Ride! Magazine's editorial coverage focuses on English competition, endurance, horse camping and recreational riding.  It is the goal of  Ride! to bring its readers the most current and complete news of the equestrian industry in the Pacific Coast.

Standardbreds: A Life After the Race is Done

By Maureen Kuchta
Connect to the Internet if you can't see this image.

THis name is Rock Island and he is a Standardbred, bred for harness racing. He raced for five years and has a record of a mile in 1:58.    he big bay stood calmly as he waited for his turn to enter the ring. When it was time, he picked up a canter as he carried his rider to the first jump. He moved smoothly, his ears pricked forward as he concentrated on his job. His grace and steady rhythm would have you believe he was born and bred for this job. Not so!

As he left the show ring a bystander commented, "Nice horse. Is he a Morgan or a Thoroughbred? A Standardbred? Really? You can use them for riding?"

This conversation is replayed many times all over the country as people are learning about the use of Standardbreds for pleasure. This breed is currently being used in California for pleasure riding, endurance, trail riding, jumping and dressage. These versatile horses are known for their excellent temperament and intelligence. The riding population frequently overlooks them because they are trained to drive. It is assumed that because they haven't carried a rider that they would be unsuitable.

What many people are not aware of is that Standardbreds make the transition to riding very easily. Since they are already used to the bridle and harness, they accept a saddle quickly. Robin Cuffey, president of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization, frequently gives demonstrations showing a Standardbred being saddled and ridden for the first time. Sometimes these demonstrations are at a clinic in front of a large crowd. In most cases, the horses accept a saddle and rider the same day.
Why are these horses so easy to retrain?

Standardbreds have an exceptional temperament. They are generally not as hot as Thoroughbreds and they are expected to be very calm and versatile. These horses are handled daily, trailered frequently, and taught to be accepting of many new sights. After all, if these horses can trot past a crowd of screaming fans, leave from a moving starting gate, and stand in the winner's circle, they should have no problem with the average trail ride or horse show. This breed is an unappreciated treasure for many pleasure riders. In California, horse people are finding excellent opportunities in horses retiring from the Los Alamitos, and CalExpo racetracks.

Standardbred Origins
Standardbreds are a truly American breed with a long history. The breed originated when Messenger, an English Thoroughbred, was imported in 1788. He spent many years as a breeding stallion and was bred to Morgans, Narragansett Pacers, as well as other breeds, before his death at 28. Other breeds that contributed to the Standardbred are Hackneys and Clays. Clays are an extinct early-American breed which descended from a Barb stallion. The term "Standardbred" was coined for trotting horses that met a certain standard of speed for a one mile distance.

Racing in California
With the growth of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing in California, there seemed to be little room for Standardbred racing. In the early 1990s, there were only 13 weeks of harness racing for the whole year. With the introduction of simulcasting, harness racing in California made a comeback. Racing fans could see the live race telecast to many locations. More people had the opportunity to see these horses, and race bettors from back east could place bets three hours earlier. Simulcasting allowed races to be broadcast at locations all over the country. This year, a new record was set at Los Alamitos racetrack. Patrons bet a nightly average handle of $1,322,227. This allowed the track to offer higher purses and attract better horses for each race. Harness racing in California currently takes place in Los Alamitos and CalExpo; Standardbred racing in California is back!

Life of a RaceHorse
Young Standardbreds are trained to harness as early as 18 months and are frequently raced as 2-year-olds. After the age of two, their life is a routine of jogging miles on the track, pacing or trotting the faster training miles, and racing. Horses are jogged daily, bathed, bandaged and fed. One groom routinely cares for up to five horses.

Many sound, useful horses never make it to the racetrack due to lack of speed or interference problems. A horse that may be fine for ordinary riding may hit his knees or interfere at high speeds. It is not economically feasible to invest money in training a horse with no chance of qualifying on the track. In order to race, horses compete in qualifying races in order to be eligible for the regular betting races. A good time to adopt a Standardbred is when the animal is retired, before it ever races. Many nice horses are available at this time.

A horse ends his career when he is no longer making money; either he is too slow or has sustained an injury. What happens to these horses when they can no longer race? Many are shipped out of state and later sold for slaughter. Some lucky horses find homes as pets or riding horses.

The Story of Rock Island
Rock Island was sold as a yearling and trained as a pacer. He raced for five years and ended his career with an injury. That year, he had raced well, with several wins to his credit. In his final race, he was leading going in to the stretch when he took a bad step. He finished the race in second place, but it was apparent that something was seriously wrong.

When X-rays confirmed that he had broken a coffin bone, he was turned out. The owners were planning on racing him after he recovered, but decided that there was too much chance of him breaking down completely. He was donated to an adoption group and placed with my family. I rode Rock Island the day after I got him. Although he had never been ridden, I was able to put a saddle on him and get right on. Since then, he has been ridden by small children, used a demonstration horse in front of a crowded supermarket, and greeted crowds of people at a local historic village. Rock Island is an exceptional horse and he has made a Standardbred believer out of me.

Finding Homes:  Where to Look for a Standardbred
Both national groups and local rescue people help educate the public and find homes for Standardbreds. In northern California, Michelle Staples educates the public and helps place retired horses. In Southern California, Wendi Wiener works with these horses professionally and helps place them, also.

Michelle got started when she rescued a starving 18-month-old Standardbred. This horse was in poor condition when a young Paint breeder found him. She persuaded the owner to part with him, but didn't have the money to keep him. Michelle bought the young gelding and still owns him. It was this horse that reignited her desire to help Standardbreds.

Michelle has placed Standardbreds that have been used for rounding up cattle, as horses for Civil War reenactments, and for use in the Fresno Police Department. Oregonian Rick Ponte uses his horses in movies, because they can be trusted with high-priced actors. They have also placed horses used in cutting, reining, dressage and jumping.

While Californians work to promote and place Standardbreds, two national groups are also available to provide information and support. The United States Trotting Association is responsible for the registry of Standardbred horses. The USTA helps both racing and non-racing owners. They have a Standardbred Equestrian Program that aims to promote the use of these horses for non-racing purposes. Anne Loiselle is the Equestrian Program administrator. Anne, a Standardbred owner herself, administers a program that educates prospective owners and helps to match horses with new homes. The USTA shows a real sense of responsibility by helping these horses when their racing days are over.

The Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization is a national group, with chapters in several states. They promote the use of these horses for show, pleasure, and recreational driving. SPHO sponsors shows, activities, and awards for Standardbred owners. Members get a quarterly newsletter that updates them on new activities and horses available.

With the growth of rescue groups all over the country, more people are getting the opportunity to own these wonderful horses. Owners who have a Standardbred are usually the first people to brag about their horse's ability. These horses are so adaptable that it is very rare for there to be problems.

At the track, a horse's life is very stressful. It is made up of a routine of jogging, training, racing and stall rest. Knowing this, new owners frequently look forward to giving their horses all the things they missed on the track. However, Standardbred owners will tell you that these wonderful horses will give you back much more in return.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are Standardbred gaits hard to ride?  This varies from horse to horse. Many Standardbreds have easy trots, while others have larger, more powerful gaits. It is usually a matter of getting used to each horse's individual gaits.

2. Will a Standardbred canter?  Yes, most Standardbreds can be trained to canter. While they are discouraged from breaking stride on the track, they can be retrained.

3. If I adopt a pacer, will he ever trot?  This varies with from horse to horse. While there are some horses who will only pace, many pacers prefer to trot and will only pace while wearing hobbles. These horses will usually trot under saddle. Standardbreds race in both trotting and pacing races. Many trotters make ideal riding horses, also.
4. Will a former racehorse be too peppy?  Any horse coming off the track requires a period of adjustment. Since Standardbreds have such wonderful temperaments, this isn't usually a problem. As a breed, they tend to be less hot-blooded than Thoroughbreds. While some experience is helpful, these horses tend to be very cooperative and steady by nature.

Resources and Contact Information

The Internet has given a great boost to Standardbred adoption and placement. Each of these groups has Web sites with information, pictures, and sometimes horses, available. Here are some sites that may be of interest to Ride! readers.

SPHO - Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization
USTA - United States Trotting Association
Racing Under Saddle Owners and Riders Association
Wendi Wiener
SPHO/Western States - Michelle Staples
Special recognition and thanks to Maureen Kuchta, author, and Jan O'Farrill, editor of Ride! Magazine , for sharing their excellent article "Standardbreds:  A Life After the Race is Done" (reprinted from the July 2000 issue with permission).