Let me preface this by saying that I am not a professional trainer; I do not get paid to train horses, therefore all of the topics discussed in this article are based solely on my own experience or derived from discussions I’ve had with both harness and sport horse trainers. I have spent a fair amount of time and effort doing my absolute best to learn about these horses both as racehorses and as sport horses* and I feel strongly that the education I have gained as a rider and a horsemen is valid and could be helpful to other standardbred owners.
One of the biggest things to remember when taking a Standardbred from the track and starting them undersaddle is they are still horses and as a result all the same steps will have to be taken. Yes, it is worth taking the time at the beginning to establish the basics of under saddle work as you would with any other unstarted horse as the majority will have had no previous education in this area.
The fact that these amazing athletes have had an entire other career will mean that some steps in this process will come faster, and some steps will come a little slower. This has nothing to do with their breed, but everything with the fact that they have been taught something different previously. Their previous careers required them to be handled regularly, wear various pieces of equipment, and helped them to truly understand what ‘work’ is. You may find that things like voice commands, right and left steering and brakes may come easily, however other concepts such as bending, and why the heck your legs are squeezing them, may take a little bit longer to teach.
The difference between an off track Standardbred and your average horse usually becomes most apparent when it comes to canter training. As a racehorse your Standardbred would have likely been taught that cantering while in harness is not a good option. (It should be noted though that some trainers do choose to canter their horses during fitness training, however this is not common due to the fact that the horse would get disqualified for cantering during a race.) When it comes to teaching a Standardbred to canter under saddle MUCH care must be taken to allow them ample time to understand what you are asking for. It will require a lot of patience and a bit of creativity to allow them to figure out that what they’ve been taught previously to adamantly avoid, is in fact what you’re looking for and exactly what you want. It takes time, but with the right approach most are happy to try and give it their best shot.
While some aspects of training your off track Standardbred may come very easily and others may not, at the end of the day, they are still horses and should not be treated differently, and certainly not any worse, than any other breed of horse.
*While Standardbreds are more than suitable for careers in western disciplines, as trail horses, cow horses etc. – the majority of my experience has been with Standardbreds in second careers as Show Jumpers, Dressage Horses and Eventing Horses. With that said, the basics for these and all the other disciplines are fundamentally still the same so I believe the information is still applicable.
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