Laura Graves laughs when asked to describe her relationship with Diddy. No, not the rap mogul. The horse — her horse — Verdades, who goes by Diddy. Like many long relationships, theirs has had its ups and downs.
Graves, 29, has owned Diddy since he was just six months old. But creating a bond with Diddy, now 14, has been a much more strenuous process.
When Graves was looking to buy a horse in 2002, she watched videos of Diddy online and eventually decided he was the one for her. But the first impression Diddy made certainly was not encouraging for someone hoping to ride horses in competition.
“They called our names and he was this small thing, so [wild] that there were four or five men trying to shuffle this thing out the door,” Graves said. “All I could think was, ‘Oh my god, what have we gotten ourselves into.’
“I remember being excited, but also being a little petrified.”
Diddy was also scared, and he often had an explosive reaction to fear. And because of his size, he could do some damage.
“Everything had to be done slowly, so just when you think you finally taught him how to saddle, he won’t even let you near him with the saddle,” Graves said. “It was just time and repetition.”
Despite all the time it took to train Diddy, Graves felt a special connection with him in competition. Even at a young age, she felt different while on his back.
“He always gave me this incredible feeling, this feeling that everything is so easy,” Graves said, adding, “He had this switch. If he got panicked, he would buck and launch me.”
Building a relationship with a horse can take years of work, according to Beezie Madden, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in show jumping. The communication required for a pair to be successful is essential in building trust between a horse and its rider.
“They have to trust what we’re telling them and that we’re going to do everything in our best interest to make their job as easy as possible,” said Madden, 52, who will compete in her fourth Olympics in Rio. “And knowing the moves, it’s a little like a basketball team getting together — you need to know what everybody’s gonna do. And just learning to react without thinking about it can take a couple of years.”
For a while, Graves and Diddy weren’t building that trust. The nadir of their relationship came in 2006, when Graves tried to sell Diddy. She had just graduated from cosmetology school, and riding was not as satisfying as she had hoped.
“I was a teenager, and it was a difficult being a teenager anyways and then to have this big dream of riding for a U.S. team, I was thinking, ‘This is never going to happen with this horse. This is not what a team horse is like,’ ” Graves said.
But Diddy’s irrascibility made him a hard sell. A potential buyer couldn’t mount him, much less ride him. The trainer charged with selling him couldn’t even get his foot into the stirrup before Diddy took off.
“He was broke for me, but he was just not trusting of another stranger and it took [the trainer] quite some time to even be able to sit on him,” Graves said.
So Graves took Diddy back. In 2009, Graves decided to move to Florida to train full time with Debbie McDonald, who was part of the United States’ bronze medal dressage team at the 2004 Olympics. Slowly, horse and rider built a relationship. In 2014, Graves and Diddy finished fifth at the World Equestrian Games — the U.S. team was fourth — and she won silver at the 2015 Pan American Games and was part of the gold medal-winning team. She has fulfilled her dream to make the U.S. Olympic team, and much of her success is due to her unique relationship with her horse.
“To be honest, even though that was a dream I had when I was a kid, when Diddy was young, it seemed completely impossible,” Graves said. “There were just so many weird things I didn’t know he would be able to overcome, and now, 14 years later, I look back and I just have to laugh, the things I do with this horse.”