If you've been to a track to watch harness racing, you've likely seen the American standardbred in action. This solid horse breed with excellent stamina has bloodlines reaching back to the 18th century. And its abilities aren't limited to the track. American standardbreds are typically friendly, relaxed, and intelligent horses, which makes them suitable for many applications—from the show ring to the recreational trail.
Weight: 800 to 1,200 pounds
Height: 14 hands (56 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches)
Body Type: Thick mane and tail; muscular legs; deep chest; somewhat resembles a thoroughbred
Best For: Owners and riders of all levels
Life Expectancy: 25 to 30 years
American Standardbred History and Origins
The American standardbred was developed in New England in the 1800s from a melting pot of horses that trotted, paced, and raced both under saddle and in harness.
A thoroughbred named Messenger, who was brought to the United States in 1788, is regarded as the foundation of the breed. And all American standardbreds descend from Messenger’s great-grandson Hambletonian 10. Many other breeds were introduced to the line, each contributing their desirable racing characteristics. Among these breeds were thoroughbreds, Morgans, Canadian pacers, and some other now-extinct pacing and trotting horses.
In 1879, the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders formed as a breed registry. The name standardbred comes from the standard mile time of 2 minutes and 30 seconds that a horse had to run to quality for that registry. Today, the United States Trotting Association keeps track of the breed.
American Standardbred Size
American standardbreds range in height from around 14 hands (56 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches). They weigh from 800 to 1,200 pounds on average. Most stand at around 15 hands (60 inches) and weigh around 1,000 pounds—about the same as the average riding horse. There is no breed conformation standard when it comes to height and weight for the American standardbred.
American Standardbred Breeding and Uses
The American standardbred was initially developed for its speed and stamina in harness racing. But it can hold its own in many other riding and driving disciplines. You'll find standardbreds in sports, such as speed games, endurance riding, jumping, competitive carriage, and pleasure driving.
Because those trained for the track are so well handled from birth—first trained to drive and then exposed to many other situations—they usually can easily make the transition to pleasure driving horses. Much of their basic training is already done. However, they excel so much in harness racing that they are rarely bred solely as pleasure horses.
Colors and Markings
American standardbreds come in a range of equine colors, including bay, brown, black, chestnut, gray, and other solid colors. They often lack white facial and leg markings, such as blazes and stockings. And they do not have patches or spots.
Unique Characteristics of the American Standardbred
There are two distinct types of standardbreds: trotters and pacers. Trotters have a diagonal gait, meaning their front left leg and rear right leg step in unison (along with their front right and rear left).
On the other hand, pacers move legs on the same side in unison (e.g., the left front steps with the left back). The speed of pacers in harness racing is faster than that of trotters. And in North America, pacers tend to outnumber trotters on the track.
Pacers often amble, or “single-foot,” which is a smooth running/walking gait that lends itself to a very comfortable ride. When riding a pacer, some equestrians find it to be a great way to relax a stiff back at a ground-covering speed. Pacers also can be encouraged to trot, making them very flexible horses for show and pleasure riding.
Diet and Nutrition
American standardbreds need a typical equine diet of quality grass, hay, grain, and some fruits and veggies. Vitamin and mineral supplementation might be necessary, especially if the horse can’t graze freely. The quantity of food largely depends on the horse’s size and activity level. If you race your horse, it will need a well-formulated racing diet that provides extra energy for what it expends.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
American standardbreds have no health issues specific to the breed. But former racehorses are likely to end up with issues related to general wear and tear, including arthritis and foot problems.
In terms of behavior, these horses are generally calm and friendly, enjoying human companionship. But a former racehorse might take some time to retrain for general riding, depending on the individual horse. This task will likely be especially difficult for someone with little equine experience.
American standardbreds require typical horse grooming and maintenance. Brush them regularly to remove dead hair, dirt, and debris. Inspect and clean their hooves daily to remove debris and prevent foot issues.
Excellent speed and stamina
A former racehorse might be difficult to retrain for other purposes.
Champion and Celebrity American Standardbred Horses
As the breed’s foundational sire, the American trotter named Hambletonian 10 is famous among American standardbred fans. Born in 1849, it was known for its unusual build, being slightly taller at his rump than his withers (shoulders). His long hind legs propelled him swiftly forward with every step, a race-friendly trait that he passed to his offspring. The most prestigious harness race in North America, the Hambletonian Stakes, bears his name. And the road where he is buried in Chester, New York, is called Hambletonian Avenue.
Another noted standardbred was a stallion named Dan Patch. At the turn of the 20th century, harness-racing fans enjoyed his speedy accomplishments. Dan Patch shattered multiple world speed records, including setting a record for the fastest mile by a harness-racing horse. His record stood unbroken for more than 30 years. Some would-be competitors even refused to race against him. The Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame inducted Dan Patch in 1953.
Is the American Standardbred Horse Right for You?
For a beginner rider, retraining an American standardbred that had been a racehorse might not be the ideal introduction to horse ownership. However, more experienced riders might enjoy the rewarding task of retraining a former racehorse to become a riding or pleasure driving horse. While the intelligent standardbred takes direction quite well, one challenge of retraining these horses is teaching them to canter or lope—and for pacers, to trot and not pace—while being ridden. It's possible to ride a pacing horse, but most people find it quite different from the usual riding experience.
In general, horse owners are coming to appreciate the standardbred as a horse suitable for any sport. Some shows exist for owners of retrained standardbreds to show off their abilities under saddle and in harness.
How to Adopt or Buy an American Standardbred
The cost to adopt or buy an American standardbred ranges from around $500 to $5,000 on average. This can widely fluctuate, depending on the horse’s age, training, health, and pedigree. Former racehorses often are available for an inexpensive adoption fee, though they might come with some wear and tear that a new owner must be prepared to care for.
When working with a breeder or rescue organization, ask about the horse’s history, training, temperament, and health. Spend time with the horse to look for any signs of lameness or other red flags. Make sure the organization can adequately answer all of your questions before committing to a horse.
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