Standardbred: Get to Know Your Equine Breeds
Updated: Feb 9, 2019
The founding sire of today’s Standardbred was Messenger, a grey Thoroughbred brought to America in 1788. 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. 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. 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. Hambletonian 10 died on March 27, 1876 and was buried in Chester, New York.
A fairly new breed, the lineage of the American Standardbred is now found in the Standardbred horse throughout the world. France, Australia and New Zealand all have a keen interest in Standardbred breeding and sport. The Standardbred Horse is bred and used first and foremost for harness racing, where the horse either trots or paces while pulling a small cart called a sulky over a mile track.
The name “Standardbred” originated because the early trotters were required to meet the standard mile distance in 2 minutes and 30 seconds in order to be registered as part of the new breed. The mile is still the standard distance covered in almost all harness races.
In the late 1890’s the pacer, whose legs move together in lateral pairs, became much more popular and the first 2 minute mile was reached in 1897 by the pacer Star Pointer. 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.
Harness racing continued to be popular as “the everyman’s sport” until World War I, when the nation had other priorities. The sport had a renaissance in 1940 when a group of businessmen took the previously somewhat rural sport and brought it to the bright lights of New York City as a pari-mutuel activity. Roosevelt Raceway, on Long Island hosted the night time “sulkies” and harness racing soon caught on in many metropolitan areas, Today harness racing is firmly established as one of the biggest historically American Sports. Therefore, the Standardbred horse thrived as a breed for sport and family use.
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 most well-rounded breeds. Not only is he the fastest racing breed in harness, he also excels off the racetrack. He is a medium-build horse weighing 900 to 1200 pounds.
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 throat latch 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. The head should be well proportioned to the rest of the body, is sometimes convex, with cheekbones straight and chiseled, a broad forehead, large nostrils, shallow mouth and small muzzle. The ears should be medium in size, set wide, and active. The eyes should be large and clear, reflecting the horse’s calm nature.
The average Standardbred is of medium to large size and stands 14.2 to 17.2 Hands high.
Primarily bay, brown, black, chestnut, and occasionally grey, without spots or patches. There is a particular line of Standardbreds in Australia which boast pinto coloring.
The Standardbred is workmanlike and steady, with great stamina. Often said to be “bombproof”, the Standardbred is often used as a mount for Law Enforcement, Movies, and Battle Re-enactments. They enjoy human companionship and are often very friendly and gentle with children. Their ability to learn quickly and calmly predisposes them to being successful in a variety of disciplines after a racing career. There is no other breed with the patience and heart of a Standardbred.
An attractive horse with an elegant and refined head featuring eyes that are large and expressive. The neck is long and crested leading into a back that is straight and short. The forehand features a deep chest. All legs are muscular with broad, clean joints ending in solid hooves.
With the sport of harness racing still going strong, the Standardbred horse is still bred primarily for use in racing as trotters and pacers. However, the riding disciplines are more frequently purchasing and adopting retired racers and the realization that the breed is extremely useful and talented undersaddle has become more well-known. Driving, pleasure riding, dressage, jumping, western riding, trail riding, fox hunting and equine assisted therapy are all areas where Standardbreds excel.
Dan Patch – The horse who popularized pacing was Dan Patch, one of the fastest (1:55 for the mile) and most popular Standardbreds ever. There is a movie made about this fan favorite Standardbred horse.
Niatross – In 1980, Niatross won The Meadowlands Pace, which was the first million dollar race in either standardbred or thoroughbred racing history. He also won the Harness Racing Triple Crown. In a time trial at The Red Mile in Lexington, Kentucky he beat the world record by three seconds, setting a mark of 1:49.1. In addition to his time trial he paced the fastest race miles on one mile (1.52.1) and half mile (1.54.4) tracks.
Halla – Halla was born in the yard of Gustav Vierling in Darmstadt. Her parents were Helene, a French trotter horse of unknown breeding, and the Standardbred Oberst. Halla was first discovered by the German Olympic committee. She was to be used in the Military, but was considered very difficult and changed riders several times.
Despite her talent she remained unsuccessful until 1951, when the ride was given to then rising star Hans-Günter Winkler. Halla, had already won back-to-back World Championships in show jumping when they competed at the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm.. They earned gold in both the individual and team events. Four years later, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Halla and Winkler led the German team to another victory.Together they won a total of 125 jumping competitions. Thus Halla stands as the horse with most gold medals from the Olympic Games in The Guinness Book of the Records.
A History of American Trotting and Pacing Horses (Coates)
Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century (Smith)
United States Trotting Association
Standardbred Retirement Foundation