The multipurpose horse was a common fixture in early American society. Few could afford to keep a horse simply for pleasure. Those who took time out to indulge in an informal race against a neighbor expected their horse to go back to plowing, hauling, or providing transportation afterward.
But not all races involved galloping full tilt down the street or across the field. Some horses displayed a strong preference for rapid trotting or pacing.
One of the most influential sires in North America in the late 1700s was the Thoroughbred stallion Messenger, imported in 1788. He was bred to a diverse array of mares, both American and Canadian.
One of Messenger’s great-grandsons was Hambletonian, born in 1849. This colt was far from prepossessing. Many in his day criticized him as an ugly horse. His dam, although descended from the versatile Norfolk Trotter, was no better—she was crippled.
However, farmers who bred their mares to Hambletonian discovered that there was something special about the young stallion. Not only could he beat his rivals at trotting, his foals were also reliable trotters, outclassing the Morgans that dominated trotting races at the time. Almost overnight, trotting as a formal sport came into being.
After Hambletonian’s death in 1876, his many admirers formed a unique registry. To receive registration, a horse had to trot or pace against a timed standard (hence the name Standardbred). A trotter must be able to complete a mile in 2 minutes 30 seconds, while a pacer had to finish the mile in 2 minutes 25 seconds. The lineage of the horse was not considered, but Hambletonian’s ability as a superior sire was proven when over 90% of Standardbreds were found to trace back to him.
Today, the Standardbred can trot and pace far faster than it could in its early days. It enjoys steady popularity across the nation, although it is particularly common on the East Coast.
The Standardbred is almost exclusively used in harness racing due to a prevailing myth that harness racing is the only thing it can do. In reality, however, it can become quite an all-around saddle horse with proper training.
Pleasure riding (either English or Western), trail riding, and competitive endurance are popular activities for Standardbreds after their racing careers are over. Any sport involving jumping is a good fit for a retrained horse, as is dressage. Also, Standardbreds are surprisingly adept at basic ranch work, and can even make a good showing in cutting, penning, and barrel racing.
Due to their bombproof dispositions, Standardbreds are also excellent choices for stressful jobs, such as filming, historical reenactments, and police work.
Standardbreds have earned a reputation for their excellent dispositions. They love people, and they aim to please. New challenges are merely adventures to them, opportunities to earn a kind pat and a word of praise. Smart and level-headed, these horses can face pressure with a casual attitude. But they are far from slow or dull. Standardbreds love to compete.
Retired racehorses must be retrained before they can really fit into a new purpose, however. They may view a rider’s signals as distractions to be ignored at first; this is not stubbornness, just a result of their previous training. Also, caution should be exercised when riding Standardbreds in a group. Their competitive nature may be aroused, and an impromptu trotting race could be the result.
Standardbreds are both constitutionally and structurally sound on the whole.
Retired racehorses may have leftover sports injuries to deal with, however. Leg and hoof problems are fairly common, including osteochondrosis and small fractures. Arthritis may set in as the horse ages.
- Affordability of retired racehorses.
- Suitability for beginners after retraining.
- Extremely stable personality.
- Lower feed requirements than most equine athletes.
- Speed at the trot or pace.
- Tremendous endurance.
- Jumping ability.
- Relative scarcity outside of racing states.
- Expense of purchasing and training young horses.
- Somewhat uncomfortable gait before retraining.