The Standardbred

December 2008
From racing to trail riding, meet a versatile breed whose talent, heart and temperament make them the ideal choice.

Standardbreds are widely known for their speed and athletic ability, as seen in races at tracks across the country. Their captivating performances, heart and talent are admired and revered by racing enthusiasts and horse lovers everywhere. You may be surprised to learn that the Standardbred is a very versatile breed beyond the racetrack, excelling in everything from endurance and eventing to trail riding and pleasure driving.   

The origins of the Standardbred date back to an English Thoroughbred named Messenger, who was foaled in 1780. Messenger was exported to the United States and was the great-grandsire of Hambletonian 10, a horse that every Standardbred can trace its heritage back to. The early trotters were required to obtain a given standard for a mile in order to be registered, hence the name Standardbred.

Established less than 200 years ago, the Standardbred was originally known for bringing the sport of racing to the common man, first in

informal meets held on community roads and then later on established racetracks. As the breed evolved over time, racing became a valued part of American culture. Legendary performers like Dan Patch, Adios and Greyhound were revered as sports heros of the time.

Today, the Standardbred continues to evolve as a breed. They are becoming valued competitors in a variety of different disciplines. They resemble the Thoroughbred in appearance; however, they have longer bodies and more muscle, and are not as tall. They average in height between 15 and 16 hands and typically weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds. Bay, brown and black are the predominant colors, although it is not uncommon to see a roan or gray grace the fairways.

Beyond their physical attributes, their willing temperament and docile personality are truly what sets the Standardbred apart from other breeds. Those that are trained for racing compete as either trotters or pacers. Trotters travel in a diagonal gait, meaning that the right front and left rear legs move in unison and vice versa. Pacers move the legs on the same side of the body in tandem. The pace is the faster of the two gaits and is used by 80% of the horses in harness racing.

Typically Standardbreds begin racing as two- or three-year-olds, although the timing may vary depending on the horse and the trainer’s preference. Harness racing is most popular in the East and Midwest where top trotting races include the Peter Haughton Memorial for two-year-olds, the Hambletonian (both held at Meadowlands Racetrack, N.J.), the World Trotting Derby (DuQuoin State Fair, Ill.), the Yonkers Trot (Yonkers Raceway, Yonkers, N.Y.), and the Kentucky Futurity (The Red Mile, Ky.) for three-year-olds.

Top pacing races include the Woodrow Wilson, Meadowlands Pace (both held at Meadowlands Racetrack, N.J.), the Little Brown Jug (Delaware County Fairgrounds), the North American Cup (Mohawk Racetrack, Ontario) and the Adios for three-year-olds (The Meadows, Pa.).

The Standardbred industry is governed by the United States Trotting Association (USTA). The USTA was founded in 1939 to establish rules and guidelines for the harness racing industry. They are responsible for licensing officials and participants and for registering horses for breeding and racing purposes.

Standardbreds retired from racing and those that are not successful at the racetrack are often retrained for showing and pleasure. In recognition of the breed’s potential beyond the racetrack, the USTA developed the Standardbred Equine Program in 1996. The goal of the program is to recognize those who are using Standardbreds as pleasure horses through an annual High Point Awards Program. Additionally, the program connects people looking for off-the-track Standardbreds through various adoption programs across the country. The program also offers additional services including tips for successfully retraining them for other purposes.      

Unlimited Potential

Due to their extensive background on the track, Standardbreds are good candidates to retrain since they have already been exposed to many different factors that are a part of everyday life on the track. They are handled from an early age, accustomed to trailering and have experience working with many distractions around them.

There are several different organizations in the Northeast that are devoted to promoting the Standardbred as a pleasure horse. State chapters of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization in the Northeast exist in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Maine, in addition to numerous other groups that provide a network of owners, trainers and enthusiasts who work together to find new homes for retired racehorses.

Here in New England, Catherine and Mark Bouthillier are Standardbred breeders, owners and trainers that participate in both aspects of the business. They own six racehorses and are also heavily involved in placing Standardbreds in pleasure homes. Catherine is the secretary of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Massachusetts and works as a liasion between the trainers at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, Mass., and prospective Standardbred owners.

When asked about their success in different disciplines, Catherine explains the importance of their willing temperament and correct conformation. They are trainable, level-headed horses that are people-friendly. She notes that trotting horses are generally sought after by those in search of a horse with jumping or dressage potential.

On the other hand, former pacers are also well suited to endurance, eventing and trail riding. Catherine takes great joy in seeing the retired racehorses embark on a second career, oftentimes with junior riders or with people who are new to the breed. One of her top former trotters, Lights Out, who retired at age 6, is now the mount and a former whipper-in horse with new owner Karen Fleming-Brooks in fox hunting. Her retired mare “Tres Belle” also fox hunted and was her mount when she and her riding partner won the New England Hunter Pace Series a few years ago. They and countless other horses provide an example of the versatility of the breed.  

Standardbred owner Carolyn Burgess of Jasper, Texas, explains firsthand why the breed excels in endurance riding. “Standardbreds are my breed of choice for endurance,” she explains, “They have a lot of the good qualities of Arabians. They are trained to be athletes, have low resting heart rates, stamina and can go for miles.”

Carolyn’s two off-the-track pacers, Ruok and Rare Rash, are proving this theory true. Carolyn and Ruok have logged some 800 competitive trail riding (CTR)/endurance miles together. At the age of sixteen, he shows no signs of slowing down. “He has the most amazing, ground-covering trot. His slow speed trot is about 12 mph, and people are amazed to see him move out on the trail,” Carolyn explains.

At the University of Maine, Standardbreds are used in the Equine Program for training, breeding and research in addition to the school’s drill team. The majority of the students that enter the program haven’t worked with Standardbreds in the past. One part of the program involves retraining former racehorses that are donated to the University of Maine. Students and professional trainers work with the horses closely for a two-year period before offering them for sale to a new home. They are trained for pleasure riding and driving, as well as showing since the versatility of the breed allows them to excel in many different disciplines. Proceeds from the sales go back into the program. By the time the students finish retraining the prospects, many of them express interest in and actually end up purchasing the horse for their own use.

Norinne H. Daly, Adjunct Professor of Equine Studies in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Maine, notes that there is always a need for good homes; there is never a shortage of owners looking to place horses, especially at this time of year, when the racing season is coming to a close. She, too, recognizes their versatility, stating “I consider them to be the gold standard versatile horse for the pleasure field—while also being a racing owner and loving that part of their lives as well.”

Keep in mind that Standardbreds that are available aren’t necessarily injured or flawed. Many times they are simply not earning enough money or cannot adjust to the lifestyle at the track. Regardless of whether you are in search of a pleasure or show prospect, consider a Standardbred. With the right training and guidance, this versatile, even-tempered breed is more than just a suitable mount—they are a valuable partner.

Categories: Feature Articles