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 medium-build horse, ranging in size from 14.2 to 17.2 hands and weighing 900 to 1200 pounds. Colors are bay, brown, black, chestnut, and occasionally grey, without spots or patches.
Head: 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 large and clear, reflecting the horse's calm nature.
Body: 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.
Action: 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 well up 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 higher top speed. The greater the efficiency of stride, the easier it is for the horse to achieve maximum speed and the less tiring on his legs over a greater distance.
Temperament: The Standardbred is tractable and steady, with great stamina. He is popular with Civil War re-enactment 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, but his ability to sire trotters was unparalleled, producing big, brawny 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 Suffolk was the first trotter to pull a wagon around the mile in 2:30 -- at the age of twelve.
In the mid 1800's, another dynasty was being formed in New England. Justin Morgan, founding sire of the Morgan breed, produced a line of very swift, small trotters with a straight up-and-down action. Greyhound and Titan Hanover, the first two-minute two-year old trotter, descended from the Morgan. Other lines flourished for a while and died out, including the well-known Clay stallions, Henry Clay, Cassius M. Clay and Harry Clay whose outstanding get included George M. Patchen and American Girl. The high stepping action of the Morgan and the medium gait of the Clay line combined with the long stride of Messenger to produce the swift front stroke found in today's trotter.
Since flat racing was prohibited in most areas of the country at that time, driving contests became increasingly popular at state and county fairs. The direction of harness racing was fixed on May 5, 1849, by the birth of Hambletonian 10, great grandson of Messenger, in Orange County, New York. A farm hand, William Rysdyk, bought both mother and son for $125. Rysdyk showed his colt "in hand" for two years and caused quite a stir amongst local horsemen. Hambletonian 10 was a powerful horse, with massive quarters, a great chest and was extremely muscular. He was also two inches taller at the rump than in front. He passed on this downhill conformation -- the "trotting pitch" to many of his offspring. Hamble-tonian 10 died on March 27, 1876 and was buried in Chester, New York. Famous offspring included Dexter and Goldsmith Maid, who was broken at the age of eight and raced for eleven years, traveling across country three times and breaking the world's trotting record seven times.
Some other famous names in Standardbreds are: Dan Patch; Adios; Hal Dale; Axworthy; Peter the Great; Scotland; Volomite; The Harvester; Rambling Willie, who earned over $2 million and retired at age 13; and the "founding four", Director, Electioneer, George Wilkes, and Happy Medium.
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 2-yr olds is 2.20 minutes, and for 3-yr olds the standard is 2.15 minutes. The standard distance is always one mile.
Race horses will have a record of their 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 the sire.
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 not 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 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 -breeding owners.
- This article was written by Michelle Staples, Staples Stables and published here: