Standardbreds are a relatively new breed, dating back just over 200 years, but it is a true American breed that began from crossing Morgan Horses and English Thoroughbreds. The origins of the Standardbred trace back to an English Thoroughbred stallion named Messenger that was foaled in 1780's. Messenger was not only a Darley Arabian descendent, but he was the great-grandsire of a horse named Hambletonian 10, back to whom every Standardbred can trace its heritage.
The name "Standardbred" refers to the early trotters that were bred to reach a certain standard for trotting the distance of a mile in order to be registered as part of the new breed. Pacers would not come into the picture until much later, but to this day, the mile is still the standard distance covered in nearly every harness race. In 1871, the American Trotting Register was founded and in 1879, the racing standard was determined. Over a distance of 1 mile, trotters were to clock in at 2 minutes 30 seconds and pacers at 2 minutes 25 seconds and it is these standards that gave the breed its name. That also means that the average speed of these races is approximately 30 miles per hour.
So you can see that this horse is bred for speed not for conformation, and now the Standardbred is widely considered to be the fastest harness racing horse in the world. There is no typical look to the Standardbred and individual Standardbreds have been mistaken for Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Morgans, Arabians, Quarter Horses, Tennessee Walkers, etc. So, as you can see, there is a look and style for every taste, but generally they have the physique of a Thoroughbred but with a heavier Morgan body. They stand between 14.1 and16 hands and weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds. A Standardbred must be registered with the United States Trotting Association (USTA) before it is allowed to either race or breed before the horse becomes two years old on the universal birthday of January 1.
The majority of Standardbred racing is harness racing that takes place with a driver holding the reins from his seat in a sulky racing cart. Racing under saddle was a type of Standardbred racing that was popular early in the breed’s development, and has become popular once again in the United States.
Most Standardbreds start racing as 2- or 3-year-olds. Standardbreds are either pacing bred or trotting bred; pacers never trot in a race, and vice versa. Trotters race only trotters and pacers race only pacers. However, pacing does not dominate the rest of their daily activities. Standardbreds trot, and pace, from birth and will do either one on their own when left to themselves. Standardbred racing is based on only these two gaits. Any trotter or pacer who breaks their gait and goes into a canter or a gallop during a race must be pulled back to its correct gait and also lose ground to its competitors or else it will be disqualified from the race.
Trotters move with a diagonal gait; the left front and right rear legs move in unison, as do the right front and left rear when it is their turn. This gait requires a highly skilled trainer to get a trotter to move perfectly at high speeds, even though the trotting gait is natural to the equine world.
Pacers move both legs on one side of their body in tandem: left front and rear, and then right front and rear, and they often called side-wheelers. Pacers account for about 80 percent of contestants in harness racing and it is the faster of the two gaits. Pacers are aided in maintaining their high speed gait by plastic loops called hobbles, which keep their legs moving in synchronization.
North America’s top trotting races that make up the Trotting Triple Crown are the Yonkers Trot, the Hambletonian, and the Kentucky Futurity for 3-year-olds. For pacers, the Pacing Triple Crown is made from the Little Brown Jug, the Messenger Stake and the Cane Pace.
Standardbreds are primarily used for racing, since they are the fastest trotting horses in the world. But Standardbreds that have been retired from the track make excellent all-around horses. Unfortunately, most horses that have been retired from racing are sold at auctions, usually to meat buyers, even though many of these horses are perfectly sound and healthy and could live for many more years if they only had a suitable, loving home.
More and more people are enjoying retired racing Standardbreds for pleasure riding, jumping, ranch work, competitive trail and endurance riding, even Western and English flat classes, barrel racing, etc. With time and patience, the retired Standardbred horse can learn new skills. Their attitude and temperament make them very willing partners in any equine discipline that is desired. New experiences are accepted with interest and enthusiasm and they "bomb-proof", not skittish, in terms of bravery. They are kind, gentle, and love to be handled and having had personal attention every day for most of their racing lives, Standardbreds adore attention and return the affection readily.
These horses are genuinely loved and respected and their care has been meticulous throughout their racing life. Their diets, health, and exercise are all carefully monitored; they've had warm baths, relaxing massages, warm blankets, clean and well-bedded stalls provided seven days a week. To describe purchasing a retired Standardbred as "saving him from the track" is doing the breed and harness racing a grave injustice, when you know what the horse's life was really like. So treat yourself to a very special horse, and enjoy the experience while offering the retired Standardbred a new beginning at perhaps a bit slower life's pace.