Overall Horseman Of The Year: John Crandell

Jan 30, 2008 - 10:00 PM

This endurance rider has gone from one strength to another over the past two years, with major titles on horses he’s produced himself.

As 2005 drew to a close, John Crandell III looked ahead to the next year’s endurance calendar and saw
a perfect storm brewing in the racing schedule.

“The timing of three major events was such that they could all be done by one horse, and I knew I had that horse,” he said.

He proved that he did, indeed, have that horse, as he and Heraldic scored a trifecta that had never been accomplished before.

“You always want to match or better the achievements of your mentors. Matthew Mackay-Smith had won the Tevis Cup [Calif.] and Old Dominion [Va.] rides the same year, and I did one better and did the AERC [Championships] too.”

Although soft spoken and not one to dwell on his wins, Crandell clearly cherishes that triple victory of three of the nation’s most challenging 100-mile rides. In fact, there’s no one win that holds too much significance to Crandell. He takes pride in the consistency he’s cultivated.

“Anyone can win occasionally,” he said. “I never go into a race saying, ‘I have to win.’ That’s when you can get reckless with your horse. I’m proud of putting together consistent good wins, and I measure that over time.”

The major wins that he’s scored aren’t by accident, though—they are some of the most meaningful tests to Crandell. “The Tevis is still the classic endurance challenge and meaningful comprehensive test of being a good horseman,” he said. “The Old Dominion is similar—it’s a very technically challenging course. There are chances to run but also mountains; there’s good footing and rocky footing. By the time you’ve completed the day, everything about being a good horseman has been tested.”

While 2006 exceeded his expectations, Crandell planned a lighter year for Heraldic in 2007—but doing so allowed him to focus even more on each of the few races he ran. As a result, he blew away course records with his wins at Fort Howes (Mont.) and the AERC National Championships, held at Arabian Nights (Idaho).

“The way I’m driven, I’m out there for the test because I enjoy the test and the challenge. Whether I beat other people and win is not the goal. I’m more free of the distraction of being competitive. A lot of people shoot themselves in the foot to think of it as beating someone else,” he said.

Mackay-Smith, of White Post, Va., has known Crandell for 40 years, and he emphasized Crandell’s horsemanship over his competitiveness.

“Winning comes well down on the list of his needs. He’s very anxious to get the best possible performance from his horse on the day that is consistent with the horse’s continuing development and safety,” said Mackay-Smith
But Crandell is always looking for new goals, and for the first time, as 2008 begins, he’s on the path to making an international team.

A Family Tradition

Distance riding formed the focus of family outings for the Crandells when John was young. His father John Crandell Jr. and mother Linda breed Arabians, and their sons John, Jay and Jeffrey all rode, based at a farm near Annapolis, Md.

Crandell Jr., who owns a marine construction business, has competed extensively in endurance, having logged 4,320 miles in 52 rides, including completing the Tevis Cup.

Despite his heavy genetic background in horses, Crandell was on the path to becoming a molecular biologist, studying at the University of Maryland, when he was sidetracked by a summer job.

“I’d been doing long tours across the United States with endurance horses, and I wanted to be less dependent on finding a good farrier,” he said. “I thought it would be useful to at least know how to fix something.”

A summer course in horseshoeing had him hooked, and he’s been a professional farrier for 20 years. “It just kind of happened to me; I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “It’s physically demanding and intellectually challenging.”

But juggling his career as a farrier with his family and sport hasn’t been easy.

With the help of friends, Crandell built his own house on 68 acres of mostly wooded land in a carefully selected spot adjoining the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Star Tannery, Va., almost within sight of the West Virginia line. From his back door, he can ride over one of the largest blocks of public land in the Eastern United States. He started the project in 1995, but it was several years before he had enough fencing for his horses, and he’s currently overseeing work on a new barn.

With his son now in high school and his farm mostly completed, he decided a few years ago that the timing wasn’t going to get any better for pursuing his passion. With the growing commitment to his sport has come a transition from less time practicing as a farrier and more time as a trainer.

“I’ve finally had enough latitude these past few years to exercise my skills and challenge myself and apply what I’ve learned all these decades,” he said.

His wife Ann and son John Yancey support his efforts, crewing for him at most races—in fact, he met Ann at a race in North Carolina. And many of his races turn into family trips.

“Almost all our travels are dictated by endurance, but we make time for family stuff in between,” said Crandell, who has combined trips out West with visiting family over the past three years.

If he had time, said Crandell, he’d love to sail more, on the boat he keeps in Maryland. “But I’m having so much fun with [endurance]. There are zero degrees of separation between my profession and my hobby—it all runs together.”

An International Perspective

Crandell began professionally training horses in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in 1999-2000.

“[The UAE] involvement sparked off the concept of professional-level endurance riding with large, managed stables and professional staff,” said Crandell. “There had been none in the world before, and now it’s spreading rapidly. It’s a new direction and development in the sport. Now they are setting the standard.”

The international market has driven up the price of competitive endurance horses, which Crandell said is the only real source of money for Americans in the sport and which he’s taken advantage of, selling a horse or two every few years.

“We’re inventing and establishing the sport [in the United States], and only a few of us are trying to do it professionally here,” he said. “We’re having to invent our own models.”

While Crandell would like to see more public awareness of the sport, he believes it’s good that publicity hasn’t occurred just yet, not until veterinary systems within the sport catch up to the pace of development in the rest of the sport.

“[Endurance] does have so much to give us in improving our natural understanding of animals and guiding our philosophies in the way we consider them,” he said. “It has the potential to be the greatest thing that could happen to horses, or it could fall sour if it isn’t managed properly. I would like to see endurance become more a part of the equestrian world. I hope more people can learn to see and enjoy what I do.”

Crandell would love to see high-profile achievements be awarded in a series of events rather than any one particular contest. “If too much is at stake in any one event, you are inherently fighting against getting reckless,” he said. “You can’t afford to be reckless over a series—nobody is lucky very long.”

He sees team competitions much like a series of events within one day. “You have to ride well, but you have to be conservative to finish three riders out of four and have a 75 percent completion rate,” he said. “It’s a very meaningful test.”

A Love Of The Horse

The lure of endurance riding, for Crandell, is its test of his equestrian skills.

“It takes a comprehensive skill set as a horse and horseman, and you’re only going to do as well as your weakest aspect as a horseman. You have to balance your equestrian skills, physiological understanding, shoeing and horse savvy,” he said. “There’s no sense being good at conditioning the horse if he’s not soft on the bit, or if you can’t keep shoes on him.”

Mackay-Smith believes that Crandell epitomizes the definition of a complete horseman.

“John is perfectly willing to take five years to take a horse from first acquiring it to the top,” he said. “He is extraordinarily patient and is wonderfully respectful of horses. He will often give a horse two or three months off for what people would say is no apparent reason, but the clues he observes tell him that is the most he’s going to get without taking a higher risk. He has a remarkable capacity to know what a horse needs to do next and how many competitions he needs to do without demand before moving up to more strenuous levels.”

For Crandell, the love of endurance hasn’t extended to the politics involved in any elite sport. “I just want to go and have a valid self test, and I don’t care too much what else happens,” he said. “I try to avoid situations where politics matter.”

But he now finds himself in the middle of team contention, a new berth for him.

“The U.S. team has had a hard time figuring out how to be democratic and competitive,” he said. “Our skills and horses are still competitive, but pulling together as a team has been a complex process for us.

“I haven’t been a big presence on the team because of the choice of burning out your horse or making the team. I always said I can’t make it a goal unless it happens easily, otherwise you start getting into writing checks your horse can’t cash.”

Crandell hasn’t rushed, hasn’t overcommitted and hasn’t compromised his own goals for each horse. As a result, he still finds the same splendor in the sport as he did when he started.

“It’s a beautiful sport, and there’s tremendous validity in what it can do for mankind’s understanding of animals. When you endurance race, you realize most other disciplines with the horse are just a testing of a very small sector and tangential aspect of what it means to be a horse.

“Endurance is a fundamental essay of what it means to be a horse—it’s testing on a horse’s terms and definition,” he added. “Horses developed over eons because they found a niche in the extreme efficiency and motility they have. For centuries more, man has capitalized on that. But you haven’t examined or appreciated their abilities with a test that lasts a few moments. Huge distances are what have defined their shape. [Endurance] tests the fundamental, core identity of what it means to be a horse.”

Mackay-Smith said Crandell could happily spend hours and hours talking about the most arcane and minute details about horses and how they function. “He’s a profound student of horses,” said Mackay-Smith. “He’s always been curious and attentive.”

That careful thought and preparation carries over to his competitions.

“His whole management of an event is so smooth and subtle and so well thought out,” added Mackay-Smith. “He can average 11 to 12 miles per hour. Other horses are not necessarily lesser beasts, but they don’t have the competitive management that John brings, and it isn’t anything you can see.”

While making a top endurance horse, one that is capable of winning the Tevis Cup or any other major ride, is a daunting undertaking, Crandell loves the process.

“I’m just driven by the pleasure of something you feel is valuable and significant to the continuation of the species, and maybe you learn something about yourself in the process,” he said.

“He has a talent and application that allows him to take very good horses and do phenomenal things with them,” said Mackay-Smith. “Whether other people will catch up with him, I don’t know. He and the horse together are a centaur—they are as one creature. There have been very few of them in any discipline.”

As one of the top candidates for the 2008 World Championships, next year is looming even larger for Crandell.

“We’ve had a wonderful last few years, and I feel like we’re still climbing,” he said. “The next few years look better as a whole. I don’t have time to think back, there’s too much ahead right now—helping other people, promoting the sport and seeing what my own stable can do.”

The Challenges Of Heraldic

John Crandell III’s most famous endurance partner—winner of the 2006 Tevis Cup, 2006 AERC Championships (where he was best condition), 2006 Old Dominion, 2007 Fort Howes (where he was best condition) and 2007 AERC Championships—has also been the hardest to develop.

“I’m not sure if I had him 15 years ago that we’d be able to accomplish what we did with him,” said Crandell. “Some of the things that make him a great horse make him complex. If you manage him physically, he has no limitations: he can do a fast course or a slow course, a mountainous course or a flat course. He is a world-class performer under any circumstances.

“Another horse could match him speed-wise or in the mountains, but overall he doesn’t have a weak link.”
Crandell’s father, John Crandell Jr., found the 10-year-old gelding (by Statistic) as a 2-year-old at Asgard Arabians in Sinks Grove, W.Va., and selected him based on the way he moved.

“As a 2-year-old, he was all gangly, but he stood out in the herd because he moved so crisp. He had strikingly strong, efficient movement,” said Crandell.

He was intended to be for Crandell Jr., not Crandell III, but when Crandell Jr. was injured on his job, breaking his hip badly, he was passed on to Crandell III.

“It took my dad several years to recover,” said Crandell. “We might have never noticed Heraldic [if we’d waited for my father to ride him]. His prime would have come and gone.”

Despite the miles he’s accumulated, Heraldic is still not an easy case. “You won’t get a rope around his neck without having horse savvy,” said Crandell. “He’s an extremely sensitive horse, very sharp and ambitious and sometimes has a bit of a temper. He’s a very strong-willed animal. We take pride in developing very disciplined horses, but you still don’t change his will—you do what you can with it.”

Heraldic’s Russian lineage comes through in his body and mind, said Crandell. “He’s more racing conscious—he absolutely knows why he’s there, intuitively and instinctually. Part of the challenge is rating him while he’s in an exciting, stimulating environment that wakes up everything in his nature.

“He has to be in this exciting situation and stay with you; he has to depend on you to set the pace and not screw up his movement by being too rough doing it—that’s been the crux of the challenge with Heraldic. His instincts are very strong in his mind, more than any other horse I’ve had, and that is a product of the Russian program, which is race-driven.”

Crandell has had some significant offers for Heraldic. He almost sold him, but the deal became too politically inflamed. “There was a conflict between some powerful people, and I didn’t want to be in the middle,” he said with a laugh.

He doesn’t have any specific plans for the horse for next year. “He doesn’t have a lot he has to prove to anyone,” said Crandell. “It would be an honor to ride him in the World Championships next year in Malaysia, but it doesn’t have to be him.”

The Crandell Stable

THREE experienced 100-mile horses: Heraldic, a 10-year-old, Russian Arabian; HH Saba Shams, a 9-year-old homebred; and Rammit, a buckskin half-Arabian by Moyle Apple Cider.

TWO others nearly at the top level: Melika, a 10-year-old mare; Bold McCoy, 9.

FIVE others he expects to reach the top level within a year.

The horses are raised at John Crandell III’s parents’ farm in Maryland but stay with Crandell in Virginia when they are more developed and to take advantage of the terrain at his disposal. His parents still start the horses, most of which are homebred, by their 28-year-old stallion, Bold Soldier. They also stood a stallion, Moyle Apple Cider, from a cattle company in Idaho owned by Rex Moyland.

Crandell might do some competing when the horses are 5 but no hard racing, and at the age of 6, he’s still careful how much he asks of them.

“It takes a lot of biding time and being really patient and objective about when to start asking more,” he said.

Personal Profile

Home: Star Tannery, Va.

Family: Wife Ann, son John Yancey Crandell. Other family members involved in endurance include his parents, John Crandell Jr. and Linda Crandell; brother Jeffrey Crandell and his wife Kathleen Crandell.

Organizational Involvement: AERC Board of Directors; member of APEX Board (group that organizes clinics for clubs). “I really felt like we [at APEX] were helping people understand horses better,” said Crandell.

Age: 45.

Advantages: Crandell believes his farrier skills have given him a leg up on the competition. “This sport will challenge your concepts of how to manage good, healthy hooves to an extreme detail,” he said. “I have the ability to keep much closer management on my horses’ hooves.”
Personality: “I have never seen him lose his temper with a horse or anyone around him even though the situation may be exacerbating,” said Matthew Mackay-Smith. “He has enormous physical courage and great clarity of thought under trying circumstances.”

Career Highlights

2007
1st—AERC National Championship (Idaho)
2nd—Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) and winner of the Haggin Cup for best condition (Calif.)
1st and best condition—Fort Howes (Mont.)
3rd—Fun In The Sun (Fla.)

2006
1st and best condition—AERC National Championship (Va.)
2nd—Northwind Challenge (Canada)
1st—Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) and winner of Haggin Cup (Calif.)
1st—Old Dominion and winner of Old Dominion Trophy for best condition (Va.)
1st and best condition—Michaux Madness 75 (Pa.)
1st and best condition—Goethe Challenge (Fla.)

2005
1st Lightweight Division—AERC National Championship (Mont.)

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