The Standardbred is an American breed developed for the sport of harness racing. But just like their Thoroughbred ancestors, these horses can go on to successful second careers as riding horses after they leave the racetrack.

Standardbreds are classified as trotters or pacers depending on the gait they use for races. Bred initially from horses that could trot one mile in a standard time, the American Standardbred is now the fastest trotting breed in the world.

While high-stress racing careers can lead to health problems even after Standardbreds arrive at their new homes, careful management can help these horses thrive. Many Standardbred owners enjoy these ex-racehorses as friendly and willing pleasure mounts.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional needs of the Standardbred breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Standardbred horses.

Standardbred Horse History

The Standardbred’s origin story is closely linked to the history of harness racing in America. As the sport grew in popularity, new breed standards emerged, creating the modern trotters and pacers that dominate Standardbred racetracks today.


Settlers first raced trotting horses under saddle in the fields and village streets of Colonial America. Many of these horses were Narragansett Pacers, the first horse breed developed in North America.

By the mid-19th century, trotting races moved to official racetracks and featured harnessed horses pulling drivers in carts. Bloodlines from Thoroughbreds imported to sire flat racing horses at the time also heavily influenced the new breed of harness horses.

Messenger, a gray Thoroughbred stallion imported in 1788, played a central role in developing the modern trotting breed. His great-grandson Hambletonian 10, foaled in 1849, is considered the foundation sire of the American Standardbred. [1]

Other influential breeds that contributed to the development of the Standardbred include the Canadian Pacer, Norfolk Trotter, Hackney, and Morgan.

The name Standardbred arose from the standard trotting speeds required of breeding stock. At the time of the breed’s founding, horses had to trot one mile in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds to be included in the breed registry.

Historic Use

Colonial Americans used the ancestors of Standardbreds as working horses for transportation and farm work. Eventually, interest in recreational trotting races pushed breeding practices towards producing faster mounts explicitly bred for racing.

While harness racing events were held at county fairs as early as 1825, the first official American harness racing tracks opened in the mid-1800s. By the early 1900s, it was one of the fastest-growing sports in America. [2]

Harness horses pull a driver in a two-wheeled cart during races. These races are conducted in two different gaits, the trot and the pace. Trotters move their legs forward in diagonal pairs, while pacers move lateral pars simultaneously.

Today, breeders develop slightly different bloodlines of Standardbreds to specialize as trotters or pacers. But both trotters and pacers can trace their lineage back to Hambletonian 10.

Breed Registry

The National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders established the standards that distinguished the Standardbred horse as a unique breed in 1879 and launched the trotting horse registry. [1]

After harness racing surged in popularity in North America, the U.S. Trotting Association emerged in 1939 to organize the industry as the sport’s sole regulatory body. The USTA continues to maintain the breed registry for Standardbred horses today. [2]

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