When you hear the term "horse racing," you probably imagine horses ridden by jockeys charging toward the finish line. That's also known as flat racing, but there is another type of pari-mutuel equine racing. Harness racing consists of Standardbreds hitched to sulkies and driven to the finish line.
Unlike in thoroughbred racing, amateurs sometimes train and compete their horses. One such amateur competitor, Mal Burroughs, won the 1997 Hambletonian -- the most prestigious of North American harness races -- on a horse he owned and drove, Malabar Man.
Trotters and Pacers
Standardbreds race at two different gaits, the trot and the pace, and trotters race only against trotters and pacers against pacers. The trotter moves his legs in diagonal pairs, while the pacer moves his legs laterally, or with the front and rear legs on the same side moving together. The number of pacers far outweighs that of trotters in North America. Both types can begin racing at age 2.
Unless you purchase your horse as a weanling, he'll already be trained to drive. Standardbreds are generally broken to drive as yearlings. To train your racehorse, you will need:
- A jog cart for everyday training and a racing sulky, or "bike," for race days
- A quick-release harness and bridle with blinders
If your horse is a pacer, you will put hobbles on him during training to keep him from breaking his gait. Your horse will also need protective boots on his feet or legs to keep him from injuring himself during training.
Professional trainers generally keep their horses stabled full time at a Standardbred training center. These centers not only provide stabling but also access to a racetrack for training purposes. Other amenities often include swimming pools for equine therapy, and the availability of farriers and harness shops. While you don't have to train your horse at a training center, you do need regular access to a track. Many centers allow you to ship your horse in to use the track for a fee, even if you don't board there.
If you're training your horse yourself, you'll need to condition him every other day with a 3- to 6-mile jog. You jog your horse the opposite way -- to the left -- than he would be driven while racing. Harness horsemen refer to "training" as a regular conditioning aid in which horses are turned post-jogging to head to the right and pace, or trot, a speedy mile. A mile is the standard length of most harness races, and the reason the breed got its name. Before your horse is initially eligible to race, he must run a qualifying mile in less than 3 minutes.
You can train your horse at home, jogging around the farm or in fields. You usually need access to a training center to condition your horse for a fast mile.
Standardbreds race more often than thoroughbreds -- generally weekly. You don't jog your horse on the morning of the race. Instead, walk him for 15 minutes for a muscle warm-up on racing mornings.
Unlike thoroughbreds, Standardbreds in training are often turned out to pasture except for race days. Most horses enjoy this break, as it is a more natural lifestyle than living in a stall most of the time. Whether regular turnout suits your training purposes depends on the individual animal.