Meet the American Standardbred

From Harness Racing Horse to Pleasure and Riding Horse

Standardbred racing horses on track.
Standardbred racing horses on track. Image Credit:Barrett & MacKay/All Canada Photos/Getty Images


Most American Standardbreds are bred for harness racing.Unlike Thoroughbreds, few people breed them solely as pleasure horses. But Standardbreds also make great riding and pleasure driving horses. Because most are well handled from birth, are trained to drive and then exposed to many situations the transition to riding horse is not difficult.

F or a beginner rider,  retraining a Standardbred might not be the ideal introduction to horse ownership.

But more experienced riders may enjoy the task of retraining a former race horse to become a riding or pleasure driving horse. Some of the challenges of retraining these horses are teaching them to canter or lope, and for pacers, training them to trot and not pace while being ridden. It's possible to ride a pacing horse, but most people find it quite different.

Standardbreds often do a singlefoot, a smooth running walk type gait which many riders enjoy. Horse owners are beginning to appreciate the Standardbred as a horse suitable for any sport. Some shows exist for owners of retrained Standardbreds to show off their abilities under saddle and in harness and some shows have classes that gaited Standardbreds may be shown in.

Body Type:

The racy body type of the Standardbred is clearly indicative of the task it was bred for. Some Standardbreds have delicate, almost Thoroughbred type heads, but often their heads are rather common with longish ears and a flat or slightly Roman nosed profile.

Their legs are long and the muscles flat and strong. Their chests are deep and their haunches can appear slightly higher than their withers. They tend to be flatter sided than most riding horses.


The average height of the American Standardbred is about 15HH although some individuals may be several inches shorter or taller.

Some are very tall, while others can be almost pony sized. They will weigh about 1000 lbs, the same as the average riding horse. There is no breed conformation standard when it comes to height or weight. 


Although primarily bred for racing, the American Standardbred can often hold it's own against any light horse breed in any riding or driving discipline. You'll find Standardbreds in sports like speed games, distance riding, jumping and competitive carriage and pleasure driving. Those trained for the track can make the transition to pleasure driving horse easily with the right training. Because much of their basic training is done, it's often simple to teach them to carry a rider. 

Colors and Markings:

Most Standardbreds are bays, chestnuts and liver chestnuts, grays, and other solid colors. They often lack white markings like stockings, blazes and are rarely flashy.


History and Origins:

This breed began in the New England states in the mid-1880's. The name Standardbred comes from the qualifying standard time a horse had to cover in one mile (1.6km) in to be considered for the breed registry. The breed developed from a melting pot of horses that trotted, paced ,and raced under saddle and in harness.

A horse named Messenger is regarded as the foundation of the breed. Many other breeds were introduced, each contributing their desirable racing characteristics. Among these horses were Thoroughbreds, Morgans,  Canadian Pacer and other now extinct pacing and trotting breeds.

Unique Characteristics:

There are two distinct types of Standardbreds, trotters, and pacers. A pace is when both legs on the same side move together. The speed of pacers in harness is faster than trotters and in North America pacers tend to outnumber trotters on the track. Pacers often 'amble', or 'singlefoot'. This gait is comfortable to ride. The pace can be ridden too and some people find it a great way to relax a stiff back at a ground covering speed.  Pacers can be encouraged to trot, making them a very versatile horse for show or pleasure.

Champions and Celebrities:

Research almost any Standardbred's pedigree and you'll likely find a horse named Hambletonian.