Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Off the Track Standardbred



I must admit before owning a standardbred I had breed discrimination.  Yes, I did.  I thought of this breed as big headed, clunky, plain, dull horses.  I misperceptions were changed when I first met the folks at New Vocations at Equine Affaire a few years ago.  They rehome off the track thoroughbreds and standardbreds.  My daughter was looking for a thoroughbred but I began talking with one of the volunteers and she told me a little about the standardbreds.  Some of the breed characteristics that make these horse such good riding horses is their trainability and tempernments.   They tend to be quick learners and willing.  They also have a good work ethic from their track experience.  They have been handled a lot and are used to lots of different tack, noises, commotion and seem to take new situations in stride.  When I got my stb mare she was 4 and had only a handful of rides but really never seemed to be phased with me sitting ON her instead of driving her!  She never even hinted at a buck or so much as a cow hop while under saddle.

My misperception of standardbreds are ugly and clunky were quickly dispelled when I began to look at the horses that were being rehomed.  They have the sleek look of an athlete and are generally sturdy, easy maintenance horses.   Even though my mare, at the track, had a 'reputation' of having small and bad feet she has never given me the least bit of indications that she has been sore or even tender on gravel.  I asked my farrier about this statement and wondered if he could see any indication as to why her former trainer might of thought this-- he said in his experience, harness racing farriers tend to trim very short- sometimes to the point of seeing blood.  I don't know if this is true but that was his comment.  I only mention this because the former trainer's statement could of really hindered her placement when the soreness could of been due to trimming styles.  She is barefoot and has been from day one.  No issues, other than her feet tend to grow more slowly than my other horses.    

They even come in an assortment of colors but bays and darker colors seem to be most common.  My mare is quite pretty with large, expressive eyes and a refined look to her.   She looks great in english tack.   I have her mane long and flowing.

People often assume that standardbreds only pace.  This is not so.  A true pace is very rough and hard to ride.  Even though my mare was a 'pacer', under saddle she has a very smooth 4 beat lateral gait that is very comfortable.  I am not well versed enough to know what the gait she does is called-- the 4 beat lateral gaits tend to flow on a continuum rather than be distinct like trotting and cantering and have lots of different names- single-foot, running walk, fox trot, rack and so on.  Because they can flow and vary I don't worry about what her smooth gait is called but just enjoy it.  I used to own a Tennessee Walker years ago and  was often frustrated because he needed to be trimmed and shod a certain way and ridden in a long shanked walker bit to encourage his smooth gait and even then it was hard to hold him in it because he would pace and it would about knock your teeth out!!   I don't have that problem with my standardbred even though she is barefoot.   I also have the advantage of being able to hold her in a trot.  I love this about her!  

My next step is to get her to canter under saddle.    That can be a little more of a challenge but certainly not impossible or even uncommon.  Many. many standardbreds learn to canter under saddle.  Its not that they CAN'T canter but rather they were trained not to. So it is often a matter of retraining and muscle memory.   When Remmy first came to me I made changes slowly because she had 'harness racing' muscles vs. riding muscles.  I started off my lots and lots of walking on a looser rein allowing her to stretch her head down and low.   We then began trotting up a gentle hill on loose contact to encourage building up her hindquarters and back.  A high head and tight rein is a signal to brace, pace and get hollow thru the back.  I did not want to reinforce that type of frame.

I also had to teach her leg cues and bending.  We worked on moving away from leg pressure and gave her the release of pressure as the 'reward'.  She caught on very quickly.   In the arena I have been working on moving her hindquarters in a pivot from leg cues and doing some lateral movements and bending.  She is so much more supple.   In the harness they don't bend.  :)   I ride in a snaffle while we do this kind of work.   To gait on the trail I ride in a broken short shanked curb bit.   My goal is to always work to lighter aids/bits.  

In the beginning I also rode with a crop only because that was something she understood from the track.  It wasn't used to hit her but rather to use to reinforce the leg aids she did not know about yet.  I no longer need to ride with it because she understands leg cues.

I should of started off by saying I am far from an expert on this subject but do enjoy my horse and have a better appreciation for the breed.  A huge number of these horses end up either as buggy horses (which should tell you something about their temperament) or at kill pen auctions.  I wrote this to just do my part in dispelling some myths about the breed.  The breed association has also done a very good job of organizing breed specific shows so there is that avenue as well although I know standardbreds are so versatile they could potentially end up in a variety of classes/events.  

If you have a standardbred retraining tip or photo please feel free to share in the comments or at my facebook page at   https://www.facebook.com/horseandponypage