Standardbred

  • HEIGHT: 15–15.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Eastern North America
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Extremely fast trot or pace; excellent endurance and ability to tolerate work; tolerant, calm disposition.
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Harness racing, pleasure driving, and pleasure riding

The first horses to come to Massachusetts arrived in Boston from London in 1629. Six years later, a Dutch shipment of twenty-seven mares and three stallions arrived in Salem Harbor. These were sturdy, small horses averaging about 14.1 hands. The New Englanders preferred the Dutch horses over the English for general work because they were more heavily muscled and had heavier bone. The English horses, however, had good saddle qualities, unlike the Dutch horses. Because New England was heavily wooded with virtually no roads, horses were primarily ridden rather than driven.

In time, the two varieties were crossed and then selectively bred to produce a stout little horse that could pace long distances. In those days the pace, a two-beat gait in which the legs on each side of the horse move in unison, or the amble, in which the legs on each side move almost in unison, were the preferred gaits for riding horses because they were comfortable to sit.

Within thirty years, horses began to arrive in New England from Canada. Many of these were French-Canadians, a breed known for producing both pacers and trotters. Horse races in early Massachusetts were sometimes matches between trotters and/or pacers and sometimes between gallopers. These ridden races were held in secret, because the clergy condemned horse racing as the work of the devil. Court records from Salem and Plymouth in the 1630s document that those caught riding or even watching races were fined or sentenced to the pillory.

The Narragansett Pacer

In neighboring Rhode Island, which was settled in 1636, it was possible to hold horseback sports events openly because Governor Roger Williams advocated freedom of conscience. Over time, Rhode Island became a successful center of horse breeding, and by the 1670s, a good many of the best New England pacers were purchased and brought there as breeding animals.

From these roots of English, Dutch, and French-Canadian horses came the plain little Narragansett Pacer. This now extinct breed was for almost 150 years the most sought-after saddle horse in the Americas. These horses averaged about 14.1 hands, and they were usually sorrel.

Observers were not apt to call them good-looking or stylish, although James Fenimore Cooper left this rare description made from personal observation: “They have handsome foreheads, the head clean, the neck long, the arms and legs thin and tapered.”

The first American edition of the Edinburgh Encyclopedia reads, “The hindquarters are narrow and the hocks a little crooked, which is here called sickle hocks. . . . They are very spirited and carry both the head and tail high. But what is most remarkable is that they amble with more speed than most horses trot, so that it is difficult to put some of them upon a gallop.”

Horsemen considered them sure-footed, easy to ride, and dependable, and they soon became an everyman’s horse. Narragansett Pacers were famous beyond the colonies; in fact, so many were shipped to Cuba and other islands for use on sugar plantations that their numbers in North America fell dramatically. The utilitarian little Narragansetts disappeared forever as roads were improved, wheeled vehicles became widely used, and big, good-looking trotting horses became fashionable.

A stripe or star is usually the most white a Standardbred will have.

From this functional stock, however, came racehorses that both trotted and paced. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the racing of pacers under saddle was well established. Horse owner George Washington, a meticulous record keeper, noted that on August 29, 1768, he paid Robert Sanford twelve shillings to ride one of his pacers in a race.

The Influence of Messenger

The Revolutionary War halted the shipment of horses from England and also caused huge losses in the number of horses here, but as soon as the war was over, importations resumed. Racing history changed forever with the arrival of the gray Thoroughbred Messenger in Philadelphia in 1788. He won eight races and lost six; in two races, the opponent forfeited the purse rather than run against him.

Trotters and pacers do not compete against each other. The pace is slightly faster than the trot.

Although he competed in relatively few races, Messenger stood at stud for twenty years, producing six hundred foals. They were inclined to be large. Some were very good running horses, and surprisingly, some were superb trotters, known for exceptional speed, good form, and great competitiveness. Today Messenger is the ancestor of many of the best American Thoroughbreds. All Standardbreds trace back to him on the paternal side.

Historians believe that while the Thoroughbred added size and competitiveness to the Standardbred, even the great Messenger could not have been solely responsible for excellence in both the trot and the pace. That credit must be shared with the Canadian Horse, a breed known to produce those gaits. Credit also goes to the Morgan, which had several lines of great trotting horses that were frequently crossed in among other breeds to produce excellence at the trot.

Harness Racing

Harness racing began informally in this country when natural human competitiveness and a need for speed met opportunity, and this seems to have happened first on frozen rivers and lakes. Parish priests in the St. Lawrence Valley were voicing concern before 1700 about the dangers of horse and sleigh racing on frozen rivers on the way to and from Mass. The trot and the pace were probably selected for these races because they were marginally safer than the gallop on glare ice.

STANDARDBRED RACING

Standardbred racing is a major sport in much of Canada and on most of the East Coast of the United States, as well as in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, and California and elsewhere on the West Coast. Standardbreds also race in other countries, including England, Norway, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand, among many others.

The first records of harness races on land date from about 1806, although racing had obviously been going on for many years before becoming an organized sport. When Rysdick’s Hambletonian, a descendant of Messenger, was foaled in 1849 in New York, the sport received a huge boost. Although only lightly raced, he turned out to be the greatest progenitor of speed and gait in history. Almost all trotters and pacers today trace back to him.

Also foaled in 1849 was the influential Ethan Allen, a Morgan who at the age of eighteen set the world record for the trot by beating Dexter, a son of Rysdick’s Hambletonian. The fastest of their three one-mile heats was 2 minutes, 17 seconds, which is astonishing considering the condition of the tracks in those days and the size and weight of the vehicles they pulled.

Record Times

The popularity of racing finally mandated that a studbook be founded for trotting and pacing horses. When the book was established in 1871, the requirement for registration was that a horse must be able to trot or pace the mile in a standard time, which was then 2 minutes, 30 seconds (2:30) for the trot and 2:25 for the pace. Because they trotted or paced to a standard, the horses became known as Standardbreds.

Since that time, tracks and equipment have improved, as have selective breeding methods and training techniques, so the time for the mile has steadily decreased. The original standard is now considered to be training speed rather than racing speed. The current (2005) record on a one-mile track for the trot, set by three-year-old Tom Ridge, stands at 1 minute, 50.3 seconds (1:50.3). The present record for the pace on a one-mile track, set by five-year-old Cambest, is 1:46.1.

Although it was common in the early days for pedigrees to allow horses that both trotted and paced, lines have long since developed that produce almost exclusively one type or the other. Trotters and pacers no longer race against each other. In general, the pace is slightly faster than the trot.

Breed Characteristics

Today Standardbreds are almost exclusively used as racehorses, although their generally calm disposition makes them excellent pleasure horses, and their ability to tolerate work makes them the breed of choice as Amish buggy horses. They are commonly used for pleasure driving and occasionally even for foxhunting in the Midwest. A number of organizations promote the use of Standardbreds as pleasure horses after they complete their racing careers.

Conformation

The Standardbred’s average height is between 15 and 15.3 hands, but some individuals are well above or below this average. The head is not as refined as the Thoroughbred’s; the profile is often straight or slightly convex. Quite a few horses are plain-headed. The nostrils are capable of considerable extension, allowing generous air intake at racing speed. Particularly in some lines of trotters, the ears are inclined to be very long. The neck is usually somewhat shorter and straighter than in Thoroughbreds.

Generally more heavily muscled than Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds also have a longer body with a flatter rib cage. The quarters slope more than do the Thoroughbred’s, and the muscles of the quarters, especially in the thighs, are long and powerful. The length of the muscles in the thighs and quarters combined with the extra slope in the quarters give the breed its great forward movement at racing speed.

After its racing career, this foal may well go on to a career as a pleasure driving or trail horse.

Color

The predominant colors are bay, brown, and black, with minimal white on the face or lower legs. Mane and tail are usually thick and long. Chestnuts, roans, and grays exist but historically have not been favored by breeders or trainers, although one of the most famous horses in the breed’s history, Greyhound, was gray, as was one of the top sires in recent history, Laag.

Standardbreds usually have longer bodies than Thoroughbreds do.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the United States Trotting Association (founded in 1939):

• 750,000 horses are currently registered.

• In an average year, some 11,000 foals are registered.