Origins of the Standardbred Horse

Trotting races become popular as a casual sport in the USA’s very early days, and it wasn’t long before breeding was taking place to improve speed and endurance. The Standardbred as a breed traces back to the English Thoroughbred Messenger, foaled in 1780 and imported to the USA in 1788. Messenger won ten galloping races in England and had trotting in his pedigree through Mambrino, his multi-talented sire. Messenger’s great-grandson Hambletonian 10 is considered the breed’s foundation sire from which all Standardbreds descend. Hambletonian 10’s damsire was an imported Norfolk Trotter, a breed used for travel under saddle since the time of Henry VIII. Hambletonian 10 had an unusual build, being low at the withers but high at the croup, the hind leg of a length that provided a great deal of thrust with each stride. He went on to sire over 1,300 offspring and passed those characteristics on.

In 1879 the USA’s National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders issued the first Standardbred registry. The breed’s name was derived from the ‘standard’ required of breeding stock, that they were able to pace or trot a mile in under 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Conformation of the Standardbred

The Standardbred is widely known as a placid and willing horse as well as being very athletic. Compared with the Thoroughbred, the Standardbred has generally stronger but shorter legs, a longer body and more sloping shoulder.

There is little variation between those bred as trotters and pacers. All have durable hooves, a slightly arched, muscular neck and medium-long barrel. While not permitted in racing, the Standardbred will canter and gallop as any other breed, and some will pace free-legged (lateral gait, without hopples) in addition to the usual four gaits.

The New Zealand Standardbred Stud Book

To be recognised as a Standardbred, a horse must be recorded in the Stud Book. The Book is maintained to include all sires, mares and foalings and a horse is not eligible for registration unless it is the progeny of a sire and dam also registered in the Stud Book, has been freeze branded, and has had a DNA sample recorded.

For practical purposes New Zealand Stud Book records are available through Harness Racing New Zealand’s Infohorse service.

All New Zealand-bred Standardbreds are currently freeze branded for identification. The brand is placed in an upper near-side neck position on two lines. The top line represents the season of birth followed by a ‘Z’ (for New Zealand), and the bottom line a six-digit number. All numbers are represented by symbols as follows:

Standardbred branding

Australian, European and North American stock carry different brands.