Many people dream of making a living by doing what they love, but for most that dream stays a dream. Huge goals often seem too hard, or too scary, or too farfetched, because the distance between here and there looks impossibly wide.
But it is possible.
Here's another in my series on incredibly successful people who have accomplished something we all strive for: making a living at doing what we love. (There's a list of previous installments at the bottom of this post.)
This time I talked to Laura Graves, a member of the 2016 U.S. Dressage team competing in the Rio Olympics. Along with her horse Verdades (his nickname is Diddy) she's won an Individual Silver medal and Team Gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2015 Grand Prix Dressage National Championship.
And before you think you have nothing in common with a dressage Olympian, keep in mind she abandoned her career as a hairstylist for a shot at turning a seemingly unmanageable, unpredictable, and impossible to train horse into a superstar.
And how's this for taking on risk: she and her family bought the then seven month-old horse after only having seen glimpses of him on video.
First question: Why horses?
You're right. Riding horses is not something that schools offer. It's not like playing for your school's baseball team.
Horses as a sport really started with a passion for the horses as an animal and a pet. It's kind of the same with dogs; if there was a sport you could do with your dog, you might choose that instead of soccer.
I did play some other spots, but there's only so much time in the day and we had ponies in our backyard, so I ended up sticking with the horses. My sisters chose otherwise and played high school sports. My older sister traveled around Europe with a soccer team. But the horses were the spot that I chose.
We're lucky that our parents supported all of us in making healthy life decisions.
But it's one thing to go from local shows to competing on the international level.
That leap was made almost blindly. It's interesting: sometimes you don't know what you don't know until you know. So I don't know precisely when that moment happened for me. It was more of a natural progression.
Keep in mind that in this sport, because it involves another living being, that leap doesn't happen for a lot of people because they don't have the horse to make the leap with. That keeps a lot of people from being as successful as their talent might allow.
I worked very hard, but a lot of people work very hard. You also have to have a properly athletic and willing partner.
Speaking of a willing partner: a great rider can't make a less than talented horse a champion. So how did you find Verdades?
My parents were very supportive of our sports, regardless of what that sport was, and when I was about thirteen years old they decided they could put a little money towards a new horse for me.
We searched high and low, in the U.S. and in Europe, and eventually we ended up looking at videos of foals. While looking at videos might sound strange, it's impossible to go see every potential horse in person. Of course with a horse of a riding age you can test ride him, but we didn't have the budget to buy a trained horse and there was no point visiting a horse I couldn't ride.
So we chose this horse and picked him up when he was seven months old.
Wasn't that a huge risk?
To a degree, sure, because what you see doesn't ever tell the whole story. For example, some horses, just like human athletes, are physically talented but their personalities are volatile.
In this case we saw an extremely athletic baby horse. In dressage you need three gates or paces, and you look for clarity in those paces. Walk, trot, canter... in order to get high marks those gaits have to stay pure. If your horse can't do that, they're always going to be lacking points.
Fortunately my mom has a really good eye for horses. And we didn't over-think it. There are people who would not choose my horse because of how he uses his body. But his personality is something special.
Training him didn't go well at first, though.
It went so badly that I had basically given up. I was young, the horse was difficult... when you're working really hard you want to do something that makes you feel good about yourself and I wasn't getting that from this horse. I didn't feel like we were moving forward.
I had graduated as a cosmetologist and was working in a spa. The horse had launched me and I had broken my back and I was thinking, "What am I doing? This isn't going to happen."
So I moved to Boston with my sister and was there for three months and decided city living wasn't for me, that I didn't want to work in a salon in the city for the rest of my life... and I decided to give it one more shot. I thought, "If I'm going to do this with this horse, then I need to do it now." As with human athletes, there's a career span for horses; they can age out because it's hard for them to stay fit.
I decided to put everything I had into this horse. We knew he was physically talented but there was so much you couldn't do with him that it was almost impossible to imagine the things he does now.
So what helped you turn the corner with Diddy?
The recipe turned out to be time and patience.
This horse, as difficult as he's been, has taught me so much about patience. There was no other way to work with this horse. You couldn't win your argument by being strong or forceful. I had to be patient and creative and understanding.
There's absolutely nothing dishonest about my horse. He wants to do his job and make people happy. His personality is his strong suit, but he also had a lot of fear. I had to look for the reasons he behaved in certain ways and figure out how to communicate with him so he would give me the behaviors that I want... and do it in a way that he understood, and was willing, and felt there was something in it for him, too.
That sounds a lot like leading people.
You can see an amazing reflection of who we are as people in horses.
That's how I look at my sport and my business. You only get back the type of energy you put in. If what you put in is unfair and relentless and demanding, the reflection you get back is not very pleasant.
Working with a horse isn't the only difficult thing about your job.
In years like this I'm away from home at least 50% of the time. It's extremely difficult. Training, competing, working with my trainer, acclimating to new time zones... and of course all that is the case for the horse, too. When you travel with horses they have quarantine periods. That's stressful for them. Plus it's expensive to fly a horse, so we try to stay put for the horse's sake.
Regardless, I'm with my horse all the time. He doesn't go anywhere I don't go. It's all about him. His needs have to come first because I can't explain what's going on to him. He has to get fed before I do. His schedule has to stay somewhat the same.
Unlike people, horses don't have ways to manage stress. Maintaining his routine is important so he stays balanced.
A good part of our time is spent managing our horses' stress. What we ask them to do is not particularly natural. He has to be perfectly healthy, mentally and physically, before I can think about asking him him to perform a task.
How do you deal with stress, and especially the pressure that comes with competing on a world stage?
I hate to brag, but that is one area where I really excel. I have an easy time putting things in a corner, whether professionally or personally, so that when I'm on the horse I see nothing else except the job I have to do.
I did used to struggle quite a bit with nerves, though. I've had other horses who didn't love to compete... so you'd spend all that time training and then you'd go into the area and they just don't want to perform. When the horse doesn't look like it's having a good time and is making mistakes because he doesn't enjoy what he's doing, that causes a lot of nerves and stress.
That's why having a partner you can rely on makes such a big difference. He loves attention. He loves being the only horse I take care of. He fights for me.
That really changed my ability to focus. Now I rarely get nervous. Emotionally I've always been good at separating things when I need to focus on something else, and having a horse that enjoys competing has made me even better at focusing.
Aside from athletic ability, what makes a good horse/rider team?
The horse and I trust each other. I know he's going to be honest. We'll both makes mistakes, but we'll both give an honest effort.
But competing with a horse is still an unusual situation. It's the only sport in the Olympics with a live animal. Take, say, swimming: swimmers don't have to deal with the fact they've worked and trained and prepared themselves to perform at their best... but when she's ready to dive into the pool to start the race her swimsuit is terrified of that particular pool and no matter how badly she may want to jump in, their swimsuit will not let her jump in the water.
While I know that sounds extreme, that's sometimes what it feels like. In dressage it really is a partnership between the rider and the horse.
It's also somewhat unusual for a rider to own his or her horse?
It is, because finding a great horse is so difficult. The quality of the horses we ride is so exceptional that it's really hard to find a truly special horse.
It's also extremely expensive. If someone has a special horse, they won't part with him... and if they do, the cost can be well into the millions of dollars. So it's rare when people own their own horse. It's more common for owners to support a rider, or for sponsors to own a horse. Often owners will find a trainer to work with all of their horses. Or they'll be loyal to one rider.
That makes for a lot of successful partnerships in our sport.
How do you deal with the subjective nature of judging? It's not the sole criterion is, say, the time on a stopwatch.
As competitors we're all subjective too, because each of us thinks we have the best horse.
So yes, it is difficult when you compete in a sport that is judged. It's tough when you lose and you thought you won. This is the sport I've chosen, though, so if I can't get on board with the judging I should pick a different sport.
Bottom line, sometimes it does come down to personal preferences and there's no way everyone will always agree. But when you have five or seven judges watching the same thing, hopefully the average works out where it should be.
So tell me about the Rio. I can't imagine how exciting it must be to be an Olympian.
There are so many great horses in the world right now, and I am so excited to go head-to-head with horses I haven't had the chance to compete with in a long time, or ever.
I have a great horse. Team USA has probably the best horses we've ever put on a team. I hope as a team everyone puts up personal bests. I hope I have some personal bests.
I hope the best horses show up to compete -- sometimes a horse isn't healthy on the day. I want to win against the best, at their best.
This might sound silly, but does the horse know when he does well?
Horses definitely know when they do well. He doesn't know the scores but he knows when I'm happy with him. There's a feeling when we're working in harmonious balance, when it's pleasant and our communication is working and we're understanding each other... he knows he's done a very good job.
Of course he also gets to go back to the barn and gets buckets and buckets of apples.
It's rare that he's not good at his job. He's so honest and he works so hard, so 99% of the time this horse is just really pleased with himself.
That's important. Horses love feeling like they've done a good job, and when they do they're happy to come back and do it again tomorrow.
Aside from winning, how do you define success?
Here's one thing: This horse might never have left the field if I hadn't decided to continue with him. All that talent would have been left sitting there. It takes time and training and broken hearts and failures to get to a moment like this. That's one kind of success.
In a broader sense, people tend to judge their success against other people, and that makes them dependent on external factors to make them feel successful.
I want to feel successful based on a goal I've set. People often forget to set goals, and that's a shame because when you measure yourself and get closer to your goal, even jus a little bit, you get to feel good.
As an equestrian, my goal is to train a happy, healthy, and willing horse. Of course I want to have a personal best so I can contribute to a team medal, but if I can show the world how much I love my horse and how much he loves his job... that would be awesome.
More in this series: