Geneva, Florida – May 13, 2020 – Former world ranked no. 1 rider Laura Graves announced she has welcomed two-time national young horse champion, SenSation HW, to her program. Bred in Germany by Alfons Bergjohann, the 7-year-old Westphalian gelding SenSation HW (Sunday—Donata, Dancier) has made quite a name for himself with Hilltop Farm’s Michael Bragdell.
The gelding owned by Carol and Scott McPhee has had an impressive career as a young horse thus far, earning back-to-back champion titles in the 5-Year-Old and 6-Year-Old Championships at the Markel/USEF Young Horse National Championships for the last two years with Bragdell in the saddle, earning an impressive score 9.6 for his trot and a 9 for overall impression. The pair also earned consecutive titles at the US Dressage Finals the last two years, taking the First Level Open National Championship in 2018 and the Third Level Open National Championship in 2019. Prior to the finals in Lexington, Kentucky, the pair earned the Third Level Championship at the GAIG/United States Equestrian Federation Region 8 Championships with scores over 74%.
Following the retirement of her Olympic partner Verdades, Graves had a quieter season this year, competing in the national ring aboard two developing horses. In February, she rode Bellarini, a 5-year-old Hanoverian mare into the ring for the first time at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival to win their First Level class with a 73.276%, and Fizau, an 11-year-old Westphalian gelding owned by Susan Shattuck earned a top-five placing in the Intermediate II. With the addition of SenSation HW to her string, Graves has her eyes set once again on international success in the near future.
PS Dressage caught up with Graves to discuss her exciting new partnership and her competition career post-Diddy.
Let’s talk about how your partnership with SenSation’s owners, the McPhee’s, developed.
“Carol and her husband, Scott, originally contacted me. Michael has had such great success with him and has done such a great job with this horse in the Young Horse classes. It’s common practice in Europe that another trainer may take over the ride to do different things. So far I am really enjoying the opportunity of getting to know the McPhee’s. They seem to really love and care for their horses and I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a really long-term relationship.”
Michael [Bragdell] always spoke so highly of SenSation’s quality with his elasticity and work ethic. Do you recall watching them compete together?
“It’s funny because I follow the sport very closely whether it is here in the US or in Europe. I think we all try to keep eyes on the winning horses and hope for the best for everybody. When I would watch SenSation with Michael it was clear what a talented horse he was, but I never thought I would one day have him in my barn. I’m very grateful for that.”
When did SenSation arrive at your farm? What qualities about him have you noticed so far as you are getting to know him?
“It’s easy to lose track of time in this quarantine, but I think he arrived in late March. The McPhee’s live in Pennsylvania and with all the Coronavirus restrictions, they haven’t had the opportunity to visit him at my farm yet but we are hoping they will be able to travel to visit him soon!
SenSation is such a cool horse. He has honestly been one of the easiest horses to start to get to know. He has a very straight forward character with an excellent personality and work ethic. Michael has done a super job with him! He is safe to hack and it’s a real joy to have him in the barn. The girls who work for me love to take care of him — he’s very friendly.”
With the retirement of your long-time partner Diddy, I’m sure you are ecstatic to have a high-caliber horse in your string again. Any goals on your radar with him for next year?
“I do have some very nice young horses developing but there is a big difference in the two-year age gap between them and SenSation. Even though SenSation is only seven, he is actually one of my more advanced horses and I feel really confident on him. I’m really excited to have a horse of this age and caliber in my barn!
To sit in the saddle every day and feel like the future is not too far away with him — there are glimpses of the whole grand prix already in this horse. It’s a very motivating thing for me. I’m not riding horses right now that I don’t think have the quality to make a team — whether it is for Pan Am Games, Nations Cups, World Cup Finals, World Equestrian Games, maybe even an Olympic Games. There are a lot of different things that may fit into his schedule depending on his development and when we meet specific mile markers. But that is certainly a goal with SenSation now. Right now I would consider we are in a two-year chunk of time where I think he will be something really special to see.”
With the coronavirus shaking up the competition season and with all that uncertainty, do you have an ideal plan for next year?
“Hopefully things can get back to some sort of normal by next season and then we can travel a bit and take some real lessons as opposed to videos. My horses will be ready next year so hopefully I have somewhere to take them!”
Speaking about taking lessons — Has Debbie [McDonald] been involved so far and what are her thoughts about this new addition to your string?
“Debbie has been working with me a little bit. It’s exciting for both of us! What we have as a coach-student relationship is really awesome and we work together really well. It ends up in the best interest of the horse when there is a relationship like that between a coach and their student. I’m thrilled she is supportive and excited about the horses in my barn. Deb and I are both in different places in our lives. With the Olympics that were supposed to be this year, her life has changed a lot, and my life, with the retirement of Diddy, is very different too. For us, it is a new chapter in our relationship. It’s exciting to start over again and it’s very motivating. All the places Diddy took us and the thought we may have that opportunity again is really special.”
You have made a name for yourself with a horse you solely owned. What does it feel like to have other owners involved that are now part of your team?
“I have a deep gratitude to these owners who think of me and give me such exceptional horses to ride. They trust me. It’s an amazing thing to have that trust from complete strangers. I am very very lucky and I’ve always said it is no one’s responsibility to do this for me. So every time I have an opportunity like this, I just think of how lucky I am to have people believe in me and that we share the same dreams. I just hope I can do my best. It’s a lot of pressure but I am looking forward to it.”
Even though you were not present in the CDI-ring this season, you did ride down centerline a few times at AGDF this winter on Fizau, a horse you competed at the 2017 US Developing Prix St. Georges National Championship and a new youngster. How did you think your season went with them?
“It was a good developing season. I had entered Fizau in an I2 and unfortunately we had some things go wrong in the barn and he didn’t have a great show, which is really too bad because we had to scratch the second day. He is schooling really well and he is for sale — I know he will make someone very, very happy. I’ve had him since he was 5-years-old and it will be hard to see him go. But he deserves to be the light of someone’s life. He will be the ‘SenSation’ in someone’s barn! I think every horse deserves that. It’s a special situation where he must go to the right forever home. He’s a one-of-a-kind horse.
The other horse I competed is a 5-year-old named Bellarini that I have really big dreams for. I’ve had her less than a year and I brought her to her first show to see how she would be off the farm. She was fresh, but she settled in well and was a very good girl. She scored quite well in her First Level test and I was having a blast riding her around. It’s these partnerships with horses that put smiles on your face that makes it worth it. It has been a little bit lacking in my life since Diddy retired and so it’s exciting to ride horses you feel yourself bonding with. It makes it easy to be patient and to wait for these great things that I think are going to happen. It’s exciting.”
We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t check in on the one-and-only Diddy. How is retirement treating him so far?
“It suits him very well! I’m still riding him a few days a week — I had to! We finally have him exercised enough where he is behaving himself in turnout with my other retired horse, who is a 27-year-old, 15-hand Quarter Horse. At first Diddy was so wild and I couldn’t have him running my Quarter Horse too much. Now they are behaving and enjoying turnout together. It’s such a small thing, but Diddy hasn’t been in a field with another horse in 12 years. It’s such a nice thing for them and it’s how it should be. Even though my farm is set up where they can touch noses across the fence, it’s different that he can be with another horse.”