Standardbred is a breed of trotting or pacing horse developed in the United States which is noted for its speed and stamina. Standardbreds are used almost exclusively in harness racing, and is now raced worldwide. Some famous Standardbred racers include Dan Patch, Albatross, Cardigan Bay (the first million dollar winner), Armbro Flight, Niatross, Cam Fella and Somebeachsomewhere.

History of the Standardbred Horse

The name ‘Standardbred’ originates to the time when horses were registered in Wallace’s American Trotting Register, first published in 1871, if they could meet certain speeds, such as trotting a mile in two and a half minutes. This was the ‘standard’ and so the term Standardbred means they are progeny of horses that have, at one point in their lineage, met that time/distance minimum standard.

The trotting registry was started due to a failure of thoroughbred people to accept the style of the American Stud Book set up by John Wallace. This led to the formation of the Standardbred horse breed.

Standardbreds can trace their bloodlines to a grey Thoroughbred foaled in the UK in 1780 named Messenger. This stallion was imported to the United States in 1788, siring a number of champion flat racing horses. His great-grandson, Hambletonian, born in 1849, is now considered to be the foundation sire of the Standardbred breed.

Hambletonian (1849–76), was one of the best Thoroughbred racehorses to have ever lived, having won all of his race starts, except one. His victories included two Doncaster Cups in the late 1790s and the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster in 1795. One year later, at York, Hambletonian lost his only race to the Kentucky Derby winner, Spread Eagle, after running off the course.

Standardbreds are either ‘pacing bred’ or ‘trotting bred’ and for racing purposes the type of breeding dictates whether the Standardbred will be a trotter or pacer, however, there have been exceptions to this rule. The majority of Standardbreds in Western Canada are ‘pacing bred’ or what is generally referred to as Pacers. Eastern Canada tends to have more Trotters. In 1879, the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders established standards to decide which horses would be allowed into the Trotting Register. One of the rules stated that a stallion was required to trot a mile in 2:30 or faster (or 2:35 pulling a cart) which led to the term Standardbred. Hambletonian’s progeny were the first to meet the regulations of this new breed.

Being the World’s fastest trotting / pacing horse, the Standardbred is primarily used for harness racing.  Chelsea Chase photo

How to identify a Standardbred horse?

Standardbreds tend to have heavier, more muscular bodies than Thoroughbreds. They have refined heads with a straight profile, broad foreheads, large nostrils, well-defined withers, strong shoulders and muscular, solid legs capable of producing long strides. They range in height from 14-17 hands and are most often bay, brown or black, although chestnut, gray and roan are also seen.

Standardbreds race in one of two gaits: the trot (where the legs move in diagonal pairs) or the pace (a two-beat lateral gait). They possess exceptional stamina and a competitive nature when racing, but are otherwise well-tempered and more placid than Thoroughbreds.

How fast is a Standardbred racehorse?

48.3 km/hr is how fast the legendary trotter Lee Axworth was going to complete a mile-long course in one minute and fifty eight seconds. The American Museum of Natural History website relates how Lee Axworthy was the first horse in history to trot a mile (1.6 kilometers) in less than two minutes. That means he had an average speed of just over 48 km/hr or about 30 miles per hour. An ordinary horse gallops at about the same speed.

What is a Standardbred horse used for?

Being the fastest trotting/pacing horse in the world, the Standardbred is primarily used for harness racing in many countries including North America, Europe, and Australasia, both pulling a cart called a sulky and under saddle.

More and more people are enjoying Standardbreds for pleasure riding, cattle penning, ranch work, competitive trail riding, barrel racing, endurance riding, even western and english flat classes. They are often seen being driven as light buggy horses by the Amish and Mennonites, or shown in hunter/jumper, eventing and even dressage. A French Trotter/ Standardbred cross named Halla, ridden by German Hans Günter Winkler, won three Olympic gold medals in show jumping. With time and patience, the Standardbred’s attitude and temperament make them willing partners in any equine endeavor you may attempt.

Standardbreds are also ridden for pleasure, used for ranch work, driven as light buggy horses by the Amish, or shown in hunter/jumper, eventing and even dressage.

What is Standardbred Racing?

Standardbred racing is horseracing with Standardbred horses and at a prescribed gait. Here in Canada the term Standardbred Racing means ‘harness racing’ and that’s generally done with trotters pulling a two-wheeled cart called a sulky which is piloted by a driver. In other parts of the world such as Europe and less frequently in Australia and New Zealand, there are Standardbred Races with jockeys riding on saddled trotters.

What do Standardbred horses eat?

Standardbreds work harder than most other horse breeds and so they need to eat a quality diet. Trotters and pacers have different nutritional needs than galloping Thoroughbreds or sprinting Quarter Horses. Animals in harness have to work harder than racers with saddles and jockeys; studies have shown that Standardbreds exert as much as twelve times more effort when hauling sulkies than a thoroughbred horse. Also they are raced, on average, about three times more often than Thoroughbreds. Additionally, Standardbreds must maintain their speed longer than galloping horses in a typical harness race, requiring higher overall levels of fitness and stamina.

Standardbred horses should receive high-quality grass, hay or haylage (grass cuttings wrapped in plastic soon after harvesting to maintain nutrients). The extra calories needed to fuel the performing standardbred horse are usually supplied by straight cereal grains such as oats, corn, and barley. The main fuel source in cereal grains is starch. Starch is the dietary energy source of choice for glycogen synthesis.

Standardbreds should also have access to a basic salt block as well as a mineral supplement lick to fulfill their mineral intake needs.

Are Standardbreds good horses for beginners?

While new and inexperienced riders may find it difficult to balance themselves properly during the strong trot or pacing gaits of the Standardbred, the kind and manageable temperament of the breed can make them a reasonable choice as long as they have been made accustomed to being ridden and their progress is well-supervised by a riding coach.

Standardbreds are good-natured and willing horses for experienced riders and especially for driving singly or in teams. They’re adaptable and when purchased after they retire from the track, they’re knowledgeable and have already been exposed to a many diverse experiences. Standardbred racers that are four or five years old are familiar with all types of grooming and bathing. They’ve worn boots, blankets and bandages, and they’ve had different types of therapies and treatments. They’ve been attended to by vets and farriers. Because of these life lessons, retired Standardbred horses tend to be brave and confident. In addition, they’ve worn a harness, which makes teaching them to adapt to a saddle easier, and they already know how to steer and stop.

How long do Standardbreds live?

Twenty five years is average lifespan for a domesticated horse in Canada, but many Standardbred horses live for more than thirty years and some even longer depending on their level of care and exercise. In fact, extreme old age can be hard to verify in Standardbred horses, and if livestock doesn’t have any identifying paperwork, or has changed owners a few times, a horse’s age can sometimes be just anyone’s guess.

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