus no matter what, then I feel very safe. I always tell my horses that inside this rectangle there will never be anything but sand. That this is always safe and if they pay attention here nothing bad will never happen to you in here.

Do you have a favorite exercise?

– It depends on the horse, for example the hot horse vs the lazy horse. On the hotter horse I want to make transitions. That’s important with the hot horses, that it is a gift that you want to take with you to the Grand Prix. So you have to be careful so you never tell a horse like that “no don’t go”. And it is a certain way to put more tension in a horse by holding back. So I always say, find a shape that makes the horse want to relax. Sometimes like a 4 or a 5 loupe serpentine. And if they are really tense then I will make like an 8m circle in the turn of the serpentine and then go across the arena let them go and then bring them back again on a little circle. Then I can push them on across the arena again when they have relaxation. So they are constantly changing left, right, forward, it should be like driving stick shift you know, smooth all the way.

Text: Diana Dunbar

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