Everyone wants a horse that can handle its surroundings. Whether it's the hustle and bustle of the sales grounds, the energy-charged environment on race day, the controlled chaos of a horse show or simply hacking out in unfamiliar territory, a horse that doesn't lose its marbles and resort to “flight mode” when the unfamiliar or unexpected arises is one that will be easier to handle and more apt to find success in whatever is asked of them.
For more than 50 years, Clovis Crane and his family have made a career out of preparing their horses to handle whatever comes their way. At Crane Thoroughbreds in Lebanon, Penn., Crane and his team start between 200 and 300 horses under saddle each year, using simple tools, such as tarps and flags, and everyday equestrian activities, such as trail riding and arena flat work, to prepare Thoroughbreds not just for racing, but for life.
“Right now we have 93 horses at the house in various points in their training,” said Crane. “We've got the manure truck coming in every day, semis coming in and out to drop off shavings or feed, the blacksmith is here nearly every day. Plus, we've got two Eurocisers going, 13 round pens with horses playing around in them, 50 head of cattle, dogs, cats, goats. With so many horses at our farm and so much going on from day-to-day, there's a lot going on for them to see.”
In addition, the facilities at Crane Thoroughbreds include a covered arena with curtains rather than walls and a training track, situated near the farm's roadside frontage.
“We keep the curtains open on the arena, weather permitting, so the horses can see everything going on outside, and with the track next to the road, they have semis and Amish buggies going by constantly,” he said. “The horses learn that ‘hey, you have a job to do, no matter what else is going on around you.'”
Crane said his approach to horsemanship is based off of the hierarchy of nature. Horses are inherently herd animals and they often seek out the hierarchy of the herd, working to understand where they fit into it. Crane works to position himself at the top of the pecking order.
“It's the animal kingdom. You want each horse to be an individual and have confidence on their own and away from the herd, but you want them to be part of the pack. The human needs to be the head of the pack,” he said. “You don't have to be aggressive to show it, you just need to be in control. The people have to be the alphas and the animals have to follow.”
In addition to learning to overcome environmental distractions, the horses at Crane Thoroughbred enjoy a training regimen that prepares them not only for the sales or racetrack, but for life. While gaining individual lessons from their handlers and riders, they often work in groups of three to five horses, adding the familiarity of the herd into their lessons. During these formative lessons, the horses learn to bend, flex, give to the bridle, leg yield and back up.
“We do a lot more foundational work than just left, right and forward, and I think the horses end up not just more balanced, but knowing a bit more about what they're being asked,” he said. “We use tarps and flags to get them used to noise and learn to not be scared of something unfamiliar. I personally think it's impressive that when something rattles or shakes and a horse doesn't spook at it. Those lessons will help them their whole lives.”
Several years ago Crane instituted “Trail Ride Fridays.” Rather than taking the horses to the track, he and his riders simply trail ride them once a week to give them new obstacles to navigate and a different environment to experience.
While the majority of the horses Crane gets in for training easily fit into a routine and are uncomplicated to start under saddle and work through his program, it's the 5 percent that aren't that have helped him earn a reputation as an expert horseman with a specialty for difficult or problem horses.
“I get a lot of horses with gate problems and it comes down to a lot of the same stuff,” he said. “Several years ago I was sent a horse who was extremely nervous, to the point it was preventing him from succeeding at the track. I started trail riding him every day before training, and he eventually went on to place in a Breeders' Cup race.”
In addition to breaking and training Thoroughbreds, Crane is accomplished in the rodeo ring as well, having claimed 11 different titles in barrel racing, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and all-around. He has competed the past several years in the Thoroughbred Makeover and has made it to the Finale (by placing in the top 5) in multiple disciplines. More recently, he has been learning the discipline of eventing with one of his daughters, schooling at Olympic eventer Boyd Martin's facility and working on his dressage in lessons with Alexa Derr. He plans to begin competing in eventing in 2019.
“Our family likes to give back to the Thoroughbreds,” said Crane. “We make our living off of them, so we like to take the time and do things with them [off the track], which costs quite a lot of money, but it's worth it because the Thoroughbreds are what allowed us to make that money in the first place.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Ky., and is the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and three off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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