Standardbreds, A Step Ahead

Whenever the fact that I ride a harness horse comes up in conversation, I almost always get asked about all the problems that come with that decision. I get asked about how I taught Leo to trot, and how I deal with the ‘canter problem’. People often ask me how I taught him to jump as though he is incapable of lifting his legs off he ground like every other breed. They also comment on how brave I am for jumping something that can only pace around at high speeds with its head in the air and couldn’t possibly be good for anything else. But we’ll save those topics for another day.

One thing I very rarely get asked about is the benefits of having a harness horse. So rarely in fact that the first time it happened it took me a couple minutes to come up with an answer. Society and the horse industry in general seems to like to focus on the problems and hardships of a situation. Rarely, if ever is attention is paid to the benefits which outweigh those so called issues.

I didn’t get Leo directly from his old trainer, Kelly Hoerdt. (I actually didn’t end up meeting Kelly and the team at Bedrock Training Centre until a number of years later.) I found Leo through an ad on a website, showed it to my dad and we gave the lady a call and went out that afternoon.  Having started out in riding lessons at a local Arabian show barn, I was beyond surprised to find when I walked in the barn that it wasn't a horse pawing, throwing its head and impatiently moving from side to side that I had expected of this 5 year old green broke race horse. Instead it was the sweet, honest, quiet guy parked behind that horse, head down, eyes half mast, patiently waiting for whatever his owner at the time had planned.

 Patience wasn’t the only thing I discovered Leo knew from his days as a race horse.  Tied or in hand, Leo would stand quietly. For farrier work, being tacked or untacked, brushed, bathed, he was happy and content to hang out while I went around doing this and that. From being harnessed and unharnessed so regularly, he knew his job was to wait. I didn’t have to teach him that or go through the process of waiting for him to figure it out.  He was a dream in the barn, and rarely ever gave me any issue. When he did, it was usually just him wandering off to find the cookie bin.

Another thing that surprised me was his trailering skills. Many horses, even many well seasoned competitive horses, are awful at trailering. Loading or unloading or waiting in the trailer, they just suck at it. They fuss, or rear, or pull back, or paw and kick incessantly, or a fan favourite, plant their feet and refuse to budge. Not Leo. To this day he’s still wonderful to trailer. Once he’s had a look, he’ll step right in and wait for the rest of the crew to be ready to go.

In addition to his manners at home, and while travelling, Leo was also a champ at shows. I had be accustomed to horses that would throw a fuss if any other horses came too close to them in a warm up ring, or during a show class. Red ribbons on tails had been an accepted part of taking your horse out in public. It was something we had been taught to look for and avidly avoid. Thankfully, Leo didn’t need any of that. From being trained and worked in close proximity to other horses (and carts/sulkies) he was already used to having other horses and their drivers/riders in his space and was very comfortable working with them there. Once we got to know each other he was willing to trust my judgment about passing in between horses with only a few inches of clearance on either side because he had been taught and understood that he could trust his pilot. When another horse may have balked or spun away, Leo would just put his head down and march right on through.

 Furthermore, the environment at the track isn’t the most peaceful. You have horses coming and going (sometimes not very quietly), people talking, sometimes yelling, tractors, water trucks, starting gates, other vehicles and crowds of people with small children, dogs, and umbrellas. All these things that had previously been a reason to brace for impact were a breeze. Leo had already seen all these things, and was accustomed to them. Even now he’s still more comfortable working in a busy environment than a quiet one. The work ethic he developed from being on the track is still one of my favourite things about him. He was used to working 5-6 days a week. And not just going for a trail ride, or a nice easy waltz around the arena – really working.  He’s happiest now working those 5 days a week with a trail ride on the sixth day thrown in for good measure. Whenever I introduce something new, he’s not happy until he’s figured out what I’m asking. That is to say, he’ll stick with it until he understands what he’s supposed to be doing, even if he can’t yet do it perfectly. By the next time we approach that exercise, he’s usually already ready to move to the next step.
They were bred to work, and their trainers, owners, and drivers put a lot of work into them. And they deserve the credit for that.  So while Standardbreds come with their own set of challenges, they come with a wide range of benefits that people frequently forget to acknowledge.
The skills he learned before I got him and that kind of attitude, enthusiasm and approach he has to his job I fully attribute to him being a Standardbred and a race horse.

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