A Soft Spot for Standardbreds
I have a big, squishy soft spot for Standardbreds. (Like the banner photo at the top of the blog wasn’t a bloody obvious tipoff on that.)
Probably has something to do with having grown up just a few klicks down the road from Windsor Raceway. Essex County was jughead country, once upon a time — that’s really all there was in terms of horseflesh, apart from a smattering of Quarter Horses. I did my time grooming at the track, learning to adjust hobbles and wrap legs and clean a shit tonne of harness and pretending to drink the nasty coffee the farriers were kind enough to hand me when I took my charges to the backstretch shed to get their shoes reset. (Never been a coffee drinker.) And I dealt with my share of razzing from the other grooms, who figured I was just a clueless ridin’ hoss kid. (Yeah, guys, I knew there was no such thing as stifle boots. I wasn’t that green.)
Of course, my rescuing instincts kicked in early, encouraged by the fact that newbie grooms aren’t generally handed the stable’s superstars to rub on. Of the four under-performing horses I was responsible for, I found après-racing homes for two in short order — a gorgeous gray Laag descendant who had two of the worst bowed tendons I’d ever seen, and a cute little bay nicknamed Toby, who looked more like a Morgan than a Standardbred, and became a beloved trail horse for a friend of mine. The first horses I ever broke to ride on my own were Standardbreds, too — the very first being a 13-year-old pacer named O O Charlie, who swung his head around to peer at me when I first climbed on his back, raised one sardonic eyebrow which clearly said, “Humans and their damn fool ideas”, and then quietly got on with his new job.
I’ve always done what I could to promote the idea of Standardbreds as riding horses — because, let’s face it, without that opportunity for them once their racing careers are done, the only other options are a can … or a home with the Mennonites. There’s a large Mennonite community west of Toronto, and they go through a lot of horses, but in many cases they buy them for practically nothing off the track, pound them into the ground in a year or two (you only have to see the condition of some of these horses, trotting or pacing furiously down the side of Highway 86 next to the transport trucks and school buses, to know they’re not long for this world), and then dump them for meat price at the auction in St. Jacob’s, pick up another, and start the cycle all over again. I’m not saying the entire Mennonite community subscribes to this approach — there are some amazing horsemen among them — but too many do for anyone to think that such a fate is likely to be good news for an ex-racehorse who’s already given his all.
As riding horses, though, Standardbreds suffer from something of a branding problem. To some degree, I blame the lack of chrome. Standies tend to come in bay, bay, or bay, with a minimum of white markings to bling them up. Chestnuts are rare, grays and roans even rarer. Not a lot of flash there to attract the average ammie owner.
Historically, they’re also … well, kind of ugly. Jughead, buckethead … at one time, the name fit. They don’t race on their faces, so it was never an issue at the track, but given the choice between a big Roman nose and a little Arab-y dished face, most riders will go for pretty. The reality is that Standardbreds over the past 30 years or so have become far, far more refined and elegant than they used to be, and the big clunky heads are all but gone from the gene pool, but a lot of people don’t realize that.
Then there’s the gaited thing. Standardbreds come in two varieties: trotters, and pacers. Trotters have the normal three gaits — walk, trot, and canter — but the pacers have an extra gear, the lateral two-beat gait that endows them with blinding speed (pacers are generally a second or two faster over a mile than trotters are, which is why there are separate divisions for each gait and they don’t race each other). The tendency to pace is there even in some of the trotters, and the pacers can be taught to trot; in fact, they often prefer it when not in racing hobbles, but tend to revert to pacing when they get discombobulated. Trouble with that is, pacing ain’t the most comfortable thing under saddle, and most competitive horse sports require trotting. There are few dressage tests, for example, written for “trot or alternate gait”. (Interestingly, many pacers can be encouraged, with the right training and shoeing, to perform some version of a single-foot or racking gait, like many other types of gaited horses. It’s kind of an intermediate between trotting and pacing, and very smooth to sit to when done correctly. Not a whole lot of call for it here in Ontario, though, where interest in gaited horses is a fringe thing at best.)
In addition, while Standardbreds are absolutely capable of cantering and galloping, they have been actively discouraged from doing so all of their racing lives. To go from trotting or pacing, to galloping, in a race, is called ‘making a break’, and it means the driver must get the hell out of the way of the horses who are still moving their feet in the approved way, drop to the back of the pack, and resume trotting or pacing before rejoining the race. Generally, it means you’ve got no shot at a paycheque, so in harness racing, galloping is verboten, and it can be a tough training hurdle to convince an ex-racehorse that it’s now okay to use that gear, both because of the inhibition cemented in their brains by race training, and because most of them are frankly rusty at doing it. Canter can be added to any Standardbred’s repertoire, but it takes patience and persistence (and sometimes some creativity) to make it happen.
So those are the marketing challenges. On the up side, there’s lots to like. Standardbreds are tough, athletic, intelligent, eager to please, and temperament-wise I have to admit they are way more tolerant and sensible than your average off-the-track Thoroughbred. (As a lifelong owner of OTTBs, I say that with love.) Those who have racing experience will cross-tie, stand for the vet and the farrier, load on any trailer. And not to overstate the obvious, but they come broke to drive. Riding is a pretty simple transition for horses who already understand voice commands, rein aids, and mouth contact.
Plus, they’re generally dirt cheap. Or free to a good home.
Organizations like the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society are doing excellent work promoting Standies as potential riding horses, and the recent upswing in interest in “racing under saddle” (RUS) in Ontario is helping too. “Monte” races (as they’re called in Europe) have always been popular in Scandinavia, and the RUS circuit here is growing every year. (Note to trainers: I so want to do this! Gimme a horse and some silks, and I will give it my best shot!)
So as I’ve expanded my interest in judging over the past few years, it was kind of a natural development for me to end up judging schooling shows for Standardbreds.
Yes, Standardbred shows are a thing. A fairly recent thing, in Ontario at least, but it’s evolving into a nice little circuit of a half-dozen shows or so over the course of each summer. The idea is to showcase the versatility of the breed, so as a judge, you better be pretty damn versatile yourself.
So how does that work? At a minimum, you’ve got to be prepared to cover showmanship, halter, leadline classes, pleasure and equitation, dressage, trail, gaming (barrel racing, pole bending, and the like), pleasure driving, obstacle driving (aka “cones”), hunter and jumper classes over fences, costume classes … and pretty much anything else the show organizers can come up with. We’re talking both English and Western classes, open and youth (under 18) … with allowances made for gaits. For many of these horses, canter or lope is still a work in progress, so competitors can enter a flat class which only requires walk, and trot or pace (pacing is not penalized as long as it is consistent), or they can be brave and go for the walk/trot-or-pace/canter option (or walk/jog-or-pace/lope in the case of Western classes).
You do need to be open-minded to do this job. Some of the horses who’ll turn up in the show ring have had years of mileage under saddle, and could easily compete in open shows anywhere without anyone being the wiser about their former careers (unless, of course, the white freezebrands on their necks give them away). Some of them do. Others are still fairly fresh to this whole riding thing, and are coping with the new requirements as best they can. Some — and this still blows me away — compete in these shows while still maintaining active racing careers! So, you know, you make allowances. On the whole, I find most Standardbreds adapt to the requirements of English classes a little more easily than they do Western — I have yet to judge a Western pleasure class at a Standardbred show where any of the horses was really delivering a slow jog or a balanced, slow lope (but then again, given the current state of the ‘real’ Western pleasure industry, that’s not entirely a bad thing, methinks). There’s a fair bit of zooming around, and refraining from posting to that big trot (or pace) is a tall order, but on the up side, a fair number of Standardbreds do suit Western fringes and sequins surprisingly well. And lemmee tell you, I enjoy the hell out of those blingy outfits, because it helps me differentiate between all the bay entries on my judge’s card. I can scribble “turquoise hat” or “purple saddle pad” or “giant silver hearts” at the beginning of the class, and it makes finding each entry at a glance a lot easier. Not so with the English classes, where the attire tends to be much of a muchness just like the horses!
The halter classes are something of a challenge, too. Generally, in a halter class, you are rewarding conformation of a certain type, and blemishes are penalized. If I penalized blemishes in a Standardbred halter class, there’d be no-one left to pin a ribbon to. Most of these old warriors have some sort of track jewellery on display — so my job is more about deciding whether pin-fire marks on the front cannons are less or more objectionable than a big knee or a pair of extensively cryo’ed hocks. (Cryo is about treating injuries with super-cold liquid nitrogen, and it leaves tell-tale white marks when the hair grows back in.) I try to step back and take in the big picture on each horse, rather than nitpick about the scars. Is he balanced and athletic? Does he look the part for the class in which he’s entered (ie. is he more of an English type, or Western, or even Saddleseat)? Can he keep out of his own way, and is he groomed within an inch of his life and presented with pride? That’s my thought process for these classes.
The awesome thing about these horses, and their extremely devoted owners, is that they’ll often compete in just about every class for which they’re eligible, all day long, and never complain. They’ll often do all the English classes in the morning (mom in the open classes, and a son or daughter in the tack for the junior division), switch to Western in the afternoon, and hook up to a jog-bike or a Meadowbrook for the end-of-day driving classes … and then come back in the costume class festooned with feather boas, finger paint, and giant sunflowers. That’s a tall order for any horse, let alone one who came to his or her riding career relatively late in life. I’ll be honest: they may not necessarily be fulfilling all the requirements of every class extraordinarily well. Sometimes what’s happening in front of me wouldn’t quite cut it in an open show, competing against other breeds. But that’s kind of the point: the Standardbred shows give them a place to try out new skills in front of people who are going to cheer rather than sneer. It’s a hugely supportive environment, and everyone tries so damn hard, I often have tremendous difficulty awarding the placings. I want them all to win. What’s more, they’re upping their game every year. When I compare what I saw at the first of these shows I ever judged, five or six years ago, to what I witnessed in 2015, I’m amazed at how far so many of these riders and horses have come.
It’s not a judging gig that everyone would relish. It’s a little outside the norm of a typical hunter schooling show, where I generally watch horses go over the same one or two outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses all fricking day, first at two feet, then two-foot-three, then two-foot-six, then … you get the gist. With so many classes, Standardbred shows can also make for a helluva long day. But I get a huge kick out of them, and I hope we start to see more of them outside Ontario soon. (Ahem. Have clipboard, will travel …)
Further reading on second careers for Standardbreds:
From Trot magazine: My article on the adoption of Primetime Bobcat: Ninth Life of One Cool Cat
From the United States Trotting Association website, my coverage of one of the first RUS races in Ontario in 2011: Trotters Do It Under Saddle At Georgian Downs
From the Daily Racing Form: Plenty of Life After Racing
From Standardbred Canada: Life After Racing
Info on the Ontario Standardbred show series: Standardbred Showcase
And here’s a new article which sheds some light on the canter thing: Why Some Standardbreds Canter More Easily Than Others