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?