After the awards presentation of the Grand Prix Special class at CHIO Aachen on Saturday, a gaggle of international journalists packed into the press conference room, recorders aloft. All of them had just one question for class winner, Laura Graves.

“Do you feel like you’ve got a monkey off your back?” asked a British journalist, who finally had the nerve to pose the question to her directly.

The room erupted into laughter, perhaps nervously, but Graves—in her eloquent, measured tone—wasn’t thrown. There was no ‘monkey’, she explained, or if there was, she’d never realized it. For her, that’s not what dressage or her participation in the sport is about.

These days, Graves and her mount of more than a decade, the 15-year-old KWPN gelding, Verdades, have more 1st place check marks next to their name than anything else. They swept whole weekends this winter at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida; at Rotterdam last month, Graves won both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle, leading the U.S. team to victory in the CDIO5* Nations Cup. 

But for all the “1’s” in her column, it’s the world’s presumption—true or untrue—that it’s the other numbers on her resume that carry weight. The “2” next to the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha, or the “4” individual result at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. In both cases, the current World #1, Isabell Werth, has been ahead of Graves on the podium. So to beat the German champion on her home field, in one of the world’s most venerable competitions, is no small thing. Making the victory even sweeter? It occurred on July 22nd—Laura’s 30th birthday.

“My horse gave me a great birthday present,” Graves said, though she demurred when asked if she’d done anything unusual or ‘tried harder’ to earn this result. “I don’t think there was anything I did differently,” she said. “To be honest, and maybe it’s rather embarrassing, but I try a lot,” she joked, earning a chorus of laughter from the press room.

Laura noted that this was the first time this year that she and “Diddy” had shown in the Grand Prix Special, opting out of the class earlier in the year while concentrating on their preparation for FEI World Cup Dressage Finals. Initially, the change-up in tests on Saturday threw Diddy for a loop.

“He was confused about what test he was going into, but the second we went into the stadium, he just clicked into gear. We turned right after centerline and he said, ‘Oh, right! I know, it’s the Special,’ and on we went. I could not be more pleased with him today.”

Werth also admitted that the Special test confused her 12-year-old mount, Weihegold, joking that unlike Diddy, the mare took a bit longer to settle in. “I really could feel that she felt a little unsure about what to do,” Werth said. “She didn’t come out of the corner and say, ‘Yes Mom, I know.’ But it was good to [learn] that she needs a bit more confidence for this class.”

Werth, who won the CDIO5* Grand Prix on Thursday, also went on to take top honors at Aachen in Sunday’s Grand Prix Freestyle, dominating the field with a score of 89.675% (Laura and Diddy would finish 3rd behind Germany’s Sönke Rothenberger and Cosmo 59).

Graves has been deemed an “Equestrian Fairytale” by CNN and is viewed by many to be America’s new guard in the sport. At age 30, in a discipline that rewards time and experience, Laura is just getting started. But perhaps, more than anything, it’s her long view on the nature of competition and her own role in the sport that’s the most telling about her future in it.

“Aachen brings out the top riders, and obviously, I’m a person that would rather be second to Isabell every day than to always win against competition that’s not so fierce. I think that’s what keeps me motivated,” Graves explained, adding that her victory in the Grand Prix Special CDIO5* at Aachen will certainly make her list of top wins.

“This is sport, and I think every day, we all try our best. I’m very proud about what we were able to accomplish today. But for me, the big feat is not just about coming here and winning. It’s about continuing to improve the training. This win today shows me that my horse was in the best form—it’s nothing more than that. Our work is certainly not done.”

Words to live by? Unquestionably.

-Photography by Shannon Brinkman.