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This article, written by Michelle Staples, first appeared in National Horsepeddler, August 1997
Characteristics Head Body Action Temperament History Harness Racing USTA Navigation Bar
The Standardbred is often described as "honest". He is robust, plain, rugged, capable of performing any job, and is one of the equine world's best kept secrets. Not only is he the fastest racing breed in harness, he also excels off the racetrack. He is a meduim-build horse, ranging in size from 14.2 to 17.2 hands and weighing 900 to 1,200 pounds. Colors are bay, brown, black, chestnut, and occasionally grey, without spots or patches.
The head should be well proportioned to the rest of the body, refined, straight, and chiseled, with a broad forehead, large nostrils, shallow mouth and small muzzle. The ears should be medium to small in size, set wide, and active. The eyes should be larger and clear, reflecting the horse's calm nature.
The Standardbred has a long, sloping, strong shoulder, long, high croup, short back and a bottom line that is much longer than the top line. The chest is deep and thick, and the ribs well-sprung. Muscling is heavy and long, allowing a long, fluid stride. The neck should be slightly arched, lean and muscular, and medium-to-long; the throatlatch clean and the head carried either high or at a moderate level; the withers well-defined and extending well back beyond the top of the shoulder. The legs are hard and very correct in their action with muscling both inside and out. The hocks are wide, deep and clean. The hooves are large, tough and durable.
Trotting and pacing are balanced gaits; the horse in action should appear well balanced front to back. Their trot seems huge compared to other light saddle breeds, with fairly close hock action and the hind legs moving up well underneath the horse. Although Standardbreds are known for their racing gaits, they do canter and this gait should also be balanced and free-flowing. The "pace" is peculiar to this breed. Whereas a trotting horse moves its legs in diagonal pairs, the pacer (or sidewheeler) moves its legs in lateral pairs similar to a camel. The pace can be easily retrained as a "rack".
In early racing, pacers were rare. Today, nine out of ten races are for pacers. Generally, pacers are faster and accelerate more quickly than trotters. In general, pacers do not stride as high as trotters, resulting in less concussion to the foot, more efficient stride, and a highter top speed. The greater the efficiency of stride, the easier it is for the horse to acheive maximum speed and the less tiring on his legs over a greater distance.
The Standardbred is tractable and steady, with great stamina. He is popular with Civil War reënactment groups because he is "bombproof" - mock battles with cannons and muskets don't disturb his equilibrium. He is a willing partner in most endeavors and enjoys human companionship. He is sadly underrated as a riding horse and can perform well in jumping, western pleasure or reining, and can be impressive in dressage. Standards are also used extensively in movies
The founding sire of today's Standardbred was Messenger, a grey Thoroughbred brought to America in 1788 by Thomas Benger and later sold to Henry Astor, brother of John Jacob Astor.
Messenger was a direct descendent of the Darley Arabian, one of the founding sires of the Thoroughbred. His sire, Mambrino, was one of the best race horses of his day; the master of four-mile heats. Mambrino was grand in size and immensely strong, and founded a dynasty of famous trotting coach horses in England. Messenger stood at stud for twenty seasons in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Messenger sired many great Thoroughbreds, including Miller's Damsel, who produced American Eclipse, who in turn sired Whirlaway, Gallant Fox, and Man O'War, horses known for their trotting action, speed, and gameness.
Descendants of Messenger soon dominated the race courses of America. Among them was Topgallant, a Philadelphia livery stable hack who was first seen trotting in perfect form alongside a galloping runaway. He went on to racing fame, at one time winning a four-mile, four-heat race - sixteen miles in all.
There were other racers who started as working horses. Dutchman pulled a delivery truck for a brickyard; Lady Suffold was the first trotter to pull a wagon around the mile in 2:30 - at the age of twelve.
Harness Racing
In 1879, the term Standardbred was introduced to distinguish those trotting horses who met a certain "standard" for the mile distance. The horses were clocked in .25 seconds until 1940,when all times were recorded in fifths. The current standard for two-years-olds is 2.20 minutes, and for three-year-olds the standard is 2.15 minutes. The standard distance is always one mile.
Race horses will have record of pedigrees and also their racing statistics. These can seem confusing at first, but are very easy to read once you know the rules. A pedigree is like a human family tree and reads the same way. The first name will be of the horse; the second set of names will be the parents; third, the grandparents, etc. The bottom (or left) line of all pedigrees is the dam; the top (or right) line is sire. For example:
Lushkara Cam Fella
Perta Hanover Albatross Nan Cam Most Happy
Pert Dottie Tar Heel Voodoo Hanover Meadow Skipper Nan Frost Bret Hanover Laughing Girl Meadow Skipper
Statistics on a horse off the track might look like this:
Sea Whisper (Sparkling Speed x Nakia) 1981 m t 2:03f $63,049
This says that a trotting (t) mare (m) named Sea Whisper, whose father (sire) is Sparkling Speed and whose mother (dam) is Nakia, was born in 1981. Her fastest winning effort (at one mile) was two minutes, three seconds on a five-eights mile track and she won $63,049. A "TT" preceding the record would indicate that the record was taken in a time trial rather than a race. The initial following the record indicates the size of the racing oval (m for mile, f for five-eights, h for half-mile). The standard distance is always one mile.
The United States Trotting Association
USTA is the governing body of the Standardbred horse. Everyone buying a Standardbred for racing or breeding purposes must become a member of USTA. The horse's registration papers are duly transferred upon approval of membership. USTA also offers services for non-racing and non-breeding owners.
The Standardbred Equestrian Program (SEP) is an ambitious, multi-faceted program designed to promote the Standardbred in all disciplines.
A new and exciting sport is Standardbred "Racing Under Saddle" (RUS). Started in 1996, this sport could revitalize Standardbred racing on the west coast. This sport is sanctioned by USTA, takes place on a race track, and riders are licensed. Requirements for licensing include being over 16 years old, a member of USTA and having the ability to demonstrate experience with equestrian sports. There are no weight restrictions on riders. To date, 75 percent of those applying for licenses are women. The horses follow the starting gate just as in harness racing, then race for one mile, all at a trot or pace.
USTA offers a database that will provide past racing and pedigree information, where available. The SEP activities database will issue an "Activities Certificate" for any horse that can be identified by its tattoo, and will document horse's accomplishments in non-traditional use.
SEP assists adoption programs in placing horses off the track by offering space on the Internet.
You can get more information by contacting the Standardbred Equestrian Program at USTA. The address is 750 Michigan Avenue, Columbus, OH 43215-1191; telephone (614) 224-2291 or FAX (614) 224-4575 or on the Web at
There is also a Trotting Horse Museum (P.O.Box 590, Goshen, NY 10924) which offers books, videos and great trotting horse gifts. For a gift catalog, or membership application form, call (914) 294-6330 before 5 PM (EST) any day.

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