• Kimberly

The History of the Standardbred

First of all, welcome to our REINVENTING RACEHORSES blog! What once started out as a fun little podcast that got put aside; is now being rejuvenated in written form - our busy lives doesn't allow a lot of time for editing podcasts...and frankly, I can't handle listening to my own voice recordings HAH.


We will look to touch on not only general equine care topics, but also on specific topics around the Standardbred itself. Do you have a topic you want covered? Be sure to send us an email or leave us a Facebook message letting us know! All of the information we share is sourced via the world wide web, and is our own personal opinions. We always recommend that you follow the directions of your veterinarian, farrier and be certain to listen to your horse.

So let's dive in and learn about the Standardbred!


In 1867 the Trotting Registrar was created to record pedigrees of trotting horses, and in 1879, the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders agreed upon standards that would define the horses eligible to be listed in the Trotting Registrar. One of the rules was that a stallion was required to trot a mile in 2 minutes and 30 seconds or better, or 2 minutes and 35 seconds if they were hitched to a wagon. There was years of debate around what to name this new breed of trotting horses and the high standards around the requirements for registry is what led to the name that we call them today - the Standardbred.


All Standardbreds can trace their ancestry through a direct male line back to the imported stallion Messenger, an English Thoroughbred that was brought to America in 1788. The Standardbreds existence today all comes back to an oddly shaped grandson of Messenger, named Hambletonian.


Hambletonian's story is well documented and set the precedent for the Standardbred breed being a "horse for everyone" rather than just a rich person's sport. He was bought as a foal by his caretaker, who was an illiterate hired hand named Rysdyk, and he eventually made his owner large sums of money for the time. The offspring of Hambletonian were the first to meet the standards set by the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders. These include Dexter, the horse that you now see on every antique weathervane.

The first Standardbred races were contested on roads, when men would challenge each other to see who had the faster horse. Quite often, city streets would be cleared and spectators would gather to watch these races. Back then, it was mainly trotters however pacers began to gain acceptance when the sports first 2 minute mile was recorded in 1897 by a pacer named Star Pointer. Then one of the sports most popular horses, who brought pacing to the forefront, was Dan Patch. There was a strong Canadian influence in the new Standardbred breed, with sire like Pilot, Pilot Jr, and early pacers that were brought to America from Canada, like Copperbottom.


Harness racing flourished until World War I but then got put on the back burner until 1938 when pacer Billy Direct, and trotter Greyhound, set world records and brought popularity back to the sport. In 1940 a group of businessmen took what was a rural sport and brought it to New York City as a pari-mutuel activity. It took many years for the racetrack Roosevelt Raceway to make money, but the night time races quickly caught on across many more populated areas and firmly established itself as the harness racing we see across North America today.


Standardbreds tend to have heavier, more muscular bodies than the Thoroughbred. They are built with a refined head, straight profile, broad forehead, large nostril, strong shoulders and solid legs capable of producing long strides. Standardbreds can range from 14 to 17 hands and occasionally taller. They are most often bay, brown or black; although chestnut, grey and roan coat colours are also found. Racing Standardbreds have different nutritional needs than racing Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses. Studies have showed that Standardbred exert up to 12 times more effort hauling sulkies when racing than a Thoroughbred. They also on average race up to 3 times more often than Thoroughbreds do. Standardbreds are built and trained to have extremely high stamina and fitness when they are at peak performance. This also means that when they are done racing, their downtime for their bodies takes longer and requires a careful diet to help them transition from racing to riding and retirement.

Standardbred racing consists of two gaits, trotting and pacing. Trotters move with a diagonal gait; where the left front and right rear legs move together in unison, then right front and left rear. While the trotting gait is a natural gait for horses, it takes precision and training to get a trotter to move perfectly at high speeds. Pacing is when the legs on one side of the body move in tandem. Pacers are often aided with hopples, which help to keep their legs moving in synchronization. Standardbreds also will canter or gallop, however due to this being considered "off stride" in race, they are taught that if they go to that gait, they are pulled up until they return to their race gait.


What surprised you most about the history of the breed?

Do you prefer trotters or pacers?


All information is sourced through Standardbred Canada and the United States Trotting Association.


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