Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How do I get my horse to slow down?

Whether you have a Standardbred, an Arabian, a Thoroughbred, or a Quarter Horse, some things are universal to all breeds. In particular, I'm talking about cue to slow your horse down.

This email recently came all the way from Slovenia (!!!!), where Standardbred owner Valerija Toplišek is re-training a 6-year-old Standardbred mare off the track. Valerija writes:

I m from Slovenia. I bought a 6 year-old-Standardbred mare 5 months ago. Before I bought her, she was on track. When I ride her, she always pulls. She won t accept the bit at all. And a new problem is that, in the trott, she always goes faster and I must pull reins. Then, she starts kicking with her back legs. I think she is angry that I am trying to slow her.

Please help!

Valerija Toplišek and her 6-year-old mare, Suzi

I say it a lot here in these posts, but I shall say it again: your horse must learn your language. Harness racing horses coming off the track, in particular, must learn a new way of dealing with the bit. Most of the time, their owners/drivers/trainers don't care if the horses pull. They just want them to go fast, and not break into the canter.

Therefore, it is critical that you treat your Standardbred a bit like a human baby. Children must learn how to speak your language. So must your horse.

One of the best ways to do this is to longe your horse, or work her at liberty (without halter or longe line). As she goes into each of her gates, you reinforce what she is doing by saying, "Trot, good trot. Trot." Do this at every gait, including the halt, walk, and canter. Continually reinforce with verbal cues, such as "walk, good walk." Or "canter, good canter."

Check your position: Valerija did not indicate her level of riding experience. But I might also recommend that she get a few lessons under her belt to make sure she is sitting correctly and using her body and aids correctly.
If you are telling your horse with your reins to slow--but sitting in such a way that your horse is hearing "go, go, go," you are going to end up in a mess of confusion.
Even the best riders occasionally consult a reputable trainer to get some feedback, because it is easy to fall into bad habits. Some of the most common mistakes include sitting too far back in the saddle, riding with flat hands, or having your legs to far forward.

Working on the longe or at liberty and making sure you are riding correctly can be augmented by a third--and critical--exercise...the flex.

Why flex your horse?

Flexing your horse is a top-notch way to sensitize your horse to the bit. We all want a horse that is light and responsive. In Valerija's case, her mare has learned to lean on the bit, to resist, and to pull.
Horses hate pressure. They will look for ways to find relief from pressure. Valerija's mare has obviously learned to live with the pressure of a hard hand and a stiff rein. Our job is to teach her that if she releases, all the pressure will come off.
In flexing exercises, you will first start with a rope halter and then proceed to flexing with the bit. I will discuss flexing in the bit next week.

Objective: To invite your horse to touch her nose to her stomach, right where the girth would go. Once she does this, you immediately release. Thus, your horse learns that when you ask her for something, she will be rewarded immediately with a release of pressure.
Step One:
Let's start on the horse's right side. Stand at your horse's side, slightly behind the withers. With your right hand, take hold of your lead line, leaving approximately a foot between your hand and the place where the lead line attaches to the halter.
Pull the lead line so that it is taut, and place your right hand firmly on your horse's spine, just behind the withers. (In my photo, Best Husband in the World is standing a bit too close to the shoulder--you want to make sure your right hand is behind the withers. Your left hand will be further back on the horse's spine.)
You might feel your horse pulling hard against you. Ignore it, and simply plant your right and left hands firmly on her spine. Do not pull. Instead, maintain a tight, steady hold. Do not give up.

At first, you horse may try to get away from this exercise by turning its haunches away and spinning in a circle. It is important that you do not fuss about this: simple follow all your horse's movements. Do not be worried about getting kicked: when your horse's head is turned toward you, he is a bit off balance and will be reluctant to kick from this angle. Mostly, he will be just trying to figure out what it is you want. (Caution: if your horse is a kicker, do get help with this exercise from an expert who can work with you and your horse in person.)

Step Two:
Here you can see that Skye is starting to release to Craig. When you are first working with your horse, this might be a good place to release to her. The "release" is exactly what it sounds like: you want to completely release the tension you have created by pulling on the lead line.

Once you have released, stroke your horse's neck and face, and then quickly pick up your line and do the exercise again. As your horse begins to get the idea, you can hold the line longer. Keep working on it until your horse touches her nose to her belly.'

The key: the instant that your horse touches her nose to her belly, you must release.
She will quickly learn that when she gives to you softly, she will be rewarded. This knowledge will eventually translate to working in the bit.

Do this exercise six or seven times on one side, then go to the horse's other side and do the same. Then repeat on both sides.
As top clinician Clinton Anderson is fond of saying, your horse has two sides. This means that she also has two sides to her brain. It is imperative that you work both sides of the brain, and both sides of the horse equally.

Next week: flexing your horse in the bit, on the ground and in the saddle

Monday, December 14, 2009

Follow up to the trot question

I was very pleased today to get a follow-up email from Christine. You may recall that Christine and her mare, Jessie, were the featured guests in my last blog, writing us all the way from Canada.

Christine originally wrote me because her little mare, a former pacer, would be delighted to keep pacing under saddle. Really fast.
Christine has other ideas and fancies the idea of a nice trot, with the legs moving diagonally, as opposed to laterally, the way a pacer moves.. You can read that post on the ins-and-outs of teaching your Standardbred pacer how to trot by clicking here.

And the good news advice worked! I just love it when that happens!

Here's a bit of what Christine said:

Hi Anastasia,

Here's the update I promised. I started by walking with her on a line and just saying (like you said) walk, walk, and I'd give her a carrot after a few turns. I tried to use praise as a reward but it wasn't enough of a motivator for her. So after a few days of that I was able to take the line off after a few turns around the ring with it on. So she was just walking quietly beside me.

I tried several times on the ground to get her into the trot but wasn't successful. So not one to give up, I tried it in the saddle. I started at a few turns at a walk then said "little faster" and gave just a slight pressure with my legs. She went into "racing" mode so I did what you suggested and rather then pull back on both reins (which just made her fight the bit or stop) I pulled back on just one.

She went into what I think you called an amble. So now I had a work for a slow gait that she understood and was able to work with that command on the ground. We would start at a walk, I'd say "little faster" she would go into the amble. While after a few weeks of this she realized that work meant not a race but an amble. That she wouldn't be punished for not going fast.

So the last few days, both on a line and under saddle, she has learned to work at a calm pace. Yesterday under saddle after several turns at an amble she deiced the trot would be more comfortable, seeing as no one was pushing her to go faster she just slid into it naturally.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!

Today I went and worked her at liberty and I couldn't believe it (yes I had a tear in my eye) I picked up the whip, said walk, off she went a few turns at a walk , I said a"little faster" expecting her to go into an amble and she did it!! She went right into a lovely trot and kept it up for about 4-5 turns around the ring, all are her own.

Thanks again for you help.

Christine and Jessie (because I know she would thank you if she could)

Christine has really demonstrated one of the key components in training your Standardbred to transition from pace to trot. And that component is patience. Patience, combined with consistent work in small chunks, and a whole lot of praise can really help your horse make progress.

Good work, Christine! We are looking forward to seeing a photo of you and Jessie at the trot!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Teaching your Standardbred to Trot (and not pace)

Christine, from Quebec, astride her darling Standbred mare, Jessie. Notice Jessie is perfomring a text book "pace," with her two left legs moving in tandem.

One of the reasons I love doing this blog is that it has connected me with Standbred lovers from all over the world. I have readers who send me questions from places as far flung as Australia and as close as just down the road from our farm in beautiful Pilot Hill.

A few days ago, I received a traomomg question from All About Standardbreds reader Christine, who hails from Quebec, Canada. She is working with her 13-year-old former pacer, Jessie. Jessie had a brief racing career, and then became a brood mare for several years. Now, she comes to Crhistine green broke to saddle riding, despite her somewhat older age. Christine plans to use Jessie mostly for trail riding in English tack.

Christine's concerns? "Jessie is fantastic in the harness, but she falls apart under saddle. She has a fantastic pace when it is slow, but when she speeds up, it is impossible to sit. How can I train her to trot?"

"You mean like a normal horse?" sneer my friends who have yet to come to the Standbred side, the side of right, the side of common sense with pure athleticism. But I digress.

Christine's concerns about teaching her horse to trot have merit. But it's important to remember that the trot is, fundamentally, a natural gait to all horses. Including pacers.

Pacers are taught two things while training at the track: The first is to never, ever canter. The second is to never trot. So although the trot is natural, it has been trained out of race horses who pace. It can also be trained back in, which is what Christine now must do.

Difference between the pace and the trot As discussed in a previous post, one of the most common questions I get is "What is the different between a pacer and a trotter?"

In its simplest terms, a trotter moves its legs in a diagonal fashion. For example, when the horse's right front is extended forward, its left hind will move forward in tandem.

By contrast, a pacer moves laterally. This mean when her left front leg is extended forward, her left hind is also moving forward.

Ridden at a normal, non-racing speed, a Standardbred's pace can be smooth as glass, much like the feeling riders get astride gaited horses like Tennessee Walkers. However, if you are working with a retired race horse who still has n't gotten the word that its' time to slow down, you can find yourself nearly unseated by a full-out pace.

In recent years, pacers have also been discouraged from performing their gaited amble because some experts consider it unsafe. On a narrow track trail, a horse traveling in a lateral trot can become unbalanced. Accrding to the nay-sayers, this puts the rider at risk for the horse falling over. I have personally never seen this--and never had anything but sure-footed performance from my pacer/trail horse. Having said that, I can understand the logic behind the argument that pacers are not safe trail horses. As I always say, "It is good to have a healthy fear and to respect that riding is inherently dangerous. Make the safest choises you can at all times."

Given that Christine has already expressed concern about her mare tripping, it is my advice that she start to train Jessie to do it the old fashioned way--just trot.

How to start In my recent posts about teaching your Standardbred to canter, I discussed at length the idea of teaching your horse your language. Getting your horse to understand the connection between your word, "trot," and his gait is critical.

The Steps in Brief

1) Hopefully, you have a round pen. If not, working on the longe line is also fine. I was recently asked "Why do you always promote the round pen so much?" Simple: The round pen offers a place where the horse can travel in a consistent direction at liberty. The round pen works better than a ring with corners. I also like working the horse at liberty without a halter, so he leans to make decisions on his own. It builds confidence in a young horse--or an older one who is still green broke.

At any rate, let your horse run lose to play and get his jollies out. After he gets all his friskiness out, he will be more inclined to settle down into his work. For Christine, who is working on a longe line, I suggested that she first let her mare run loose to kick and play. After she is done with that, Christine can then put the halter and longe line on, clearly signaling to Jessie that "It's time to work now."

2) Tools: you will want to have a longe line, flag, or other took that you use to drive you horse forward and away from you. I prefer halters and longe lines that are rope. This light-weight creations make the horse feel less confined. Also, a proper rope halter is constructed so that pressure points on the poll and nose help the horse to learn more quickly.

3) Saying the word, "trot," ask your horse to trot by getting behind her drive line and putting pressure on her with the whip or flag. The minute she starts to pace, bring her back to the walk. Say the word, "Walk" as you bring her down. If you are working at liberty, you can help her transition down by position your body slightly in front of her shoulder, saying, "walk."

If you are working with a longe line, you will want to give a gentle tug on the longe, along with the command to "walk." If she won't walk, step in front of her shoulder while tugging the line slightly. She will start to get the connection.

4) Try again. Ask for the trot, use your vocal commands and combine them with pressure behind her drive line. If your mare trots, even a couple steps, praise her lavishly and add the words, "Trot, trot, good trot, good trot."

5) Stick with it. In teaching a Standardbred to trot, the most important key to success will be your patience. You are teaching her to do something she was taught to never, ever do. Now you are giving her permission. It can be confusing.

Always start with your ground work. Your mare already feels uncertain and unbalanced. Allowing her to learn the trot at liberty wil make your work much easier when you get into the saddle.

A word about goals Keep your goals realistic as you work with your horse. Don't expect her to get it within the first few sessions. My beautiful mare, Cordealia, is now doing fantastic second level dressage work. She also loves to trot on the trails for hours. But when I first got her, she was a natural pacer. It took several months to train her pace out of her. Even now, she will slip into it every once in a while when breaking from the center. But mst of the time, you would never know of her former days as a winning pacer. She is proof that you can train a pacer to trot--brilliantly so!

Keep us posted on your progress with Jessie, Christine!

In my next post, I will address teaching the trot while in the saddle.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Teaching your Standardbred to Canter, Part II

In my last post, I discussed the importance of establishing a strong foundation of basics for your Standbred before attempting the canter.

Your foundation is composed of consistent round pen or longe line work, including flexion, getting your horse's feet to move, de-sensitizing him to scary objects, and teaching him verbal commands in conjunction with the walk, trot, canter, and halt.

At this point, your horse is familiar with what you want when you say the word "canter," at least from the ground. Now you are ready to put it to work while you are in the saddle.

The easiest method The easiest way I have found to teach a Standardbred (or any horse, for that matter) how to canter is to put them up a hill. When a horse travels up a hill with a fairly good angle to it, he naturally will want to canter. It is easier for him. So I like to work with that, by hitting the trail.

(If you don't have a hill close by, and only have an arena to work with, I'll address that in a moment.)

I do a lot of walking with my younger horses on the trail, because it teaches them that trail riding is a relaxing thing, not just an opportunity to run wild.

So start with a nice, quiet walk on a loose rein to put your horse in a happy, relaxed frame of mind. Add in the trot when you feel he is quiet.

At the hill, you want to put your horse into the trot first and then drive him forward with your voice ("canter, Sparky, canter"), seat, and legs into the canter. It is important to keep a light rein so that he feels he has the freedom to go forward.

As your horse breaks into the canter, I like to constantly reinforce his stride with the words, "Canter. Canter. Good canter. canter" This helps him remember the work you have done in the round pen or on the longe line. He will connect the two and have an "ah ha" moment.

Your horse will most likely gallop before he canters. Try not to pull him back too much when you first start working at the canter. You don't want him to be completely out of control, of course. But do your best to let him go at his own pace. This is really new to him, and he needs to figure it out.

And he will definitely figure it out. As he does (give it at least three to four weeks of consistent work). Soon, you will feel that he doesn't have to "fall" into his canter the way he did when you first started asking him for this gait.

At this point, you can start asking for a little more collection. To slow him down, sit deeply, tighten your stomach muscles and lift your sternum. At the same time, gently bring him back with one rein and say, "Slow." Pulling back with both reins can make a horse feel blocked and they often will respond by setting their jaws against your hands. Even if he breaks into a trot, reward him lavishly with your voice and hand...because it shows that he tried.

As you work with your horse, you will see progress. This is an exercise in patience for the trainer. Just know that you are asking him to do something he was trained NOT to do, at all costs, while on the track. Reward even his smallest efforts.

In the arena If you do not have a hill, but only an arena, teaching your horse to canter is only slightly different than the steps cited above.

In the beginning, you are only looking for the canter: it doesn't have to be pretty, or even on the right lead. It just has to be a canter. Refinement can come later.

I usually start by putting my horse into a trot once or twice around the arena until he is relaxed. Then coming out of corner and down the long side, put your legs into him, loosen the rein so he has his head and ask him to canter with your voice. You might feel you have to "run" him into the canter. That's okay.

If you horse just gets faster without cantering, bring him back to the walk. Ask again for a quiet trot and then again, say "canter" and use your seat and legs to see if you can pop him into it.

CAUTION: Do not try this in a small arena. You will need a lot of room for this method to work effectively and safely.

After your horse has successfully been able to canter (or even gallop) down the long side, you should feel he is starting to connect the word "canter" with an actual canter. At this point, you can start asking him to canter as you come into your corners: this will encourage him to learn how to pick up a correct lead.

Reward even the slightest effort and you will soon be cantering along effortlessly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teach your Standardbred How to Canter

(This is the first of a two-part article on teaching your horse how to canter.
Part I: Teaching your Standardbred your language.)
When I traded in my last Thoroughbred for my first Standardbred, I proudly turned her out in the arena to watch her go. Go she did. At the pace. Trying to get her to canter--but seeing only that lateral trot unique to pacers, I thought, "Hmm. I have my work cut out for me."

As you can see from the photo above, Cordealia did indeed learn to canter. And not just in the field. She can now turn in a beautiful, balanced, and collected canter in the dressage ring, as well as a spirited gallop on the trail.

One of the most damning myths about the Standardbred is that you cannot teach one to canter. While completely false, it does take a bit of extra work. A look at the protocols of the track can help you understand why the canter might at first make your Standardbred give the equine equivalent of "No way, man!"

When in "the bike (the insider's word for the light-weight, two-wheeled sulky used in harness racing)," the horse wears a check rein that keeps the head high and also helps to keep him in a trot or in a pace. Horses are also fitted with hobbles, light-weight rubber tubing that hang loosely around the animal's legs and helps keep him in the pace.

Further, cantering, known as "breaking," is just about the worst thing a pacing horse or trotter can do. When a horse breaks, his driver must quickly bring him back into the pace. If it happens during a race, it inevitably results in loss of momentum, loss of the all-important position, and loss of the race overall. Breaking into the canter is discouraged at all costs.

When you bring your Standardbred to his new, off-the-track home with you, it's a little like if you were to visit a fore gin country where you did not speak the language. Some things would be familiar. But until you learned the language, you would struggle.

Your horse is in a bit of the same position. You must teach him your language.

Where to start As the old saying goes, before you can walk, you must crawl. In the language of your Standardbred, we might saying, before you can canter, you must trot and walk and respond to my verbal commands.

My first step in training any of our off-the-track STBs how to canter is to start with the basics, just as if this were a young horse being started. I want to see my Standardbred walking and trotting both directions, and also halting.

My favortie place to teach this is in the round pen. If you do not have a round pen, then the longe line is also acceptable. My only objection to the longe is that the horse is not truly "at liberty," where he learns to use his body and to balance himself, without any interference from you.

You may find that your horse has trouble going to the right. This was particularly true for our beautiful mare, Sammi. So accustomed to traveling to the left, as on the track, Sammi was very confused about working to the right. It took a solid three weeks before she was quietly traveling in both directions. Sammi was, however, unusual in this regard. All our other Standardbreds have learned this easily.

The Importance of Voice Commands When your horse is trotting, reinforce this by using the words, "Trot. Good trot." Reward him lavishly when he does well. If he breaks into the pace, bring him back to the walk, reinforcing this with the words, "Walk. Good walk."

You will hear me constantly talking to a horse I'm working in the round pen, my voice soft, sing-songy, and inviting. the reason that this is important is because, when you teach them the language on the ground, they will understand you better in the saddle. When you first mount up and ask for a trot with your seat and legs, your vocal reinforcement--"trot"--will help your horse understand what it is you are asking for.

When teaching your Standardbred your language, keep your voice light and easy, warm and reassuring. I try always to approach my work with the horses as if I'm going into a church or meditation hall: I want to be quiet, relaxed, kind, and ready to praise even the slightest effort.

It is also important not to push too hard, whether you're working with a Standardbred or any other breed. I usually do not start asking for the canter in the round pen for at least three weeks. Sometimes, I start to ask sooner, but it depends completely on the temperament and pf the individual horse and the progress he is making.

When your horse can travel calmly in both directions and is responding to your vocal commands, he is ready for the canter.

Next week, Part II: Teaching the canter on the ground and in the saddle

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Best Horse Book to Read Right Now

It's not a book about Standardbreds, but it is about horses.

It's also about humans. And human nature. And healing. And I have been telling everyone about The Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson's amazing story about the quest he and his wife set off on, in order to heal their young son of autism.

In one terrifying--and glorious--moment, Rupert discovers that his four-year-old son becomes momentarily "healed" in the presence of horses. Even more remarkable, a neighbor's horse, known to be vicious in the pasture, spontaneously shows Rowan the licking and chewing that shows submission as the child lies dangerously near her hooves.
It is a moment that spawns a crazy idea: To travel to Mongolia, where horses originated and where shamans might just have to key that will free young Rowan from his autistic prison.

Mongolia is a land of vast, impressive--and empty--landscapes. Where the shamans are, only horses can go. The family's trek, the filming of which was turned into a documentary that claimed awards at numerous film festivals, including Sundance, is treacherous, exhausting, sublime, often ridiculous, frequently funny, and ultimately inspiring.

The book is, of course, available in hard cover, but I listened to the audio version. It is narrated by Rupert himself. He reads the story beautifully and his impressions of Rowan's whimsical sense of humor, as well as his devastating tantrums, are enthralling. A lifelong horse trainer, Rupert writes beautifully of his love of horses, and his intense desire to share this with his son. That horses might prove the key to Rowan's healing is a miracle Rupert desperately prays for.

This is a book about faith, the power of love to heal, courage, perseverance, and what powerful healers horses can be to the most damaged of hearts.

Also, your purchase of The Horse Boy goes toward a good cause: Proceeds from the book partially go toward supporting a therapeutic riding center specifically for autistic children and adults in Texas.

To learn more about the book, The Horse Boy, the movie, and "The Horse Boy Foundation," click her.e

To see a trailer for the movie and the book, click here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Standardbred breeding: What's in a Standardbred's bloodlines?

Photo above: Key to the Highway is now a riding horse, but this win photo shows his athleticism.

I love it when I get reader questions. The most recent came all the way from Australia, from Amanda Andrews. If you want to see some real riding, check out Amanda at her blog, Mud Maps (subtitled "Making Tracks with a Horse, Two Dogs, and a Mudmap").

Amanda explains that "A mud map is a map someone draws for you. It's not to scale and half the time it is wrong. Hee hee hee."

Gotta love the Aussies!

Anyway, Amanda writes:


I have a question and cannot seem to find the answer anywhere.

Other than the obvious differences, such as the gaits, what is the difference between a standardbred and a thoroughbred? I know body shape, that TBs are bred to gallop, SBs bred to trot or pace...but basically is a standardbred born a TB but taught to change it's that right? And then it is called a SB. What about bloodlines?

First, I want to thank Amanda for the question. It's one I hear a lot and, unfortunately, the answer isn't all that straight-forward.

In order to understand today's Standardbreds, you have to first go back to their origins. While Thoroughbred racing was known as "the sport of kings," Standardbred racing has long been known as "the sport of the people." This is because back in the 1800's, and even into the 20th century, anyone could compete with any kind of horse, as long as the horse could trot a mile in a set standard of time. You could have a purebred horse...or a horse with a mystery background. As long as it could trot a mile without breaking, and do so in a certain amount of time, your horse could be a Standardbred.

In the highly praised book, "Crazy Good," about the legendary horse, Dan Patch (read more on this book by clicking here) , author Charles Leerhsen describes farmers hitching up their work horses to the family wagon for a day at the races. The horse transported the family to the
race site." a far cry from today's groomed and sanctioned race courses. That same horse might then be raced in four, five, even six heats. At the end of the day, it would once again be hitched up to the wagon to safely take the family home. And on Monday morning, it was probably back at its job, behind a plow, buckboard, or milk wagon.

Those trotters (pacers came along later) of long ago were of all different breeds. As wealthy patrons of the sport began to cultivate faster horses, many varieties were mixed in with the thoroughbred. One of the major breeds thought to be in the Standardbred mix is the Morgan, which accounts for the muscular shoulders and neck, as well as the fantastic disposition.

Today's Standardbreds can all be traced back to Messenger, an English Thoroughbred foaled in 1780 and later imported to the United States. Messenger was the great-great grand-sire of Hambletonian 10, to whom all Standardbred sires can trace their lineage.

Today's Standardbred sires must be registered with the US Trotting Association. Mares can be a different matter: Every once in a while, you will look at a mare's heritage and see the word,"unknown." This means that she paced or trotted in today's standard time, but her lineage is a mystery.

Differences in Standardbred vs. Thoroughbred Temperament

Another difference in Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds is temperament: TBs are hot blooded horses, which means they tend to be exactly Having owned and competed Thoroughbreds my entire life, I can attest to the fact that Thoroughbreds are on the high-strung side as a general rule. As I have mentioned before, there are exceptions to every rule.

River City Storm, the USTA's "Iron Horse of the Year, 2009," became a riding horse at the age of 15.

By contrast, the Standardbred's temperament is famous among trainers, drivers, and those of us who re-school them after their racing careers are over. They are known for being calm, sensible, and very social. As a warm blooded horse, the Standardbred retains the athletic ability of the TB, but is almost always easier to work with. It is pretty hard to shake up a Standardbred.

Differences in Career Longevity

One of the biggest differences between Thoroughbreds and their Standardbred racing counterparts is the length of their racing careers. Standardbreds can race until the age of 15. Most throughbred careers are over by four or five. Our trotter, River City Storm, pictured above, had his last race in December of 2009, at the age of 14 (he won, by the way!).

While the average Thoroughbred has approximately 10 starts, Stormy had over 300 career starts! Many Standardbreds are known for having dozens and dozens of career starts before they retire from the racing life.

Differences in Conformation

Due to the influence of Morgan and other working horses, the Standardbred's conformation is quite different from the Thoroughbred's. While the Thoroughbred tends toward a short back, very refined head, and long, delicate legs, the Standardbred is much hardier in appearance. He is longer in the back. and, due to the fact he rarely gets over 16 hands, can look like little cow ponies next to his taller cousins.

The head of a Standardbred is often a dead giveaway as to its breeding. Unlike the more refined heads of the Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds are known for their bigger heads. They often remind me of old style hunters that you see in photos from the 1930s. A longish face can often be accompanied by a roman nose, but there are also Standardbreds that clearly show their Thoroughbred lines. My mare, Cordealia, has a beautiful head, and enormous, intelligent eyes.
I think that is what's known as bragging, folks.

~ ~ ~ ~

Many breeds, such as the Arabian, can be traced back hundreds and hundreds of years. But the Standardbred breed is just over 200 years old. Like the American Quarter Horse, the Standardbred is a true American breed.

To learn more about Standardbreds, log on to the US Trotting Association's official website by clicking here. This comprehensive Standardbred site offers history, technical terms, how to bet, and more.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slipping the tongue over the bit--I'm all tongue-tied

This young Standardbred, Olive, is giving her owner, Shari, the old slip... of the tongue, that is. If your horse is getting its tongue over the bit, read on to learn how to handle this slippery problem.

When I looked up the etymology of the phrase “tongue tied” I learned a few things I didn’t expect. For example, I now know where I can buy tongue rings online. And that “giving the slip” means to escape noiselessly from a pursuer (which sounds a lot like getting the tongue over the bit to me), but is actually rooted in sea-going lingo.

I learned that the phrase “tongue tied” first appeared way back in 1529. But I was unable to discern its origin.

What does this have to do with Standardbreds? I thought maybe “tongue tied” started out as a track expression that eventually morphed its way into the general lexicon.

The “tongue tie” is a humane way to ensure a harness racer does not get its tongue over the bit. It is basically a very soft strip of fabric that is laid over the horse’s tongue. It is then looped under the tongue loosely. The two ends then exit either side of the horse’s mouth and are secured under the chin, much like a chin strap or curb chain.

The tongue tie is a necessity on the track; but a Standardbred makes the transition from harness horse to saddle horse, his training must include acceptance of the bit.

I started thinking about all this because of an email from ALL ABOUT STANDARDBREDS reader, Shari. She writes:
I enjoy your blog (thanks, Shari!). My OTT STB can't keep her tongue under her bit. When I first put a snaffle in her mouth, she stuck her tongue over it and then out the side of her mouth...almost licked her eyeball with it. I had her wear it around while I did ground work in her halter. She eventually stopped flapping her tongue around so I added reins and there was that tongue again. It seems that if there is any weight or pressure added to the snaffle, she gets her tongue going. I have tried a few kinds of snaffles but that doesn't seem to make a difference. Any suggestions?

Shari is right to be concerned. “Slipping” the tongue over the bit means you have no control over your horse. This can be dangerous for any rider, and for harness racers traveling at speeds up to 35 mph, it can spell disaster.

One of the first steps to curing this problem is to understand why a horse does it in the first place. What it comes down to is the horse’s comfort; either she is uncomfortable physically or she is uncomfortable mentally.

Physical reasons for slipping the tongue over the bit One of the premier physical reasons that a horse will slip its tongue over the bit is due to physical discomfort . This can be because there is a need for dental work, or because the bit is too big, too small, or is incorrectly fitted. To find out whether or not you have the right bit for your horse, you need to first look at the teeth.

Shari let me know that she has already had Olive's teeth worked on and feels confident that the reason she is struggling to get away from the bit has nothing to do with her teeth. But if you are experiencing similar issues with your horse, your fitst step should be an appointment with a reputable, qualified equine dentist.

Next you want to examine your horse's tongut. In the space under your horse’s jaw, between the chin and the throat latch, there lies a sort of gully, in which the tongue rests. It that area is fairly wide, it’s likely that your horse has adequate room for her tongue. If, however, that area is narrow, it can severely impact your horse’s comfort with a bit.

Next, you want to look at whether or not your horse has a narrow or thick tongue. A horse with a more narrow tongue can handle—and will probably appreciate—a bit that is thicker.

However, a horse with a thick tongue will most likely hate a thick bit. Her mouth is already full of too much tongue; adding a thick bit can negatively impact her ability to swallow, a scary thing to anyone, whether human or horse. A narrow bit is the best solution for a thick tongued horse.

To determine if your horse has a thick tongue, pull her lips aside to see if her tongue “spills” out past the teeth. If the answer is “yes,” this means your horse has too much tongue for the physical structure of her mouth, and will need a thin bit.

Correct fit of the bit Another aspect of physical comfort relates to correctly fitting the bit. After determining whether your horse needs a thin or thick bit, you must then make sure you have selected a bit of the correct size—and that it is properly sized in the bridle.

A properly sized bit should extend about 2 mm on either side of the horse’s mouth. Fitted in the bridle, you should see one to two wrinkles at the corner of your horse’s mouth and, when you pull back lightly on the reins, the bridle should remain flat on the side of your horse’s face. A headstall that “breaks” away from the face indicates your bit is too low in the horse’s mouth.

Use of a cavesson or nose band One other step that can help Olive and other horses who slip the bit to learn acceptance is to use a cavesson or a nose band. As you can see from the photo Shari sent me of Olive in action, she really has her jaw open. A properly fitted nose band or cavesson can help immensely with this problem. An additional consideration might be a drop nose band, or even a figure-8: these nose bands are used routinely in the training of dressage and eventing horses of all levels. and could be a himane way to slowly help Olivie accept the bit. My favorite is the figure-8, as I personally feel I can adjust it to truly fit my horse well.

For information on the proper fitting of a cavesson, noseband, or drop nose band, click here. This article is from a journal on Icelandic ponies, but offers excellent advice on the ins and outs of dropped nose bands.

Mental reasons for discomfort So now you’ve corrected the thickness and size of the bit, and added a properly fitted nose band—but you’re still being “given the slip." So, it’s time to examine your horse’s brain.

Every Standardbred I’ve retrained from the track has come from trainers and owners with great compassion and equine savvy. But the unfortunate truth is that not every horse is so lucky. I already know where Shari’s horse came from—she is actually my mare’s sister—so I have full confidence that Shari’s mare had good, kind care. But if you have a Standardbred that appears mentally on edge, it is always a good idea to delve into her past to see if she ever experienced any trauma.

And while I’m a great champion of the Standardbred brain, the truth is that not all brains are created equal. Take, for example, our newest, a 4-year-old mare who raced under the name Joanne’s Fancy, but whom we re-christened Sammi.

Cordealia, Kiwi, and Stormy were all easy to train. They were calm, interested, and intrigued, about their new jobs as saddle horses. Sammi, by contrast, has a much more fragile demeanor. I’ve had to take it much slower with her training. Her former owner, Stephen Chambers, has attributed this to a kick in the head Sammi sustained when she was just a baby, in pasture with other rambunctious babies.

Regardless of the reason, the bottom line is that every time I work with her, I have to spend twice as much time doing ground work in the round pen than I do with any of the other horses. If I work for 20 minutes with Cordealia, I will plan to give Sammi at least an hour of quality, patient natural horsemanship time.

It’s well worth the effort. Taking it slow, as I’ve said many times, means quality progress and long-lasting results.

If, after looking for physical reasons, your horse is still getting her tongue over the bit, my advice is to get back to basics. Start working with your horse as if she is brand new to all corners of training. My guess is that taking a renewed training approach, with a lot of slow work in the round pen, will help your horse adjust better to her environment and her new job as a riding horse. An added bonus is that this work will only shore up the trust between the two of you.

And of course, there is a last resort, if none of the above solutions work; try a bitless bridle.

Here’s a great online article for learning more about hackamores, bosals, and other bitless alternatives.

Good luck, Shari. Let us know if any of my suggestions were helpful.

If you have a training question about your Standardbred, feel free to drop us an email at All About Standardbreds, at

Monday, March 23, 2009

Stress Reduction for Better Horsemanship

“Have you seen my glasses? I can’t figure out where I put them.”

I’d love to tell you that in our household, this is Best Husband in the World talking. But no. It’s my bad. It’s my mantra. It’s a way of life.

And I’m sick of it.

So I recently started meditating.

I’m not the only one. From your local heart specialist to national talk show hosts, to aging super models, all the way up to respected and renowned religious leaders from all variety of worship, there’s a general buzz out there—meditation, it is said, can help you focus and de-stress.

Given that stress is one of the primary contributors to heart disease (the #1 killer of women in the US), this must be good news.

My meditating hero, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, advises that you shouldn’t tell people you meditate until you have at least 10 years under your belt. After that, you should still give it another ten years before you start blabbing about it, and even then, it's best to keep it to yourself. Yet, as I am wont to do, I’m going to disobey.

I’ve been meditating for about five years. In the last year, I started utilizing Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness meditation.

Kabat-Zinn first introduced Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since the success of that first program, he has implemented MBSR programs into hospitals across the nation, and, in fact, throughout the world. He has helped thousands of people cope with heart disease and other life-threatening health problems.
(For an MSBR program in your area, click here.)

Regardless of your religious persuasions, I can vouch for Kabat-Zinn’s programs: meditation is an excellent way to help you get in touch with your heart—and ultimately, your higher power.

To learn, I first purchased an audio version of Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness for Beginners” at From there, I progressed to more intensive programs. Thanks to Best Husband in the World, who gets up to feed the horses and clean stalls, I have the luxury to spend at least 45 minutes to an hour each morning in mindfulness meditation.

What has it done for me? Without any effort at all, I’ve started eating less and exercising more. I’m more careful about what pops out of my mouth. I’m kinder.

And I’ve become a better horse trainer, rider, and teacher.

One of our most recent additions is Sammi, a 5-year-old Standardbred mare who has required a slower training program than any other STB we have worked with so far.

Her former owner, Stephen Chambers, believes that Sammi, who raced under the name “Joanne’s Fancy,” was kicked in the head fairly severely when a tot. Given her what I call her fragile sensibilities, I believe him.

She has none of Kiwi’s rock solid confidence. She has little of Stormy’s wise appraisal of new tasks or situations. Nor does she have a speck of Cordealia’s bravura.

With Sammi, everything must be taught with an extremely quiet, unfailing focused, and persistently patient attitude.

If one of my close friends, dare I say Best Husband in the World, were asked to describe me, I don’t imagine the words “quiet,” “focused,” “focused,” or “patient” would come up.

At least until now. I made the connection between mindfulness meditation and my horse training a few weeks ago when I was working with Sammi. I’d been in the round pen with her for about an hour when I suddenly realized time had flown by without my even noticing it. I was deep into each and every moment—and loving it!

I was working quietly. I was working with great care and patience. And I was utterly focused. I wasn’t thinking about grocery shopping. Or the fact that I had to get the house ready for my mother’s impending visit. Or that I had a deadline for an article for a national magazine looming. I was completely present.

As a result, Sammi responded to everything with interest, ease, and elegance.

The true payoff came yesterday, when Best Husband and I took a ride with two friends. The rain was coming down, but we couldn’t help ourselves; the lush green hills were calling. I wondered how Sammi would do with new horses and intemperate weather.

She performed with aplomb. She quickly accepted Best Husband as her leader. She strided out for him with new confidence. Things didn’t seem to baffle her as much.

Craig and Sammi in the rain at Cronan Ranch

I most assuredly attribute her happy nature on the trail to Best Husband’s skill in the saddle. But I would be remiss if I did not also give a nod to Jon Kabat-Zinn. His soothing, humorous, non-judgmental approach to mindfulness helped me make a timid horse just a bit braver.

And I almost never lose my glasses anymore.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Horse transport companies: Proceed with caution!

Do your homework before putting your horse--and hard earned cash--in someone else's hands.

When our friend, Ariel, sent her horse. River. to us in December, I was very nervous about how the 9-year-old gelding would fare during the week-long trip from New Hampshire to California. With a few minor glitches, River arrived cheerful and, most importantly, safe.

But not everyone is so lucky. My morning email brought a warning letter from a horse owner who had recently been burned. Bad.

Here's her letter:

I arranged to have my OTTB shipped from California to Colorado with the company 'Total Equine Services Inc' ( This is the first time I have shipped a horse long distance so I am new to this, which is what is partially to blame for my mistake.

I thought this company's website looked professional and legitimate. I "googled" their name and didn't see anything bad about them. I contacted them about transport and they were quick to call me back, to e-mail me, to answer any questions I had.

The second they received money from me, they disappeared.

ON the day my horse was scheduled to be picked up, they never showed. After several phone calls and e-mails, I get an e-mail from them late in the evening saying the clutch in their truck went out (which doesn't give you a warm, fuzzy feeling either). Pick up was rescheduled for the end of the week.

The week came and went, they are nowhere to be found. Their voicemail box is full, I can't leave a message if I tried. Another week has gone by. They have disappeared.

In my frustration, I have been doing a lot more research and have looked up their DOT and MC numbers online. Not only are there several company names under one number (Total Equine Services, We Haul Horses, Double S Transport), but a lot of very recently unhappy people. They have pulled a fast one on several people in the past few weeks, I am not alone.

Through the help of friends, I have now become familiar with several helpful websites that post reviews on horse haulers. During this process, my two favorite websites have become and

They both list customer reviews of transport companies.

This is a sad story, and just a sign of that there are some people out there who don't mind taking your hard earned cash and anything else they can get their mitts on.

The other night, my 75-year-old mother went to a friend's house for dinner. While there, her car was broken into, and her garage door opener stolen. While she enjoyed a relaxing evening, the thieves easily drove into her garage, closed the door, and quickly ripped off thousands of dollars worth of valuables. I can guess that our horse owner feels much the same as my mom--angry, frightened, and violated.

My mother learned that we now live in a world where you cannot leave your garage door opener in your car.

Our horse shipping friend learned that when it comes to turning your money--and your cherished four-legged friend--over to a horse hauler, check them out thoroughly.

In addition to the two sites she recommends, I have some other adice.

DO check with the DOT (Department of Transportation) to see if they are up to date on all licensing and permits. You can also ask the transport compnay to fax their permits and registration to you.

---CHECK with the Better Business Bureau.

---MAKE SUREyou have a physical address where the business sits.

--NEVER HAND OVER A CENT until they show up to pick up your horse. Most horse haulers will ask for a deposit for half the transport fee when picking up the horse...NOT BEFORE. The remainder of the fee is due when the horse arrives at its destination safely and in good health.

--ASK IF THEY HAVE OTHER TRUCKS IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY. In the last leg of River's journey from New Hampshire (and just an hour from our house), the truck's engine developed problems. Fortunately for River, we were only minutes away and able to come pick him up ourselves. As for the remaining 11 horses headed to Los Angeles, the company immediately dispatched another truck from Oregon to come get them. It arrived just five hours later and the trip finished as planned. If the horse hauler you have chosen says, "Oh sure, we have tons of trucks," get proof in the form of registrations that you can check against DOT records.

--DO NOT BELIEVE THE TESTIMONIALS ON THE WEBSITE. Anyone can write up a testimonial. For real reviews, check in with the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, and the websites our horse owner mentioned above.

--GET THE DRIVERS' CELL PHONE NUMBERS. I made sure I had the cell phone numbers of both the drivers for River's trip. This way, I could track their progress and, as they got closer to California, get a better idea of their exact arrival time. It was good that we had exchanged numbers, because, as mentioned above, the semi hauling the horses could not negotiate the narrow highway to our house. We ended up having to go pick the horse up for the last leg of the journey.

--GET THE COMPANY'S PHYSICAL ADDRESS. Verrify it with the Better Busines Bureau and DOT. This can help greatly if you have to follow up due to problems, such as your horse being injured en route.

Anyone can put together a fairly snazzy, impressive website for under $500. So do your research before handing over your money and horse to a horse hauling company.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What to do in the rain

I would love to tell you that all this rain is going to make for a drought-free year. But it’s not. Warm temperatures mean that the snow pack high up in the Sierras is melting fast.

So everyone needs to do a rain dance, quickly followed by a “cold” dance, in hopes that the thermometer will drop a bit.

I hate even talking about the weather right now. Because the truth is, I am sick of the rain. Best Husband is sick of it. . As are the horses.

Of course, if you look at these photos of Cori, you’d never know it.

Why is it that a horse--having a perfectly large, warm, and shaving-laden stall--will choose instead to stand out in her lake of a paddock, getting soaked to the bone?

Well, if you, like me, are sick of the rain and looking for something to do until you can once again get back in the saddle, I have the ideal suggestion...

Showcase for equine art

A few weeks ago, Best Husband and I were privileged to attend the opening of a new art exhibit at Sacramento’s historic (and gorgeous) Crocker Museum. We went with our friend, Stephen Chambers, and his fabulous other half, Susan. Stephen owns, trains and races Standardbreds and is the reason Best Husband and I have far too many horses.
(Note to museum staff: Susan and I should never be allowed to visit any exhibit in the future while in each other's company. We had far too much fun!)

Do not miss "Animals in the Drawing Room: The Art of Mari Kloeppel (to read more about this show from the msueum's site, click here). Under the careful guidance and sponsorship of Carmel art aficionado Chris Winfield, Mari has gained renown with her stunning paintings of birds, dogs, and her beloved Arabian, Cobahsaan.

“Stunning” actually does not begin to cover Mari’s thoughtful, intuitive, sumptuous paintings. As you stand before the picture of a charming rabbit—and his bell and ball—you are drawn in by the antique, elegant, Victorian feeling of the piece.
Yet viewing the enormous portraits of Kobe and a yellow Labrador evokes different--and powerful--emotions in the viewer. The night of the opening, I evesdropped on several viewers. All of whom were rendered quite speechless by these haunting works.
"...I don't even know how to put how I feel," said one viewer.
Another summed it up for me. "Amazing. Beautiful and amazing."
I try hard not use cliches in my writing, but truly, Mari's work takes your breath away.

When you learn that Mari's decision to paint full-time came, in part, due to an accident with her horse that resulted in Mari's temporary blindness, as well as a crushed pelvis, these paintings become all the more intriguing.
This is a show not to be missed, espeically if you love horses. It will run for the next four months, through June.

During the evening, we were also treated to a tour of the new exhibit on artwork about Buddha. Included in the exhibit is a centuries old sculpture of Buddha on horseback, made of wood, clay, and horse hair. This exhibit is beautifully presented and an interesting contrast to Mari's work.
Sundays at the Crocker are free from 10 AM to 1 PM. And for more information on both shows, as well as hours, directions, and more, click here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A horse to love

River City Storm in a storm of his own

Best Husband in the World came into the kitchen, stamping his feet against the late February chill. He'd been down at the barn, repairing a fence our little buckskin, River, decided it would be fun to mow over in the middle of the night..

"Stormy isn't eating," he said. "He wasn't eating much last night either."

Immediately, I was out the door. At the age of 15, Stormy, the newest addition to our Standardbred menagerie (see Stormy's story here), is also the oldest. He is, as well, the easiest keeper of all the horses. So if he's off his feed, I know it's worth investigating.
I conducted an extremely in-depth assessment. It lasted... about two and a half minutes. "He's bored," I told Best Husband.

Two weeks ago, we were at 70% of our average rainfall. All the "experts" made gloomy predictions of drought. But for the last two weeks, it's rained almost non-stop. In fact (as evidenced by the above photo), we even had snow at 1100 feet (see our "snow story" here)!

Today, the ground is now so saturated, Sacramento--and most other Northern California towns--are worried about flooding. Here at the ranch, our pastures are thick with mud on the hillsides, and there is standing water on the flats.

Which means we have the equine equivalent of a geometry theorem.

It has been raining cats and dogs: therefore, Stormy has to stay indoors: therefore, Stormy is bored.
When I first came down to the barn, Stormy's head was out the window. He regarded me with head high, ears pricked, his eyes intent. He looked like a man waiting at the airport gate for the love of his life to deplane.

Stormy in a "non-bored" state on the trail before the rains began

The beauteous Cordealia (aka "The Dilla"), ini the next stall, was also looking at me. Sideways. If Stormy looked like a lovestruck youth, Cordealia looked like she was about to face a police interrogation. She was only paying attention in order to figure out her escape route.

If you could have inserted a wiretap into the heads of these two horses, my guess is each would yield up something completely opposite of the other.

Our Standardbred mare, Cordealia...beautiful, arrogant...gotta love her!

The Dilla: "What? Are you looking at me? You lookin' at me? I may be looking at you. But it's only to see what you're up to. Because I know you're up to something. Yeah, I see you looking at me and, since it's not dinner time yet, that can only mean one thing-- annoyance. I'm not looking at you because I'm glad to see you. Don't get any crazy ideas about that. Unless...hey, did you bring me some carrots? Yes? Cool. Thanks. Got anymore? No? Dude, I'm outta here."

Stormy (aka Mr. Sweetie Pie): "Oh, good, here you come. I'm soooo happy to see you. I've been waiting for you. Haven't you seen me staring up at the house for hours now? I want you to come over here. Hurry. Don't go see anyone else. Just come see me. And don't forget the carrots. Oh, never mind, I don't need the carrots. I just want you, you, you! First, I want you to pet me and tell me I'm wonderful. Because...I am, you know. Then I want you to let me out. I'll follow you anywhere, I swear I will. I can help you with chores, too. I'll pull the hammer out of your back pocket. And when I'm done helping, why don't you put me in the round pen and give me some of those weird exercises to do? It's true, I've been a champion harness racer my whole life, so this round pen stuff is all new to me. But hey, old dogs--uh, er, horses-- learn new tricks all the time. I'm living proof. Come on, let's go play. I love you!"
And so that's what we did. When Stormy finally went back to his stall, he was relaxed and happy. As I secured the stall door, he turned to me, heaving one of those wondrous, heavy horse sighs that signals contentment.

I, too, felt a tranquil breath leave me.

"Right back at you, kid" I told him. "Right back at you."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Author Charles Leerhsen brings harness racing history to life in "Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch"

Ever since I first devoured Black Beauty, I've been a sucker for a good horse story. One of my perennial favorites is a book called The Secret Life of Cowboys, the lyrical, haunting (and true) account of Tom Groneberg's struggle to live the cowboy life in modern day Montana. One Good Horse, the follow-up from this frequent contributor to Cowboys & Indians Magazine, is also prominent on my bookshelf.

I'm proud to introduce to you my newest library addition, Charles Leehrsen's Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.

If you are a die-hard harness racing fan, you no doubt know at least a little about Dan Patch. But if you are new to Standardbreds, it's unlikely you have even an inkling of what your grandparents and great-grandparents knew--that the most beloved figure in turn-of-the-century America was a horse. Born so crippled he was nearly put down, Dan Patch grew up to be fast...and famous.
By today's standards, Dan Patch's million dollars worth of endorrsement deals were not all that impressive. But when you consider that baseball's greatest hero at the time, Ty Cobb, was making $12,000, you understand a bit more about Dan Patch's superstar status.

Writing for USA Today in June, journalist Deirdre Donahue said:

At the starting gate of summer book sales, Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America by Charles Leerhsen is positioned nicely on the inside rail.

It's a terrific look at a legendary if now forgotten equine superstar named Dan Patch. Leerhsen does for early 20th-century American harness racing what Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit did for Depression-era Thoroughbred racing.

By all accounts, Dan Patch adored the roar of the crowd. At the dawn of the 20th century, Patch reigned as the Secretariat of harness racing at a time when it was more popular than Thoroughbred racing.

Dan Patch and owner M.W. Savage in their hey-day (Photo courtesy of Dan Patch Historical Society)

Born in Indiana in 1896, Dan Patch was a small-town Hoosier made good. Intended for recreational riding, the stallion showed such speed that at age 4 he began racing. During his racing years from 1900 through 1909, he was front-page newspaper copy.

At the height of his fame, he earned for his owner more than $1 million a year. His image appeared on everything from tonics to sleds to washing machines.

Crowds of 100,000 turned out for a glimpse of the stallion who possessed an unusually gentle temperament yet radiated charisma. Dwight Eisenhower lined up with his parents at the 1904 Kansas State Fair to see him, and Harry Truman recalled that as a boy he had written a fan letter.

Leerhsen, an editor at Sports Illustrated who has worked at Us Weekly and People, has a snappy pop style that will help readers grasp the difference between Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds, trotters and pacers. (To see the original article, click here.)

Nearly a century has passed since Dan Patch died in 1916. But under Leehrsen's skilled hand, he lives again in this exceedingly worthwhile book.

Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch is available in hardcover, paperback, and downloadable eBook form. To learn more, you can logon to the publisher's site at Simon & Schuster, or at

To learn more about Dan Patch online, visit the Dan Patch Historical Society at

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The difference between a pacer and a trotter

River City Storm (left), our newest addition, raced as a trotter for 12 years. Kiwi (right) is a winning pacer who retired at age 5. Both now live happy lives as trail horses, riding both Western and English.

“What is the difference between a Standardbred pacer and a Standardbred trotter?”

It is probably the question I am asked most often, second to “Can you teach a pacer to do a normal trot and canter?” The answer is “yes” and I’ll address it in another post in detail. First, let's get to the differences between pacing and trotting.

In order to understand what pacing is, you must first understand the mechanics of the trot. In the trot, the horse’s legs move diagonally in a two-beat rhythm.

In other words, when the front left leg is forward, the right hind is also forward. When the right fore comes forward, the left hind also comes forward.

Take a look at the photo below of Cordealia, our retired pacer, now a superior trail , dressage, and jumping horse. When she first came to us from the track, she would pace across the pasture, while the other horses trotted. Within a week of starting her saddle training, she learned to forego the pace (which she did naturally from birth) for the trot. In this photo, Cori is trotting; you can see that as her right foreleg stretches in front of her body, the leg diagonally opposite (her left hind) moves in unison.

According to Stephen Chambers, an owner/trainer (and Cordealia's former "dad"), “Trotters are the elite of the harness racing crowd. They are harder to train, and subsequently, the prize money is higher for trotters.”

Stephen adds that in Italy, France, and most other European countries, trotting is the only kind of Standardbred racing to be had. Most is done with a rider, whereas in the US and Canada, trotters race with a driver and a sulky, known in track parlance as a “bike.”

The pacer is a horse of a different color. Originating from the state of Indiana, the pace is a lateral movement. In other words, if the left foreleg is forward, the left hind will also be forward.

Take a look at this win photo of our lesson horse, “Key to the Highway.” “Kiwi” wasn’t always the docile, saddle gent he is today: in the photo below, his power and proud heart are more than evident.

Note that Kiwi is pacing: his right foreleg is stretched out in front of his body, while his right hind stretches forward as well, helping him to tear up the ground for a first place win.

You might be surprsed to learn that when it comes to training trotters and pacers, the latter is far easier.

“Training a trotter,” says Stephen, “requires truly great horsemanship. Although the trot is slower than the pace, the horse can easily break [his stride by cantering, a basic disaster when it comes to racing]. And if, for example, you are in third place behind other horses, you can’t just pop a trotter out of the pack the way you can a pacer. You have to use a lot more finesse than with a pacer.”

Pacers are trained to the gait with the aid of hobbles, also known as “Indiana underpants.” Take a look again at the photo of Kiwi, and you can see the hobbles around the legs. These humane restraints help keep the horse in the gait.

“Pacing is probably more of a crowd favorite in the United States because it’s much faster than the trot,” explains Stephen. “The horses don’t break as often as trotters do. And you can really move the horses around more easily. Unlike trotters, you can, in fact, ‘pop’ them out of a pack.”

Re-training a pacer for life as a saddle horse is not as difficult as some people think. Every Standardbred I have worked with, without exception, has had the mental fortitude to quickly grasp the switch. Liberty work in a round pen or on a longe line is a key part of the process, as is a great deal of vocal reinforcement.

Working in the round pen with our newest addition, Joanne’s Fancy (known around the barn as “The Cupcake”), you can hear me constantly chatting easily with the horse. “Trot. Good trot. Good trot. Trot on. Good trot.”

In the saddle, I use the same, quiet, musical patter. “Trot. Good trot. Slow trot. Slow.” My vocal instruction is always paired with a lot of physical reinforcement in the form of strokes on the neck.
For those of you with arthritis or other health issues, a Standarbred pacer might be just the ticket. I have discovered that The Cupcake's slow pace, known as an "amble," is a slice of gaited heaven that is exceedingly easy on the back and seat.

If you are considering bringing a Standardbred into your life, rest assured that these intelligent, tractable animals can easily adapt to any task you give them. After life at the track, they are accustomed to hard work, to say nothing of a great deal of attention. They actually look forward to any job you put in front of them. In the case of training one to adopt a trot in leeu of a pace, it's right up their alley.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

River City Storm is one lucky horse

There are a host of famous quotes that work on a variation of “Success is 10% hard work and skill, and 90% luck.”

It this is true, then River City Storm, the second most winning horse in the history of Cal Expo harness racing, had his good hold right to the end of his career. And beyond.

One week before his retirement bash at Cal Expo’s $100,000 California Sires Stakes night, “Stormy” ran—and won—his last race in Massachusetts. Lucky horse.

Then, with the help of a consortium of admirers, Stormy was then brought back to his home turf in Sacramento. December 20, the glowering skies parted long enough for a night of racing under the stars and Stormy’s official retirement. Lucky horse.

Stephen Chambers, who once leased Stormy, was part of a consortium that banded together to bring Stormy back to his home turf of Sacramento.

Stormy, age 15, then packed up his cooler and Baker blanket and came to our farm, where he has settled easily into his new life as a saddle horse. He has also acquired an unexpected role, that of ambassador for his breed.

On Saturday, I decided to take Stormy out for his fifth ride under saddle. We rode to Cronan Ranch, the 1800-acre open space area brodering the crystalline waters of the American River. Along with dozens of horseback riders, the trails had drawn many families with small children.

Stormy at Cronan Ranch showing his personality.

Every time I came along a family of hikers, the children would all excitedly cry, “Look at that horse! Look at that horse!”

So I would stop and ask, “Would you like to pet him?”

Superstar that he is (and accustomed to much adulation), Stormy stood quietly while small hands moved over his shoulders and tickled his muzzle. Furry as a teddy bear, Stormy’s soft, full coat elicited squeals of delight.

Everyone was very impressed to hear that Stormy was “a famous harness racer” who had made a lot of money in his career.

“He’s so quiet,” commented one young mother. “I thought race horses were all kind of…crazy.”

“Not Standardbreds,” I answered, going on to explain how Standardbreds have calm minds, common sense, sturdy bodies, and great hearts.

As we rode away, I heard, “Ooo, look at his tail. He’s so beautiful.”

“And sweet,” came another comment.

Since Storm came to live with us, many people have said that he was lucky to find us. After all, who would want a 15-year-old horse with 12 years of racing on those legs?

Stormy scores another piece of luck!

Yet, the more I come to know his intelligent, noble, willing personality, the more I have the pleasure of storming down a trail with that magnificent trot, the more I think, "Let's just see who got lucky here."

Is this what they call a "win-win" situation?