An ex-harness

racer could turn

out to be the

nicest mount

you've ever had.

by  Mark  Harling

Horse Canada - November / December 2009

Standardbreds are often revered and pampered while they are winning and earning money in North American harness racing circles. But, if they are getting up in age, stressed-out or injured by the daily demands placed upon them, many often face a bleak future. If they were exceptionally fast and productive at the track they may have second careers at breeding facilities. Some may be allowed to retire to a life of leisure and become lawn ornaments in lush, large pastures as a reward for their years of service. However, the sad reality is that many racers will spend the last few days and hours of their lives at slaughterhouses, frightened and confused in crowded holding pens. The years of thundering hoofs at the finish line in front of cheering spectators, trips to the winner's circle where they posed for pictures alongside their proud owners are now faded images of the past. Whether they were mediocre claimers or high-end stakes racers with lifetime earnings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; they are now all worth the same ~ about 40 cents a pound for the value of their meat.

It's good to be aware of the current meat price in your part of the country since that may be the level at which bargaining can begin if you choose to buy a trotter or pacer as your next riding companion. Contrary to popular belief, Standardbreds often make excellent mounts as pleasure and competitive trail riding horses. Some have been known to excel in the show jumping or barrel racing ring.

Making the transition

All the people I spoke to during research for this article admit they were a bit surprised, if not shocked, by how uneventful it was to put the first saddle on a harness horse and the first bum in that saddle. Generally, racehorses  are handled by humans on a daily  basis from the start. They know what a bit and bridle are all about. They understand crossties, noisy barns, crowded aisles, trucks, highway traffic, horse trailers, tractors and large groups of excited people who shout and cheer. That's their life.

Deanna Ramsay of Aurora, Ontario has worked professionally with Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds at various Ontario racetracks for several years and has been around horses for most of her life. She admits that she has been taken by surprise more than once by the reaction she has received when placing saddles for the first time on harness racing horses.

A pacer named Dressy was her first candidate as a saddle horse. "I just tacked her up," said Ramsay, and there were absolutely no issues at all. The horse didn't act any differently than she had during all those times she'd been harnessed, hitched and sent out to the track on race night. The next step was to take Dressy outside to the round pen. With her friend Jenny keeping the horse steady, Ramsay decided that now was the time to give it a try. She stepped up on a water bucket and gently flopped across the mare's back a few times.

The horse was so unconcerned about the whole process that she went to sleep, quite literally, said Ramsay, "her eyes closed and ears flopped to the side". At that point she thought it might be safe enough to climb into the saddle. She got on and off a few times as Dressy continued to nap. "With any other horse, I would have stopped for the day," said Ramsay. But, in this case, she continued. With urging from her friend on the ground, the mare calmly moved forward. When the horse was asked to halt, she halted. Ramsay said she tried the brakes a couple of times and they appeared to be in perfect working order so she started asking Dressy to respond to her leg. When she didn't move forward from leg pressure, she asked Jenny to lead her. After a few minutes of that, the horse figured out what was being asked of her and moved forward on her own when urged.

Ramsay repeated the entire process the next day and it was so uneventful that she nearly took a nap herself. Three days later she took the mare to the forest where they encountered logging equipment and four-wheelers. Dressy just observed everything with curiosity and remained unfazed. "It was all quite spectacularly uneventful," said Ramsay.

Andrea Niit is still in her early 20's, but has been training Standardbreds for several years. A few years ago she took one of the horses in her care all the way to the Hambletonian elimination series final at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The Hambletonian is the "Kentucky Derby" of the harness racing world.

Niit says the Standardbreds she has worked with under saddle were "incredibly easy to break to ride." They already had manners and they knew how to steer and stop. Niit says you really just need a little patience when working with these horses. "They are eager to please and will usually do what you ask, once they understand what it is you're asking".

Niit's current riding horse is a steed named Sooner. He raced against some of the top colts on the Ontario circuit. Now retired from the oval, he has adjusted quite well, says Niit. He jumps a three-foot fence as well as any warmblood that she has ridden and canters just as well. He especially loves barrel racing and seems to enjoy the competitive aspect.

Overlooked treasures

Niit was quite pleased to hear that this article was being written for Horse-Canada magazine. Standardbreds, she says with conviction, are the breed that gets the least amount of respect when they are probably one of the most versatile and talented horses out  there.

The lack of awareness of the potential of these horses is especially upsetting to people like Rachel Overland. She lives just kilometers from one of the top harness racing tracks in southern Ontario and just a 90-minute drive from an equine slaughterhouse. One of her goals in life is to prevent the suffering and improve the conditions of horses that are shipped to market. Often, she is able to rescue and rehabilitate slaughterhouse-bound horses. It warms her heart to see them recover enough to eventually be adopted and given a new home and a second chance at life as a saddle horse.

Kaeli is one such horse that was rescued at death's door by Overland and her friend Heather. The Standardbred mare was pregnant and standing in a slaughterhouse pen. The two women were made aware of the situation and were able to come up with enough cash to buy the mare and remove her. In some cases, "there are up to 30 or more horses crammed into 15 by 30-foot pens, often with no food or water," said Overland. A few months after Kaeli's rescue, Oliver was foaled.

Use resources and choose wisely

Like humans, all horses are different. It would be wrong to assume that any retired harness racing horse will be the quintessential riding companion. Unfortunately, some have been pushed beyond their limitations on the track and, because of career-ending injuries, suffer persistent soreness, making them unlikely candidates as pleasure horses. You can't underestimate the value of a vet check before closing the deal to buy.

If you are thinking about a Standardbred, do your homework, check the websites of various Standardbred adoption agencies in Canada, contact them and seek information. These organizations will provide guidance, support and practical training information to help you - that's why they exist.

There are always lots of ex-racehorses in need of new homes, so if you look hard enough, you will find a horse that fits your situation. He or she might just prove to be the best and most loyal and honest riding companion that you will ever have the pleasure of knowing and appreciating.


Your horse's ability to work well in a flat walk and eliminate the pace depends on a strong, stretched, semi-rounded back working as a "connection" from his hindquarters to his poll and jaw. You can help him develop that connection by improving the strength and elasticity of his neck and back muscles. The first step in improving the tone of those muscles is teaching him to lower and extend his neck on cue. This exercise goes by many names: "long and low," "showing the horse to the ground," and "head down and out." It is used in many forms of training and it is vital to teaching any horse to stop pacing. You can practice the neck stretching exercise either in an arena or out on the trail. It should become a regular part of your riding routine as soon as your horse understands it.

Lee Ziegler

Easy Gaited Horses

Storey Publishing 2005

Retraining  tips  from  the  Experts

by  Marcia  King

For the most part, ex-harness racers are well-trained, intelligent horses that, in the right hands, successfully move on to other disciplines. But it takes effort, sensitivity, patience, and a sense of what kind of work best suits an individual horse's body and mind to uncover that buried treasure. The transition time between coming off the racetrack and going into specialized training should allow for: down time, farm adjustment, socialization and change of feed. The following tips have been gathered from trainers who are experienced and successful in the procedure.

Chilling Out

Up to two months of time-off may be required in order for the horse to relax and adjust their energy level downwards. Your veterinarian should be part of the process, especially if the horse is recuperating from a racing injury, such as bone chips, bowed tendons, slab fractures, pulled suspensories, etc.

Most racehorses are unused to turnout and "normal" horse life. At the track the water bucket is often held to their lips and their hay hangs from the wall at eye level. Some are afraid of the water tank and might not know how to drink from a tank, automatic waterer, or creek. Assume nothing about the horse's barn skills and monitor everything.

If the horse is right off the track, beware of too much pasture grazing at first. More grass than the horse is accustomed to can set the stage for digestive upset and even laminitis.

Social Club

Racehorses are used to their own stalls and may not know how to share turnout space. Introducing them to the herd should be done on a gradual basis. Initially, just let them stick their heads over their stall doors so they can see their barn mates. Turn them out alone, in a small, safe area at first, in sight of the herd. Gradually increase turnout space and proximity to other turned-out horses. In geldings, it can take up to three months for steroids and the accompanying stallionlike behaviour to wear off, so do not mix them with mares.

Close or extended contact with humans can also be overwhelming. Gain trust by standing next to the horse while he is eating his grain, stroking his neck, and talking soothingly to him. Move slowly when you're working around the horse. If the horse is calm enough, spend some time massaging his legs, as this is a familiar feeling and a good feeling.

The Feed Makes The Horse

Part of what goes into making a high-energy racehorse is high-energy feed. At the track, racehorses commonly receive grain, alfalfa, vitamins, and minerals. Removing high-energy foods is an integral part of transforming the "hot" horse into a calmer, more manageable partner.

It's advisable to avoid supplements until all foreign substances and medications are out the horse's system and you can truly assess their needs.

Free-choice, good quality hay helps with transitioning down in concentrates and is also beneficial psychologically, as the horse can occupy himself with a familiar behaviour.

Retraining Principles

Keep training sessions short, at 10-15 minutes once a day. If the horse accepts this, add minutes, up to a maximum of a 30-40 minute session.

Maintain patience and spend a lot of time just getting to know the horse. Be observant of how they move at liberty, tacked and untacked. Let the horse become confident in you before you start anything new, so they know you're not there to push them hard.

Round pen work is a safe way to start. A round pen is small enough that the horse cannot get too much speed up, and it's easier to get them stopped.

Reward each success by releasing pressure (letting the horse not have to work) and by giving praise or treats. End each session on a positive note. If things start to get out of control or you lose the horse's attention, ask for something simple that the horse knows how to do, and then stop.

Mastering Basics

Prior to moving into a specific discipline, the ex-racehorse usually requires schooling in the basics. They're used to taking the bit and taking off instead of giving to the bit. Teaching a horse to respond to the bit can be done without mounting, through ground driving exercises.

Once the horse is accustomed to the saddle, have an experienced person hold the horse and calm him while the rider leans weight on the saddle, flops across the saddle and eventually mounts (this may take several sessions). Once the horse is settled, the rider should lean both to the left and right so the horse sees her out of both eyes. The rider should run her hands over the horse's shoulders and hips to soothe the horse and let him get accustomed to movement on his back.

Working in a small paddock or arena, quietly ask the horse to walk with a verbal command, "kiss" or a tap to the rump with your hand. Standardbreds are very accustomed to seeing a whip. Most of the time the horse is going to go forward in response to the kiss. It can take a while for a horse to understand that taking back on the reins means to stop. Reinforcing the halt with a verbal cue ("whoa") while doing longe or groundwork helps.

Punctuate the walk with intermittent stopping and standing to reinforce the bitting lessons and teach the horse to yield to leg pressure. Keep the pace slow. Go over and around obstacles and execute patterns around pylons and over ground poles. This focus on leg and hand aids reduces the learning curve and breaks the monotony. As the horse progresses - usually about three sessions - try taking him around the farm, maneuvering through gates and around trees or vehicles. This helps establish a foundation for riding that is built on 'quiet and easy.' At least three to four sessions should be spent in this manner before moving into the trot for the first time. 

To trot, relax pressure on the reins and "kiss" until the horse moves out. This could mean multiple kisses or clucks and occasionally a tap on the rump, since these horses are still learning to move forward to leg pressure. Because Standardbreds tend to have a rough trot, some owners prefer to teach them to rack. The rack is a single-foot gait that is much smoother than a trot. Most Standardbred saddle horse owners prefer it. Once the horse is responding well to the bit and to leg aids, hold the horse in the bridle, and drive him forward with legs and verbal encouragement. Many will move right into a smooth rack. All Standardbreds carry the gaited gene and both trotters and pacers can be taught to rack. Though it's easier to initially hit a 'gait' with a pacer, the serious racking horse riders prefer the trotters, because the rack is more distinct and less pacey.

Racehorses are taught to travel in a straight line. Learning to bend their bodies around the rider's leg will take time.

Before advancing to faster gaits, the horse should know how to stand quietly, yield to the bit, give to leg pressure, have a collected trot, understand the halt, and come back to the rider.

Cantering is not initially easy for most Standardbreds. Ask for the canter from a state of collection. The horse might also pick up a canter if pushed over a low obstacle up a hill or taken over a low obstacle.

Learning the basics can take, on average, about 60-90 days. From that point, most horses are ready to go on to different work.