The Standardbred

-Another American Racehorse-

Did you know that America has 3 racehorse breeds? Well we do, they are the American Thoroughbred, the Quarter Horse and the Standardbred. Each of those breeds is rated the best worldwide in their respective racing catagories: flat racing, sprint racing and harness racing. Each of these breeds emerged from the base of our original racehorse breed- the American Running Horse. The American Running Horse is a cousin to the English Thoroughbred as both came from the same root stock: the Irish Hobby, Scottish Galloway and English Running Horse; and here is the curious part- their development was simultaneous, that is both became a set breed with performance standards in place by the mid-1600s.

Our Colonial Running Horse was originally a gaited race-saddle horse with tremendous sprint speed at both the pace and the gallop, with great stamina as well it could easily run 4-mile heat races several times a day. With contrast to all this athletic ability was its sweet gentle temperament which made it a favorite mount for everyone- they were the preferred saddle horse of the day. The Standardbred has retained this lovely disposition.

The Standardbred came into being in 1879 when the equine scholar and breed organizer John Wallace created his second registry for trotting horses (his first was for the American Trotter with a performance standard of 2:40 minute miles). The new Register was for those Trotters that could do the mile in 2:30 or less. Many of the entries were registered American Trotters, others came from the Running Horse or Morgan horse populations.

We usually use our Thoroughbred for the up-grader or base of our sport horse- it is traditional after all, but it is not our only choice and you can get the speed, stamina and athletic prowess from one of our other racehorses.

Above is a print from about 1850 showing some of the greatest American Trotting Horses of that era (Lady Suffolk is the grey). We can call the American Trotter a true breed from the date of its established performance test which was in 1818 on Long Island, NY; the first trotter breed club was organized in 1825 in NY; its first studbook or register was in 1867. Trotting races were usually ridden until about 1840 when harness racing became more popular. However, many of the horses of the day were raced both under saddle and in harness.

The skill and ability that the modern Standardbred has demonstrated in harness has eclipsed its saddle uses, but in the first half of the 20th century it was also shown as a combination horse, a gaited saddle horse and a "walk, trot, canter" horse in horse shows. In addition it was one of the chosen breeds from which the cavalry picked its breeding stock for the production of both the cavalry mount and its international sport horse.

The greatest American 3-day event horse was a little mare named Jenny Camp who won the individual silver and team gold medals in the 1932 Olympics and she came back in 1936 to take the individual silver again. Jenny was 3/4 Thoroughbred and 1/4 was Standardbred. This sport success was not a fluke as her full brother Don R was on the 1932 Olympic jump team. Standardbred mares were a top choice for crossing on the Remount Thoroughbred stallions.

The trot and the pace are the intermediate gaits between the walk and the gallop. A horse can be 'dual-gaited', able to both trot and pace. Our original racehorse was gaited only- the trotting strains emerged with the addition of other bloodlines. For instance our New England Running Horse strain was called the Narragansett Pacer; its speed was timed in the early 1700s as pacing a mile in less than 2:30 minutes. Additions of the Colonial Dutch Cob into the breeding population produced a trot in some stains. The Narragansett Pacer strain- long thought to be a seperate breed was actually just the New England version of the Colonial racehorse, the Virginia-Maryland Colonies had their own branch and the two types traveled by ship frequently for match races and to inter-breed. The New England Running Horse industry, once able to export over 3000 horse per year, never recovered after the Revolution, and its best breeding stock was absorbed into the Maryland-Virginia operations, the Morgan Horse, the New York Trotter and some went to Canada to help develop the Canadian Pacer which was created from our Running Horse crossed into their Canadian Horse- a light farm type. For instance, the greatest Canadian Pacer sire: Tippoo, who was called the "Canadian Messenger" was the product of a sire bred from 2 Narragansett Pacer parents who were purchased in Kingston, RI. Tippoo was dual gaited and he produced extremely fast trotters and pacers.

The trotting horse was more valued in the Northeast after the Revolution, a direct result of the improved roads demanding a fast harness horse. The pacing lines were centered at the time in the Maryland-Virginia area, and then when distance racing became the craze there then the pacing population of racers became centered in the Tennessee and Missouri areas where they thrived until the time of the Civil War.

Key imported horses played a significant role in the development of our racehorses. Janus was an early Thoroughbred who had a tremendous impact on the breeding operations in Virginia. When he was bred to our Running Horse mares he produced incredibly fast sprint racers (forerunners to both our Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse) and also an amazing amount of pacing and trotting racers (forerunners to Standardbred). His genetics were strong in English Running Horse lines and when they combined with our native Running Horse genes it created a super pre-potency in speed. Both of the equine scholars John Wallace and the more recent Alexander MacKay-Smith agree that speed originates with the pacing bloodlines. And this is what Janus' genes reinforced.

The 1800s saw tremendous shifts in our sport horse breeding hubs. In the early 1800s the breeders in southern Virginia-northern North Carolina areas began selection in breeding to save the sprint speed, gaits and good temperament of our Running Horse. Additions of English Thoroughbred after Janus often had strong Turcoman genetics (Godolphin Arabian and Darley Arabian) and they came with gains in distance speed but at a loss of gaits and in disposition, often producing high-strung animals. These 'foundation' breeders, by preserving the original traits of the Running Horse, provided not only good racers but excellent saddle horses, and many of these went west with the frontier. Distance racing became the fad in the Maryland-Virginia areas by mid-1800 and so the fast sprinters and pacers went west also. Tennessee and Missouri became great centers of pacing racehorse breeding. New York, New England and other northern states in the same era were busy prefecting the trotting racer.

After Janus, the next significant typesetter for this breed was the English Hunter Messenger, reported far and wide as a full Thoroughbred- he was not, and according to John Wallace's investigations he was not even close. His dam's lineage was invented, possibly to please the importers. When compiling the first edition of the English Thoroughbred studbook Weatherby had relied on the honesty and knowledge of his contributors, but he subsequently found out that more than a few of his 1st edition entries were incorrect. He corrected some but many errors escaped his scrutiny or energy to fix. Messenger's sire had several lines that are acknowledged as coach horse and hunter lines. So then, what breed is Messenger? He is an English Hunter, and without doubt one of the greatest sport horse sires of his time- but he certainly was not a full Thoroughbred. But there is no reason to rely on my say-so, as we can let Wallace and his impeccable research speak for itself Wallace's investigation into Messenger's ancestry.

Here in America Messenger's speed genetics were magnified when joined with our American Running Horse. Their combined progeny proved to be the fastest trotting and sometimes pacing horses the world had ever seen. Messenger is the foundation sire of our extinct American Trotter breed, and his descendant Hambletonian- who is inbred to Messenger(6 lines)is the foundation sire of our modern Standardbred.
Here is a famous example of the high class racehorse that resulted when Messenger's bloodlines joined to those of our Running Horse. Lady Suffolk 1833 (to left and also seen in the previous illustration under saddle) is one of the greatest trotting horses- male or female- of the 1800s. She was the first to break the 2:30 trotted mile under saddle and she was also the first to break the 2:30 trotted mile in harness. She was a trotting super star, eventually running over 160 races and winning over half of them. She was made immortal in the folk song "The Old Grey Mare" which school children of my day all knew by heart. She is inbred to imported English Hunter Messenger 3x4x4x4 - Lady Suffolk pedigree She raced almost continously and never had a live foal.

Other significant contributors to the American Trotter came from the Black Hawk line- a Morgan sire of 3/4 Running Horse genetics who sired fast and beautiful trotters and was a contemporary of Lady Suffolk. (see the Morgan article for more on Black Hawk).

On the pacing side of things- one of the foundation sires of the modern pacing racer is Gibsons Tom Hal 1862, a grandson of Bald Stockings, he established two dynasties, one in pacing racer with record breaking progeny: Brown Hal, Hal Pointer and Little Brown Jug, and then also a strong line in the Tennessee Walker branch of the American Saddle Horse. Pacing Running Horse sires were often used in the breeding of gaited saddle horses, imparting gaits, speed and stamina.

John Wallace began assembling the best trotting horses of his day and published his findings in an addendum to his 1867 studbook. He then published the first volume of "Wallace's Trotting Register" in 1871 of the trotters who did the mile in 2:40 or less. Later in 1879 he set a 'standard' of 2:30 minute miles for a new register and thereby established the Standardbred as a seperate breed.

In the mean time, the pacing breeders kept trying to get their pacing Running Horse stock included in the Trotting Register and were rebuffed repeatedly. So then Thomas Parsons began assembling the fastest pacing Running Horse strains and in 1890 he published his own register: "Parsons' National Register of Pacing Horse" where he entered all those Running Horses who met the 2:30 minute mile standard or bred more than 2 offspring that met the standard. In 1891 the fastest individuals from both strains were combined in the Standardbred Register. This is our modern Standardbred breed- the fastest trotting and pacing horses in the world.

So in what way are these harness racers a resource for the sport horse breeder?

1. They are a racehorse of the highest class and therefore can be a source of speed and impulsion for our sport horse recipe, and so then they can stand as a substitute for our Thoroughbred or used in conjunction with it.

2. They have retained the sweet temperament of our original Running Horse making them both a joy to work with and a suitable mount for the amateur.

3. They are extremely versatile and can be ridden as well as driven.

4. They are excelling at dressage, jump, event and driving today.

Because of their success as a harness racer we have forgotten that until 1840 they were usually ridden in races, the pacers still were regularly ridden until the late 1800s. The pacing Running Horses are also part of the foundation stock of our talented saddle horse breeds.

There also appears to be a mechanical advantage for the jump coming in with the trotting lines. We find both in Europe and here many of the modern sport breeds that excel at jumping have a strong trotter component. For instance, the Selle Francais emerged from a Norfolk Trotter base and the Holstein from Yorkshire Coach Horse- both trotting breeds. Our Standardbreds today are demonstrating that the jump is a natural for them also.

One of the greatest show jumpers of all time was the 16.3 hand German-bred mare Halla- she holds the world record for Olympic Gold Medals in show jumping: team and individual Gold in the 1956 Olympics and team Gold in the 1960 Olympics. A highly intelligent and sensitive mare, loaded with nervous energy, she was a brilliant performer. Ususally ridden by the equally stellar Hans Winkler, who also trained her, she also along the way won in steeplechase and in Pussiance (high jump). A great sport horse by anyone's measure- her breeding is going to surprise you. Usually recorded and written in books as by a German Trotter sire out of a French Trotter mare- but that is not the full story. The dam Helene was one of the many valuable horses seized by the Nazis during WWII, and most of the information on her breeding is lost, but she is believed to be a French Trotter- 1/2 Thoroughbred. The sire however is not unknown, and he is a full American Standardbred. Look for yourself- Halla's sire Oberst- his pedigree.

Now you may be puzzled by how an American Standardbred ended up in Germany. Standardbreds are the acknowledged upgrader for the slower trotting breeds- of which the German Trotter is one. Whenever speed is needed Standardbred is added. The German Trotter, which is raced under saddle- not in harness, was based on the Orloff Trotter with Standardbred and French Trotter added to the mix. Many Standardbreds were exported from 1900 through the 1930s to improve the European Trotting breeds. Was Oberst bought by Germany before the war or was he 'requisitioned' along with Helene?- I cannot ascertain yet.

Oberst is also interesting to us because he demonstrates the power coming from a filly factor: he is inbred to Ottaray Belle 2x2. Ottaray Belle is a genetic powerhouse to begin with as she carries the full siblings Lady Russell/Lord Russell 3x4. This inbreeding is sitting on the damlines, therefore ruling the Mitochondrial DNA, which in turn controls the energy conversion in the cells. Could this explain why Halla had so much 'nervous energy'? This configuration is the strongest genetic structure in the pedigree and is therefore a typesetting presence and predicts a successful stallion and indictates very good daughters from him (see Tesio Methods).
Read more about Halla and other international level Standardbreds on this link. It isn't just Olympic level competitors that have discovered the quality in the Standardbred, this breed has proven it is a perfect choice for the amateur also. Their agreeable disposition combined with their versatile athletic abilities make them a good choice for riders of any discipline, any age and any competition level.

In 2010 the US Trotting Association proved this point when they presented 8 Standardbreds from across the country at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. These amateur competitors demonstrated the expertise they had achieved in their respective sports: driving of course, show jumping, eventing, dressage, hunter and western disciplines. See Standardbreds shine at the WEG!

Standardbred Sport Bloodlines
American Sport Sources