Focus on Discipline: Harness Racing
- Sep 1, 1997
Two-beat speed is the standard in this equestrian sport. At the pace or trot, horses of the Standardbred breed compete in harness, while pulling a two-wheel sulky. Drivers urge their horses to race to the wire. Harness horses have competed in the United States for almost 200 years, with a mile race still the usual distance. They race at the trot or the pace, with pacers predominate in modern sport, although trotters are popular in several European countries. France breeds its own trotting horse, the French Trotter ("Trotteur Francais").
In North America, Standardbreds compete at county fairs and pari-mutuel tracks. Tracks range in length, with half-mile, five-eighths of a mile, three-quarters of a mile, and one-mile ovals.
The field of entries starts a race spread across the track at close to racing speed behind a mobile starting gate. Once the gate opens and pulls away from the horses, drivers urge their horses "into the lane" or down toward the inside rail.
Harness racing is an important segment of the horse racing industry, especially in the Eastern United States. The Hambletonian Society encourages breeding and manages important events such as the Cadillac Hambletonian and the Cadillac Breeders Crown. Major stakes races feature substantial purses, equal to those in other flat racing.
On smaller tracks, harness racing offers family fun. Unlike most horses which are raced under saddle, Standardbred owners can train and drive their own horses.
Selection for Speed
Whether trotters or pacers, Standardbreds are registered through the United States Trotting Association. Ancestry influences which gait a horse prefers. Potential racehorses are bred for a specific gait, with pacers bred to pacers, and trotters to trotters.
Albert Gabel, DVM, formerly the AAEP liaison to the U.S.T.A., explained, "As the breed evolved through the 1800s, most bloodlines produced both trotters and pacers, but trotters were more desired. In the 1920s with the popularity of pari-mutuel betting, pacers became more popular because they are less likely to make breaks (to a gallop)."
Although of the same breed, conformation varies between the pacers and trotters. In the trotter's diagonal gait, the front feet move between the hind legs. The pacer's ipsilateral gait--where each pair of legs moves forward as a unit--requires the horse to handle himself smoothly for speed at a lateral motion. The pacer races a mile about three seconds faster than a trotter.
These horses race up to 30 mph at a stride of 25 to 27 feet. At speed, the horse can hit an opposite leg. Shoeing and equipment, such as hobbles, help each type of racer to move correctly.
Kenneth Seeber, DVM, works with top Standardbreds at New Jersey's The Meadowlands. He explained, "Interfering is a problem to some extent, especially with the amount of equipment the horse wears. On the pacer, it can alter the horse's natural gait. When horses get shoes, wear equipment, and are hitched to a sulky, a lot of things have changed. They have to be trained to get used to working with the changes."
The horse's build relates to the movement of the legs. Gabel said, "Trotters can be narrow in front and move wide behind. The horse should go straight, and not very wide in front.
"In the trotter, body length affects the likelihood of interfering. The horse should be longer than he is tall. One who's even or shorter is more pre-disposed to interfering."
Gabel, who treated Standardbreds at The Ohio State University's equine hospital for 35 years, started driving these animals himself to diagnose lameness. He now trains and races horses in Ohio. He noted that in the trotter, "there's a potential interference at every step. Very few trotters are long enough that they don't hit themselves. Only two percent are 'line-gaited,' or so long that there is no risk of hitting their shins."
About the pacer, he recommended a horse which is wide and moves straight front and rear.
These equine athletes share characteristics with other racers, and harness racing horsemen compare each prospect to the ideal performer. To race while pulling weight, the horse needs a powerful hindquarter. A greater angle of shoulder and stifle aid the horse's performance, as he can better absorb the concussion of racing over a firm, fast track surface.
On that surface, Seeber recommended, "Good feet are very important. Bad feet can create soundness problems."
A 1985 Swedish study recorded measurements of conformation and orthopedic health of 500 4-year-olds in training. Veterinarian Lars-Erik Magnusson used an objective method to judge trotters' conformation. In Studies on the Conformation and Related Traits of Standardbred Trotters in Sweden, he noted that horses measured slightly taller (.5 cm) than longer, for a body shape that was almost quadratical.
The study listed certain conformation points associated with horses which were likely to perform better while racing. "The trotters of medium size with long limbs, normal size of hooves, not tied in at the knees, and not with curby, sickle hocks, and straight fetlock angles had a better chance of remaining sound than horses with opposite characteristics."
The harness racing horse must have a determined attitude. A youngster that shows an aggressive, "leader of the pack" personality in pasture might bring that mentality to the track.
Gabel said, "There is a variability in the temperament of Standardbreds, but most are gentle and easy to work with. When we get them to the training track, if they are halter broke, we usually are driving them within a week.
"Most are very competitive, but a few won't try. A few try too hard--they want to go faster than we want them to."
Standardbreds must be willing to keep to the gait at speed. If one breaks gait into a gallop, or goes offstride, he must move out of the way and slow to regain his racing gait. One horse's breaking can easily upset others on the track.
Of the many factors that make up an athlete, Seeber explained how the horseman evaluates potential: "When you look at a young horse, you want an athletic-looking individual. You watch him move around in the field like an athlete."
He compared equine athletes as similar to humans: "It's a combination of ability, desire, and the capability to tolerate some discomfort. You can have an athlete with ability but no desire, or one with minimal athletic ability and tremendous desire. Or, you can have a good athlete that can't tolerate a lot of pain."
Inherent deviations can affect a Standardbred's athletic ability. In evaluating a potential competitor, Gabel advised looking at all parts of the horse, then the sum of that horse's negatives. "Some negatives count more than others, and some take him off the list. One is back at the knee--if the angle of radius and metacarpus is less than straight from the side, or concave in front. Another is if the horse toes out very much, viewed from the front."
Outward rotation of limbs can cause the horse to interfere. The horse can hit his ankle, shin, or knee. Gabel said, "Trotters should not toe in, because they paddle and are more likely to hit the rear shins."
Other leg de-fects that can affect the horse's way of going include tied in at the knee, over at the knee, knock-kneed, or sickle hocked. "You don't want a trotter to be sickle-hocked," advised Gabel, "because it shortens up the distance between front and hind legs and feet." He did mention that some horsemen accept moderate sickle hocks in the pacer, contending that this hock angle indicates more power in the hind legs. Sickle hocks can predispose the horse to curbs and synovial distention of the hock joint.
The pacer can crossfire, hitting right front on left rear, or left front on right rear. Fast pacers can also overreach. Protective boots guard against such injury. Pacers wear tendon boots and bell boots on their front feet, to guard legs against hitting as they pass each other.
Pacers move with a rolling gait, as both left feet, then both right feet, hit the ground. "It's a rhythmic motion," explained Seeber. "The rolling motion is how they balance themselves. They swing with the head and neck."
Shoeing affects the gait, and Gabel described some examples: "In the U.S., most pacers have swedges on the outside and half rounds on the inside half of the rear shoes. In Australia and New Zealand, most pacers wear full swedge shoes behind. I noticed that they swing less. Many good trotters that are well balanced will swing their heads from side to side with each stride."
The horse must breathe freely, to inhale and exhale during the race. Gabel cautioned against the horse with a narrow airway. "If the horse has a narrow nose and narrow jaws, move on to the next. The percentages are bad, so don't invest in a horse with a good pedigree, but chances of possible airway problems."
In Magnusson's study, the following traits were cited as negative influences on performance: length of head, girth circumference, circumference and width of front cannon, narrow hooves, outwardly rotated limbs, and tied in at knee and hock. A substantial percentage showed outward rotation of fore and hind limbs.
Down The Stretch
In this sport, horses usually race the fastest in the first or final quarters. Drivers are allowed to use whips in the final segment.
A good Standardbred shows a bold way of going. He moves with a long, fluid stride at an efficient gait, and he has the power to turn on the speed when asked.
In harness racing, time of the race is measured to one-fifth of a second. Across the industry, horses continually set new track records at the trot and pace, with top horses able to do the mile in 1:50 or less.
"There's more emphasis on speed in the Standardbred business," said Seeber. "Rarely are track and speed records broken in Thoroughbred racing, but there are new Standardbred records on a weekly basis."
To finish in the money, the horse must respond willingly to the driver's signals. The driver rates his horse's speed and direction to gain a good position in the field. He might ask the horse for early speed at the start if he is starting from the outside in order to cross over to the rail and beat others to the lead and save ground on the inside.
Maneuverability is an important attribute on the track. To seek racing room, the horse might angle to the outside to pass, or move up through a gap between other horses. Or, if he's trapped behind or beside other entries, he must wait for the driver's signal to step around the leaders.
Winners are courageous, displaying gameness to race in close quarters. A champion can forge ahead of other horses, and respond when called on. As in other sports, the winner won't quit even if he's tired.
Confidence in his gait is crucial to the harness racer, and Gabel explained that most trotters wear brace bandages, or shin boots on the hind legs, for protection. "That way the horse doesn't get frightened if he hits himself. That can make a worthless horse, if he gets that in his head.
"The toughest horses to manage are those that are not lame, but are afraid they'll get hit on their rear shins." He noted that a trainer might think a horse is lame as it "hikes" the hind leg it fears that it will hit.
Wind resistance plays a role in harness racing, and the effect of drag costs the horse who races "without cover" of a horse in front. Gabel described the implications: "If you don't have anybody in front of you, it costs you a second, or five lengths. The draft of the horse, sulky, and driver put drag on you. If you're two-wide, depending on the size of the track, you have a longer distance to race: eight lengths on a half-mile track, five on a five-eighths-mile track, and four on a one-mile track.
"You have to go farther--the sulky is wider than the horse. When you're out without cover, you're 'hung out.' You have very little chance to win."
Racing on the track also involves turns--as many as four on some half-mile tracks. Magnusson reported that racing counterclockwise can be a cause of a large percentage of problems in the horses' near front leg, and he related this to insufficiently banked turns.
Seeber expressed the opinion that primary problems occur on the horse's right side, with the left side showing secondary problems.
"I believe that the centrifugal force is greater on the right side, because of the speed the horses go through the turns," he stated. "Banked turns are beneficial. The horse can go faster on the banked turn, and it's easier for him to bring through his weight on the turn. Superelevated tracks, like The Mead-owlands, promote speed, and it's easier for the horse to go around the turns."
In general, Standardbreds suffer far fewer catastrophic injuries than their Thoroughbred counterparts. However, accidents and strain injuries do sideline harness horses.
In 2- and 3-year-olds, Seeber mentioned more musculoskeletal problems in joints rather than soft tissue injuries. "The articular cartilage in joints is not developed as well as it should be. You see bruises and bony problems. In young horses, you see more sore joints."
Disorders of tendons and ligaments affect the older campaigners. Gabel named damage to the suspensory ligament as the most commonly occurring serious injury.
"In the older horses, ligamentous problems occur because the horse alters his gait," said Seeber, "because he has sore hocks and sore feet.
"Because of the firm and fast racing surface, there is a lot of foot soreness. The faster they go, the harder they hit the ground. Feet have bruises or stinging--it's mostly concussion soreness, and not much navicular."
He noted that compared to the Thoroughbred, the Standardbred has more hind leg problems. "The Thoroughbred has more weight on the forelimbs, with the weight of the jockey. The pacer and trotter pull a sulky. You see a lot of sore hocks. The hocks are the driveshaft, the fulcrum point of the hind leg. There's a tremendous amount of torque."
Gabel considers the hind leg the most common site of inflammation. This condition is often secondary to sore front feet. The horse can become sore in front from working on a hard track, and he compensates by carrying more weight on his hind legs. The result can be sore hocks and sore muscles in the stifle and hindquarter.
Gabel said, "Soreness in the hocks and other parts behind are due to not having enough slow and gradually increasing speed work. Shoeing and the track surface are also factors. Horses can be trained and 'managed' out of this problem."
Magnusson's study reported that 77% of trotters examined had one or more serious signs of injury. He wrote, "It is not surprising that so many injury signs to the limbs have been recorded, because the 4-year-old trotters in professional training are training and competing very hard at high speeds."
As the most frequent signs of injuries, he listed synovial distention of the tendon digital sheath and hind leg fetlock joints, and the carpal, fetlock, and coffin joints of the front leg. Also recorded in the study were joint inflammation, especially in ankle and fetlock, and swelling of the superficial flexor tendon.
Problems in a pacer show up in movement. Seeber said, "You see changes in a rough gait--a hiking or a hitching if the horse has a sore leg. He favors one leg over the other."
Seeber said, "If he's not tired, the suspensory system has some bounce to it. A tired horse is more subject to injury. The tendons don't have as much shock absorption, and there's more banging bone on bone."
Harness horsemen consider these horses tough and durable. "They have more stamina than Thoroughbreds, and less injuries," said Gabel. "More horses get to the races, and they race more times at ages two and three. Our horses race once a week, while a Thoroughbred races less than 10 times a year. Thirty starts a year is not uncommon (for a Standardbred)."
Retired Standardbreds also have the opportunity to change careers. As riding horses, former racehorses enter such sports as competitive trail riding, hunting, barrel racing, dressage, and pleasure riding under English or Western saddle. Adoption agencies help place equine retirees.
"Standardbreds are good candidates for second careers," said Karen Beach of the Standardbred Equestrian Program. "They were bred as buggy horses, and they're good-natured, tractable, and eager to please."
Whether racing every week, or adapting to life as a saddle horse, this American breed prospers. The horse and buggy era might have ended, but Standardbreds continue to bring pleasure to millions of spectators and horsemen.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.