Standardbreds, although they have more Thoroughbred blood than anything else, wouldn’t be racing at the trot and pace while pulling a vehicle if there weren’t other genetic contributors as well. The most important was the now-extinct Norfolk Trotter, an old English coaching breed that was never used for competitive racing. But the nature of people and horses being what they are, Norfolk Trotters were enthusiastically used in long road races against the clock.
As railroads displaced coaches in long-distance transportation, both the Norfolk Trotter and their 20- to 40-mile timed performances disappeared. But the horses left behind their racing legacy and their genes.
The Norfolk Trotter had a healthy dose of Thoroughbred blood himself, but he had heavier bone and more muscle. He also had physical characteristics that enabled him to trot smoothly and very rapidly.
American farmers and others interested in moving their goods and themselves as quickly as possible naturally wanted Norfolk Trotter blood, and they imported plenty of it. Some of it found its way into the Morgan breed, and Morgans as well as more direct Norfolk Trotter descendants combined with the Thoroughbred during the mid-19th century to provide most of the genes to the Standardbred pool.
To Trot or to Pace, That Is the Question
Genes other than Thoroughbred and Norfolk Trotter also found their way into the Standardbred mix genes that have played a vital role in modern harness racing. As the trotting horse contingent evolved into the Standardbred, a smaller and less-popular group of harness racers were busy competing around North America. They were pacers animals who looked pretty much like good trotters and pulled their vehicles as fast or even faster.
The pace has been around for thousands of years and, during the Middle Ages, was considered the more comfortable gait for lady riders. In the late 19th century, pacers began to be accepted as an alternative to trotting Standardbreds. Since many of the newly designated Standardbreds produced offspring who preferred to pace, pacers became acceptable as a separate but equal variation of the breed.
A hundred years ago, most races were for trotters. Today the opposite is true, probably because pacing is a faster, more consistent gait.
What Makes a Standardbred?
Standardbreds, trotters or pacers, have a lot in common with each other in spite of their different gaits. Let’s look first at similarities.
Most Standardbreds, regardless of gait, tend to be shorter than Thoroughbreds but slightly heavier in body structure. Most successful Standardbreds are between 15 and 16 hands tall.
Although harness horsemen, like most horsemen, believe that a good big horse beats a good little horse most of the time, history offers more examples of Standardbred champions who are smaller-than-average.
Both trotters and pacers are usually bay, occasionally chestnut or brown, rarely gray, and never paint or pinto. Most have little white on their legs or faces. Some of this uniformity of color occurs because racing people believe they prefer it.
Most Standardbreds are good-natured and easy to manage, partially because they get a lot of handling very early in their lives. In addition, the process of hooking a horse to a vehicle requires an animal that cooperates. Difficult horses have to be remarkably good to get a chance to race. They have to be even better to be bred because nobody in harness racing wants to perpetuate bad temper genes.