Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Gareth Graves was a long way from his humble beginnings in equestrian sport when he stepped into the International Ring at Spruce Meadows for the first time in 2014.

Gareth knew from an early age that a career in horses was his calling, but also that it was not something that would come easily to him on many levels. He admits that his introduction to the sport in South Africa at the age of nine was decidedly “unstructured.”

“I recognized that my family was never going to be able to financially support my riding, so I knew very early on that in order for this to work, I was going to have to work very hard and really stay focused on the end goal,” he explains. “I was not naturally talented, and had no money, but had an almost blind determination to achieve my goal of becoming a horseman at the top level of the sport. I’ve always relied on working toward the right opportunity as opposed to believing in my abilities.”

The first time Gareth set eyes on the International Ring at Spruce Meadows was at 15 when he was invited to watch the Masters tournament with family friends. “I still remember walking through the entrance to the west stands,” he says. “The energy was unbelievable and I was instantly mesmerized.” He would for years afterwards make the trip to watch the Masters with his mother, each time returning home inspired to compete at that level. “I always felt sorry for my horses the week after the Masters,” he says, laughing, “because they were all getting trained like they were international horses.”

Gareth has since built his business, Highbury Show Stables in Edmonton, AB, into a thriving training operation, and with the support of dedicated owners has built a string of talented horses. He is particularly excited about Babette, an eight-year-old Dutch mare owned by the Halina family. Gareth found the mare through Desiree Johnson in the fall of 2013 on a trip to Europe. “It was absolutely love at first sight,” he recalls. “Babette has a presence about her that is very special. I remember on the way home after that trip I must have watched her video about a million times. I am completely obsessed with this horse.”

This year at the Spruce Meadows National tournament in June, Gareth found himself exactly where he’d envisioned all those years ago, walking through the iconic clock tower to experience his first round in the International Ring. He states emphatically that it will go down as one of the most memorable experiences of his life, although not without some added drama. “Richard Keller, my mentor, had come down with a severe 24-hour flu and couldn’t come to the show that day,” he recalls. “I actually thought he was joking when he told me that he wasn’t going to be able to be there. Everything was very surreal; as we were signalled into the ring the gate swung up and Babette ran backwards about 20 feet.” Gareth and Babette jumped clear with two time faults, and jumped clear again on the Sunday.

The following month, Gareth won the Western Family Grand Prix at Thunderbird Show Park. “This summer has been a memorable one, and I have an amazing group of customers and horses. I try not to get caught up in the highs or lows in the ring, though. One day you can be winning a grand prix, and the next land in the dirt at jump one. That being said, getting to experience the sport at this level has definitely left me even more inspired to dream big.”