Last week I had the distinct pleasure of visiting a friend at the Standardbred horse racing farm where she and her husband work. He is the head trainer while she works as a groom as well as with training the young horses. They currently have 36 young trotters in training to harness race.
Of course, I’m always happy to be around horses of any kind, and as such have managed to glean a bit of knowledge about all kinds of disciplines. But this was my first experience with the harness racing world, and I made the most of the opportunity to get to know the horses and pick my friend’s brain. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures to document the experience. But, unsurprisingly, I was a little distracted playing with the ponies.
If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the Standardbred breed of horse and harness racing, here’s some of what I saw, learned first-hand, and researched.
A Brief Guide To Harness Racing
Harness racing is a sport in which horses of the Standardbred breed pull a two-wheeled cart, called a sulky, at a trot or a pace around a track. In doing so, they reach speeds of over 30 miles per hour. Trotting and pacing are both 2-beat gaits that are natural to Standardbreds (some trot, some pace, they don’t usually do both). Trotting is when diagonal legs move forward at the same time (IE left hind and right front together. Pacing is when the two legs on the same side of the body move together (IE left hind and left front together). Trotters and pacers compete separately.
Take a look at a trotting harness race. This particular one is at The Meadows racetrack in Pennsylvania, and the #3 horse named Michaelrowyourboat is from my friend’s farm. That’s her husband, the trainer, driving Capitan (as he’s known around the barn) to a win and a track record back in September.
Pacers make up the majority of harness racing, as it is a faster gait than a trot and the horses are less likely to break into a gallop. Pacers wear hobbles/hopples – straps that connect the legs on each side. This doesn’t create the pacing gait, it just reinforces it and also prevents them from breaking. If a horse would break into a gallop during a race, they are slowed and taken to the outside until they regain the correct stride.
As you could see in the video, harness races are typically started from behind a motorized starting gate that folds up and pulls away from the horses when it hits the starting line.
Most harness races in North America are one mile long. Important annual races include the Hambletonian for 3-year old trotters, the Little Brown Jug for 3-year-old pacers, and the Breeders Crown series of twelve races covering each of the traditional categories of age, gait and gender.
My friends travel Ohio and nearby states to race their horses at county fairs, and also take the more talented ones to tracks like The Meadows. There is purse money involved at all levels. A race at a fair may have a purse of $2,000, while at the prestigious stakes races horses may win upwards of $200-300K.
Distinctives of the Standardbred Horse
My very limited contact with Standardbred horses had been watching the failed-racehorses turned Amish buggy horses in my hometown. But the instant I walked into my friend’s barn, I fell in love with them.
All six of the horses my friend is responsible for were friendly and well-behaved – and almost all of them were coming 2-year-olds who have only been in training (including halter-broke) for the last six weeks. They were tall, sleek, well-muscled, and had intelligent, sweet eyes.
Averaging 15.2 hands tall, Standardbreds have hind legs that are set well back and long bodies. (Long in body is preferred, largely because they are less likely to interfere with themselves that way.) Most are bay or brown, but they do also come in black and chestnut. They typically weigh between 800 and 1200 pounds. Standardbreds are so named because in the early years of the Standardbred stud book, only horses who could trot or pace a mile in a standard time, or whose progeny could do so, were entered into the book.
Standardbreds also have quieter dispositions than their racing counter-parts, the Thoroughbreds. Apart from one mare who was rather nasty, all of the Standardbreds I watched or handled were pretty quiet, inquisitive, alert, and friendly. They actually reminded me a lot of my horse Ace.
A Typical Morning For Standardbreds In Training
At least at this farm, the horses are in training six days a week. They get started each day 7:30ish, and go until about noon. The routine looks a little like this:
- get morning feed
- put in cross-ties, groomed, harnessed, and prepped for training
- wait around until it’s your turn
- sulky is hooked up and you head out to the track to either jog (conditioning) or train (at speed)
- your groom cleans your stall while you’re out
- come back in, get unharnessed
- legs and feet hosed, and body too if needed
- tied in stall with blankets to cool out
- brushed down
- hayed and watered
- tucked in for the rest of the day
There were four different guys doing the driving; the trainer and 3 “exercise drivers” as I liked to call them. A horse that was jogging that day stayed to the outside of the half-mile track and went the “wrong” direction, or clockwise. A horse that was “training” jogged first to warm up, and then was turned to go counter-clockwise for a mile at speed.
The first horse I met was Minnie (who was super sweet). She had a potential injury though, so instead of heading to the track she got to go swimming – great exercise without stressing her joints. The pool was 10 feet deep and she had to swim for 10 minutes. For most of that I was attached the rope and running around the outside with her.
Here’s Kate, one of the babies who has just started her training. She’s only jogging, but going the normal way around the track so that she can get used to it.
And here’s Capitan training a mile in 2:25, showing what those babies will look when they really learn to move:
All in all, it was a fantastic day spent with a good friend, good horses, and learning something new. And I’ve been invited to come back next summer … and next time I’ll get to take one of the horses out for a jog! I’m also hoping to go hang out and document race day sometime. I’m already looking forward to spending some more time around these wonderful horses.