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 gait...is 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 that...hot. 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.


  1. Thank you so much.....I now get it :-)

  2. New reader here, and longtime STB fan. I'm going to link my blog to this entry, to answer all the "you mean *saddlebred*, right?" comments that I get....!

    (or *thoroughbred* or *what-have-you*)


  3. wow thanks . this was a great article. i might be looking into getting a standardbred and they seem like great horses. i have a thoroughbred/quarterhorse mix now, so this article really helped compare them .

  4. I'd like to say - how refreshing it is to hear someone talking well about STB's!!! I adore the breed, work with them all the time, including the PACERS - and turn them into wonderful saddle horses, jumpers, etc!! I recently took my long time STB mare over to a summer camp for a day and people were guessing at her breed and many thought she was a quarter horse! It doesnt help that her super dead calmness and sliding stops make her seem cowpony-ish too. They are great horses, and like you pointed out, they have the refining qualities to be fine jumpers and yet have the willingness and strength to be reining cow ponys - unlike Thoroughbreds!
    My boss always has something negative to say about STB's. He feels that all horses with the "bred" in their name aren't worth their while. Saddlebreds, TB's, STB's, etc.
    I love my STB's and hope to help spread the word all around that they are the exception to the "bred" world.

  5. Pretty fair on most points. But, your stat on starts by Thoroughbreds is off by more than half. The average Thoroughbred racehorse starts 21.3 times in a career.
    As for "hot" vs "not", any skilled horseman can handle a Thoroughbred. For a novice, yes a mix of pedigree, like a Standardbred can be is easier for the beginner.
    Remember, the word "Thoroughbred" denotes purity of the breed. And as you mentioned, Standardbred mares can be of "unknown" mutt-like pedigrees. A dime-a-dozen pedigree vs royally bred Thoroughbreds.
    Purebreds of any specie tend to be keener and more alert to their surrounding environment. Horses are no different. That is just a simple fact of the animal kingdom.
    Have a safe and enjoy time astride your good looking boy. He is a handsome one.