From racing to riding... the training diary of an off the track Standardbred

What is a Standardbred?

The Standardbred is an American breed, and relatively new at less than two hundred years old. Originally developed to be an all-around family and farm horse, the Standardbred had to be sturdy and well-mannered. They would work the farm during the week, take the family to church on Sundays, and occasionally, race the neighbors on the weekends. Racing was a very casual affair until the 1870s or so, when the National Trotting Association (replaced in 1939 by the US Trotting Association) was formed. The name "standard bred" came into use at this point, as horses were bred to be able to trot a mile in the standard of 2 minutes, 30 seconds -- averaging a speed of about 24 mph. The mile has always been the standard length, and to this day very few American harness races are not held at that distance.

About 99% of all Standardbreds can trace their history back to a single foundation sire, Hambletonian 10. Downhill, ugly, and time-trialed only once, "Hambo" nevertheless was impressive enough to sire 1331 foals, which were known for their speed in harness. As the time was the only qualifying characteristic, the breed grew vast roots -- Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds, Morgans, and all other kinds of horses were mixed together to make faster, cleaner-gaited horses. If it could trot, it was registered and bred. In those early days, pacers were around but not as common or popular, because even though they were faster than trotters their rocking gait could be awkward to drive and didn't look as nice when stepping out around town. These days about 85% of all Standardbreds in America are pacers, though the trotters tend to be the majority in other countries.

In the foundation sire's honor, the Hambletonian race for 3-year-old trotters is held every August in East Rutherford, NJ. Preceded by a weeklong Hambletonian Festival, this race is the harness world's version of the Kentucky Derby, and only the Little Brown Jug for pacers rivals its prestige.

Thoroughbred racing has always been the "Sport of Kings," but harness racing was the "Everyman's Sport." Thoroughbreds were for wealthy businessmen and sheikhs, but everyone knew
someone with a Standardbred. For all the grace and class of Thoroughbreds, they didn't get much faster. Harness racing was exciting because every year, the records would get lower and lower, and going to the track meant you might see history made. At one point there were more harness racing fans than baseball fans in the US. Popular songs like "Camptown Races," "Jingle Bells," and "Old Gray Mare" were all written about Standardbreds. But with the development of the car, Standardbreds and other working horses became less and less prevalent, and it wasn't until after the Great Depression in the 1930s that harness racing began to pick up speed again -- literally.

Today, the world record for a trotted mile is 1:49.3, and 1:46.4 for pacers. That's nearly 35 mph, which means that since harness racing was standardized, the horses have increased their top speed by 10 mph. Because of their amazing speed and even temperament, other countries began to import American Standardbreds to improve their trotting and carriage stock -- including French and Russian Trotters. Stateside, they were used to develop other homegrown breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse. Pacers have become more popular in North America, now making up about 85% of the Standardbreds in race training.

Physically, most Standardbreds resemble stockier, longer-backed Thoroughbreds, averaging around 15.2 hh. Because of their mixed heritage, though, Standardbreds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from 14 to over 17 hands. They can frequently be mistaken for other breeds such as Quarter Horses, Arabians, Saddlebreds, and Warmbloods. While bay and brown are the most dominant colors (both due to genetics and superstition amongst the racing folks), they are also found in black, chestnut, gray, and roan, with pinto variations gaining some popularity outside of the US. They are hearty horses, commonly living into their 30s, and before the USTA made it mandatory for horses to retire at age 15, many horses would continue racing and winning into their late teens and 20s.

                                     (Bionic Woman)
Sadly, most people don't recognize the Standardbred as anything but a harness horse these days. Their natural athleticism and eagerness to please still make them great family riding and driving horses, although they need some transitioning if they have been on the track. They don't tend to run as "hot" as other racing breeds, but they need to adjust to life in the slow lane, and the cues and equipment that go with being a riding or pleasure driving horse. One pacing mare, Bionic Woman, failed miserably on the track, but competed in show jumping at the World Cup in the late 70s-early 80s. Another famous show jumper, Halla, was a French Trotter/Standardbred cross and remains the only horse to ever win three Olympic gold medals. On a much more familiar level, Standardbreds off the track have found successful homes doing trail riding, dressage, eventing, endurance, barrel racing, saddleseat, polo, and pleasure driving. If you name it, a Standardbred can do it!

*All credit for the information goes to, I found all the pictures on*

For more information, check out the USTA's website at