Trotting and Harness Racing
The Harness Racing Association of South Africa

The Standardbred


The origins of the Standardbred trace back to Messenger, an English Thoroughbred foaled in 1870 and later exported to the USA. Messenger was the great-grandsire of Hambletonian, to whom every Standardbred can trace its heritage. Standardbreds are a relatively new breed, dating back just over 200 years, but it is essentially a true American breed.

The name “Standardbred” originated because the early trotters (pacers would not come into the picture until much later) were required to reach a certain standard for the mile distance in order to be registered as part of this new breed. The mile (1600m) is still the standard distance covered in nearly every harness race.

While Thoroughbred racing has long been known as the sport of kings, the dependable and athletic Standardbred brought racing to the common man, first between neighbours on community roads and later at state-of-the-art American and European racetracks.


In many respects the Standardbred resembles the Thoroughbred. However it is often more muscled, longer in the body and does not stand as tall – averaging between 15 and 16 hands. The head can sometimes be plain. Colours may vary from grey to chestnut, to the more common bay, black and brown.

The Standardbred is generally of a very kind and calm disposition. They are known for their docile personalities and willing temperaments. The percentage of winning favourites is 41% as opposed to 33% for Thoroughbreds. Standardbreds are known to be extremely brave in performance and are the chosen breed used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
For all their stamina and speed in harness, Standardbreds make willing and intelligent companions off the track. Because of their training on the track, it is usually an easy task to retrain them for pleasure or show. Standardbreds excel in a variety of disciplines, from dressage to jumping, saddle seat to combined driving. They have a heart that knows no limits and oodles of versatility to go with it.


Standardbred racing is mostly contested at two gaits, the trot and the pace. Trotters move with a diagonal gait; the left front and right rear legs move in unison, as do the right front and left rear. It requires much skill by the trainer to get a trotter to move perfectly at high speeds, even though the trotting gait is a natural one in the animal world. 

Pacers, on the other hand, move the legs on one side of their body in tandem: left front and rear, and right front and rear. This action shows why pacers are often called "side-wheelers." Pacers are the faster of the two gaits and are aided in maintaining their gait by plastic loops called hobbles, which keep their legs moving in synchronization.

Tripling is also a popular non-gallop gait in South Africa today, widely seen in rural and indigenous equine circles.

Any harness horse breaking gait into a canter or gallop during a race must be pulled back to its correct gait and lose ground to its competitors, or be disqualified.

The non-gallop racing gaits:

  1. Trot - A two beat gait of grounded simultaneous diagonals.
  2. Pace - A two beat gait of grounded simultaneous laterals.
  3. Triple - A four beat gait of foreleg trot and hind-leg canter.

Gait disqualification:

Gaits that are not allowed are the canter and gallop. Disqualification can occur if a horse "breaks stride" or "breaks" in the following circumstances:

  • More than 2 times.
  • On the final stretch.
  • Gains unfair advantage.
  • Is on that gait for more than 150 meters (once or twice collectively) or 100 meters during the last 300 meters of the race.

Artificial Insemination

In line with ITA policy, artificial insemination is permitted in Standardbreds. This practise is conducted under strictly regulated conditions, and facilitates access to top quality international stallions at affordable prices.

TSA, with international support has commenced a program of equine genetic improvement, and makes imported semen available to aspirant Standardbred breeders at cost.

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