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Standardbred Horse: a History
| Why Standardbred is no longer just about racing

A History of the Standardbred Horse

The Standardbred Horse is a relatively young breed just over 200 years old. Its origin dates from the England of the late 1700s, and specifically to a horse named "Mambrino." Mambrino had been a legend in 18th century England Trotting races for many years, and was the sire of "Messenger" — an English thoroughbred — credited with becoming the American ancestor of the Standardbred breed.

"Messenger" was brought to the United States in 1788 and later was owned by Henry Astor, brother of John Jacob Astor. For 20 years Messenger produced many of the greatest American race horses in the stud farms of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The famous "Man O'War" was one of his descendants. He is credited with being the horse to whom every Standardbred horse is related.

Messenger's great grandson, "Hambletonian," was foaled in 1849 in upstate New York, and soon became one of the fastest trotting horses of his time. It has been estimated that more than 90% of Standardbred horses today are related to him.


The term "Standardbred" was introduced in 1879 to distinguish those trotting horses who met a certain "standard" for the mile distance. The current standard for 2-yr olds is 2.20 minutes, and for 3-yr olds the standard is 2.15 minutes. The standard distance is always one mile. It is interesting to remember that this breed of horses have been able to achieve this standard with some level of consistency. It appears that "Messenger" passed on some very fast genes!

More detailed descriptions of the Standardbred Horse breed can be found at:
The National Museum of the Horse at Lexington, Kentucky.

Other sites of interest regarding the History of the Standardbred Horse
The Standardbred Horse from "Equiworld"
or from
NetPets: Finding the Perfect Horse at the Harness Track by Karen Briggs


A note about the history of racing in America

Racing with a rider sitting on the horse's back was prohibited in most areas of 19th Century United States. Apparently it had gotten a very bad press because of the associated gambling and the unsavory characters who attached themselves to the sport. Harness racing, on the other hand, had not been so tainted and instead had become increasingly popular at State Fairs.

For those who remember the 1962 lyrics from The Music Man, mention was made about the "evils" of "flat racing." (where "they set down right on the horse!") The main character, Professor Harold Hill, sang:

"An' the next thing ya know,
Your son is playin' for money
In a pinch-back suit.
And list'nin to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin' him tell about horse-race gamblin'.
Not a wholesome trottin' race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey'boy
Sittin' on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?"

[Note: the "Dan Patch" in the song was a real horse, and a famous
Standardbred racer who lived from 1897 - 1916.]

Learn why the Standardbred isn't just about "racing" anymore.
Traditionally used as a harness race-horse, the Standardbred is an American creation. Originally bred to be the "family car," they had to be calm, level-headed, versatile, and capable of going long distances at a steady pace. They took the family to church by wagon, plowed the fields, took Dad to the store on Saturday, or took Junior to school bare-back. Chance meetings on the road led to neighborly competitions, then to county fair races, and finally to the racetracks that we know today.

Thoroughbred blood crossed with the Norfolk Trotter, Hackney, Morgan, and Canadian Pacer resulted in what is now called the Standard-bred. The Standardbred is known for its two distinct racing gaits — trotting or pacing.

Today, Standardbreds can be registered if both parents are registered Standardbreds. A horse must still better a minimum time requirement set by individual racetracks before they are allowed to race. Even though most race as pacers, they usually trot when not racing. American Standardbreds are the fastest harness racehorses in the world and have been exported to improve harness racing breeds all over the globe.


Because of the number of horses that never get to race or are retired from racing, the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization (SPHO) was founded to encourage people to use non-racing Standardbreds in other equestrian disciplines.

Most Standardbreds are very versatile far beyond their racing years and have proven themselves to be well suited for both pleasure use and meeting the challenge of competition.

They can range from 14.1 to 17 hands* and are usually bay or brown with an occasional gray, chestnut, or black. Known for their durable bodies and steady temperaments, the Standardbred can make a fine family horse.

* One hand is equal to 4 inches, and measurement is
from the shoulder [withers] to the ground.


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