Back to school for Icabad Crane in Aiken

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Describing Icabad Crane’s daily training regimen, Phillip Dutton put things in simple layman’s terms: “It’s a bit like yoga for the horse.” 

No, the multiple stakes winner has not learned to say “Namaste,” but he is finding his center while learning how to use his racing-fit body in a completely different way.  It’s no longer about speed, but rather about listening to the infinitely more subtle communications from the man on his back.  Gone are the days of whipping and driving; now what’s asked of him is relaxing and thinking things through.

Three-Day Eventing requires tremendous stamina and athletic ability.  Dutton isn’t worried about either in the 9-year-old’s case.

“Obviously we don’t have to really work on his fitness too much; the level of fitness that he has from his racing career isn’t anything that he’s going to need for quite a while,” Dutton said.  “It’s more trying to start from scratch and work on his understanding of being ridden correctly – and by that I mean introducing him to me being able to control him with my leg and my hands.  He’s a strong horse.  He has his racing muscles but what we need now are different types of muscles.”

To that end, Dutton’s spends four days each week concentrating on flat work, encouraging Icabad Crane to accept the bit and go forward in a softer way.  They work on lengthening the horse’s stride, getting him to stretch and reach out; and also on collection, asking him to engage his hindquarters and support himself in a more powerful and concentrated “shortening” of his movement.  As he progresses in his training, these elements become increasingly more important – and difficult – in competition. 

At this point, Dutton spends two days per week on lessons over fences – small stuff mainly. Icabad Crane has jumped 2-foot-6 at Dutton’s winter base in Aiken, S.C.

“It’s about getting him confident and getting him understanding so he won’t be worried about jumping,” Dutton said. “Getting his what I call footwork going so when he comes to the jump he learns what to do so that I don’t have to help him so much; the jump holds him there and I just ride up to it.  And he’ll shorten up his stride if he needs to and pay attention to the jump rather than just trying to get to the other side of it.  I want him to think about it a lot, so there are different kinds of gymnastic exercises for that.”

Dutton has been able to introduce Icabad Crane to cross country and its more natural, organic tests – water, ditches, banks, etc.  – still in a very gradual way so that nothing is too much for him to handle at this stage.

“He’ll have one day during week where it’s just a relaxed walking, trotting, hacking kind of day,” Dutton said. “I’m so impressed with this horse’s work ethic.  He likes to be ridden, he likes to go and do stuff, even if it’s something he’s a bit wary of.  He hasn’t been a big fan of water; each day he sucks back but he knows he can do it, and I respect him for that because that’s one thing that worries him.  And every horse has some little phobia that they’re not sure of.  So we’re gradually getting him to understand that the water is something he can trust me on and doesn’t need to get worried about.”

On tap next is a dry run at a smaller, local competition just to get him used to the sights and sounds.  Dutton’s fully prepared for “a little flashback to racing” but wants to give the horse the chance to feel confident that getting on the van and heading off to a horse show is not a stressful ordeal. 

Dutton is aboard for all of Icabad Crane’s education over jumps, but two working students help out with schooling.  And not surprisingly, Dutton confirms that the New York-bred gelding is the most popular horse in the barn – much like he was in his earlier career.

– Story by Maggie Kimmitt


More stuff on Icabad Crane’s Facebook page (no, he doesn’t really post).