Sometimes it seems that certain horse-rider combinations were just meant to be. Such was the case for Stephanie Church, editor-in-chief of The Horse magazine, and her sister, Sarah, video intern for The Blood-Horse, who will always cherish the good memories they had with their Thoroughbred ex-racer Icy Edge.
Stephanie and Sarah, who are both lifelong horsewomen , sat down with me the other day to reflect on all the good times they had over the years with Icy Edge, one of the last living foals of The Axe II, and the grandson of Mahmoud. Even at age 30, the roan gelding is spirited as ever, doing tricks for carrots, and living out the rest of his days at their family’s farm near Richmond, Va.
Icy Edge, who failed to even hit the board in 12 starts on the Northeast circuit, is yet another perfect example of a horse that could have been “thrown away” after his racing career, but instead, he found another niche on the show circuit and became an integral part of several people’s lives.
Thank you, Stephanie and Sarah for sharing Icy's story with us. It is truly a special one!
EM: How did you come to own this horse? Did you get him right off the track, or had he already been retrained as a show horse?
Stephanie: I was in Pony Club in the early 1990s, and I was observing the Eastern championships, and at the time I was looking for my next event horse. I was out on course watching cross country, and I saw this horse come through that was just phenomenal. He had a rider with bright red hair, so it was kind of memorable—a gray horse that looked really excited about what he was doing, and a really happy rider that was cheering him saying, ‘Good boy!’ after going over water jump. I thought, ‘That’s a great horse.’
Awhile later, I was back in the show management area and saw a sign up that said, ‘Look for this horse, he’s for sale.’ I called, and went to look at him, and he was out of our price range.
So I bought another horse named Bluegrass that I had for a year. He had some issues with jumping, so we decided to sell him, and we checked and Icy was still for sale, and they dropped the price for us, because they knew he would have such a good home. These sisters had owned him and evented him through the preliminary level. He was a horse that had a history of Pony Club and eventing and he was kind of well-known in the northern Virginia region. The sisters were going off to college and wanted to make sure he had a good home.
When we went to see him the second time, he was in his stall, and managed to go under the stall guard and escape. The owner spent 15 or 20 minutes trying to catch him. My mom was like, ‘Why do we want this horse?’ But he was just being silly; he’s kind of a clown and has a great personality and is just getting into stuff all the time.
Stephanie, Icy Edge, and his "girlfriend," Honey
EM: Had you ridden Thoroughbreds prior to Icy Edge, and what’s different about competing on a Thoroughbred as compared to other show horse breeds?
Stephanie: Sarah and I both started out with a base of hunter/jumpers. I switched to eventing when I was 12 or 13 with a Welsh/Thoroughbred/Arabian cross. Sarah got into Pony Club eventing when she was seven or eight, so she got an earlier start than I did. The other horses we rode through the years included Welsh ponies, Thoroughbred crosses, Quarter Horses, Paints, and Appaloosas.
Icy is a horse that moves…you put your leg on him and he moves. He loves his job. The horse I had before him had a bit of confidence problem; we had a few tumbles. So Icy was perfect to build my confidence back; I think maybe he stopped at two jumps the whole time I rode him over the years.
But he was very solid at cross country, confident. He was what we would call a ‘cross country machine.’ You would get him at a pace, and he would just keep it. The horse is enthusiastic. You’d take him in the starting box for cross country, and he would almost be doing levitations above the ground because he was so excited. He would get to the point where he would squeal at the back of his throat… he loved his job so much.
Not only was he a big jumper and eventer, but he also excelled in dressage. They have dressage rallies at Pony Club as well, and one year we did a musical ride, and we chose songs that went with his gaits. They were songs from "Hill Street Blues," "M.A.S.H.," and "St. Elmo’s Fire." We choreographed (our routine) to them, and he loved it so much. He would anticipate the movements, and he seemed to enjoy the music, and he was always in time with the music and had a blast. He knew his job, and was always very enthusiastic about it.
Sarah: Once at a show, he was dressed up as a unicorn, and we practiced with it, and it was fine and didn’t bother him at all. But we got into the arena, and down one side they had mirrors. He literally turned, looked at himself, and flipped out.
I could not get him to calm down, so my teammates came out and cut the unicorn (horn) off his bridal. The rest of the test, he had a lot of energy which was good. At that level, I wasn’t allowed to do any lateral movement. But in our diagonals, he did a half pass, and the judges said, ‘Oh, this is really good,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t really mean to do it.’ It went really well, and at the end, I took the wand that I had, and waved it in the air, and everyone started clapping and he started jigging again; he was so excited. He really takes on the excitement of the crowd.
EM: What have been some of your other favorite experiences aboard Icy Edge and what were his best performances?
Sarah: We (competed) in the State Fair my senior year for 4-H, and it was held in Lexington, Va. We arrived 15 minutes before my class, and it was the highest we had jumped, and I was really nervous, and I could tell (Icy) was nervous too just being in a new place.
I hopped on and literally went over one warm up fence, and then it was time for us to go into the arena. I went in, and it was the first time I had ridden in a coliseum too. But Icy just took me over all those fences, and it was picture perfect. I don’t know how he did it; it was just amazing, and we won the division, so it was pretty good. He could teach you, but take care of you at the same time.
Stephanie: I wouldn’t say he was an easy horse to ride; he took some skill to ride, but he’s one of those horses that you just learned so much from.
The United States Eventing Association has areas across the country, and when we were in Area 2, we qualified for the championships around 1994, and he won. There were some competitors I didn’t know in this division, and it was pretty exciting to win that. We also came to Pony Club Nationals in 1995 in Kentucky. We had a great time; he was a phenomenal event horse.
Sarah: I took him to his last show in 2007. It was a combined test in the stadium, and he won that one. It was in the mountains near Radford, Va. and it was a lot of fun taking him there. They’re sort of isolated from the Pony Club, and they were all like, ‘Who is this horse?’ Nobody believed how old he was when I told them. They thought he was 18, but he was 27 at the time. He shows his age well.
EM: How is Icy Edge’s health condition in his old age?
Stephanie: He has clinical signs of EPM (abbreviation for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a neurological disease), but that’s one of those diseases that can be hard to diagnose. They treated him with several rounds of medication and he improved. He also has melanoma on the left side of his throat.
EM: What is your best advice for someone that is thinking of adopting an off-track Thoroughbred?
Stephanie: I think Icy was a horse that didn’t really want to be a racehorse. Horses off the track have some memories of what life was like on the track, and you want to make sure you carefully try different things with them and try them in a controlled situation. A lot of it is just taking your time with them, and finding out what they like to do. Each horse has its different personality, so you should just try things out until you figure out what they want to do in life.
Sarah: They definitely have a lot of potential; just the way they’re built. They’re light and hearty, and athletic.
Stephanie: A lot of them are very willing, and they’re sensitive and intelligent. We were fortunate to get a horse that already knew his job in life. It is fun to figure out what they’re job is going to be.
EM: Anything else to add about Icy Edge?
Sarah: During my senior year in high school, I did a science project where I taught all our horses the same set of tricks. Icy was the oldest, but he learned all the tricks the fastest and has kept them. He still does all of them to this day and will try all of them at once when you have a carrot. He knows how to bow, beg, nod yes, no, and he knows how to count.
Stephanie: (Laughing) So if he thinks you have a treat, he’ll start nodding his head, shaking it no, stomping his foot, then he bows. People are like, ‘What’s wrong with your horse?’
Left to Right: Sarah, Icy Edge, Stephanie