This is not another book on how to breed a racing Standardbred, nor is it a manual on all the Standardbred’s important racing bloodlines. Rather, this is a study on how the talents of this extremely gifted sport breed can be used primarily by the sport horse breeders to improve their product—the ridden sport horse—especially by the breeders engaged in producing horses that can compete in Olympic-style sport, and also by the American equestrians and sport competitors who want to understand the sport talents that their mounts possess. I will not be listing every strain of every bloodline, as Wallace, Parlin, Hervey, Battell, and Bradley have already provided that in their eminent works. Rather, I will go through this history highlighting the main points and outlining the main bloodlines so we can identify where the talents we admire reside, which in turn will assist us in using this top sport resource to the benefit of our competition and sport breeding goals.
My focus then is to illustrate how the Standardbred is a great ridden sport horse and an important genetic source for the production of top sport horses—those that are ridden. Right here is where we run into our first mental road block, because the Standardbred is known worldwide as the premier harness racehorse; no other breed is better at the trot or pace in harness than this American breed. The success of the Standardbred as a harness racehorse has blinded the modern equestrian to its saddle uses, yet if we travel back just eighty years, we find that it was highly valued in equitation both as a gaited saddle horse and as a walk, trot, canter show horse and that it originally was raced under saddle. In addition— and seldom remembered—it was also prized as a hunter horse with a tremendous jump, fantastic endurance, courage, gameness, and speed. Amazingly, it also slipped from our memories that the American Trotter and then our Standardbred were used regularly in breeding not only our own international sport horses but also those of France and Germany, a practice that faded only in the late 1900s. We will see how this breed has provided talent for some of the highest scoring Olympic horses in history in our modern era.
Those same bloodlines that excelled in all manner of saddle sports in the early 1900s have not changed; the Standardbred is a purebred breed, with the last family groups added into its register in 1891. The traits that existed when it was a ridden sport horse still are resident in this breed (they have not been bred out), and many modern-day equestrians have been discovering how versatile, pleasant, and athletic this breed can be under saddle, in all manner of equine sport.
Through study, we can determine which of the bloodlines are the best choices for our own success. And now we run into the next mental block in our pursuit, which is how the new genetic studies are interpreted. The unlocking of the genetic mysteries of our breeds has been in progress since 2001, when the equine genome was first mapped. One of the more recent discoveries is a gene that allows full-speed racing at the mid-gait of trot or pace (gait-keeper gene). This inheritable factor, of course, is one of the chromosomal pillars of our mid-gait racing breed: the Standardbred. These studies are in their infancy, but already, a genetic test is available so you can identify if your horse carries the gene. Naturally, projections and pronouncements of this gene’s effects on the horse have been made. Some of these conclusions have proclaimed the possession of the gene as a liability for Olympic-style sport. We will see how the scientist’s zeal in the promotion of their genetic test has led them to indulge in overreaches concerning the gene’s scope of power in locomotion control. We will explore all this in Chapter 6 and throughout the text, and counter it with historical and current performance records and the surprising revelation by the leading scientist in those studies, who explained to me that the Standardbred evidently carries other genetic factors that override and upset those alleged drawbacks. Some of those elements are an innate ability to jump and collect, arguably in greater measure in the Standardbred than most other sport breeds. Certainly, you will discover through the historical records (as I did) that the Standardbred is rivaled only by its near relative the Thoroughbred in its ability to jump, demonstrating that instead of being limited by its “gaitedness,” our Standardbred rises heads above other breeds as a versatile and exemplary sport resource.
To understand why this breed is so valuable to us, we need to understand what it is, so I must go back to the beginning of the story, to the root of the breed, to the days when the ancestors of the Standardbred were the best saddle and hunting horses in the world, and show you how it was selectively bred to eventually become the best harness racehorse in the world, while also clearly showing you that it has never lost its saddle attributes. This is a challenge, but well worth the effort, as this pool of genetic power is an untapped and unrecognized reservoir of the very best elements that we need to succeed. In our day, we have forgotten our own equine history; for instance, even Messenger EH, who is named by many as the main foundation sire of the American Trotter breed and the later Standardbred, was never driven in harness but was instead a ridden racehorse and then a saddle horse, and a noted sire of hunters.
We sit in an enviable position as equestrians and breeders today as the rapidly developing genetic studies on the horse provide us with information that confirms and identifies the true sources of the traits we most want to build into our programs. Because of those advantages, we have a much easier time than the equine historians and breeders we will be visiting did when they struggled to determine the source of the athletic power that resides in this superb sport breed. We will see that strong factions arose, resulting in bitter battles and outright wars between the different schools of thought on this subject.
Some may wonder why we must bother with the roots of our breeds. In the case of the Standardbred, I can tell you that it is especially essential because without knowing its history, we will never comprehend its suitability for our ridden sports. Sport horse breeders usually breed up from at least two breeds to get the traits they need for their sport, and without knowing that the Standardbred arose out of the same top sport elements as other successful sport breeds, we will miss out on opportunities to build dominance in the background power lines and will lessen the success of our crossbreedings. With knowledge of the origins of our breeds, we can confidently identify the lines we want to target for dominance and the setting of type.
We are also in the possession of a tool of immense usefulness that we can employ in designing our breedings—one that was provided for us by other investigators and researchers who worked on determining which pedigree patterns prove most advantageous for building potency. We can use this knowledge to identify the potent sport carriers in the Standardbred, as well as to determine the dominances in our own stock, and then apply it in the selection of the most beneficial mates for our horses (see Appendix B, Understanding Pedigrees).
At this juncture in North America, after suffering the effects of a long recession in our industry, the majority of breeders are in an acute crisis of identity, direction, and finance, and many have dropped out or have been ruined. With the proliferation of warmbloods in the arena, most now look to those breeds as suitable mounts for their sport, never realizing that the ability to achieve in sport came not from the warmblood breed base but by the addition of true sport elements into its breed, the sources being the English/Irish and American sport breeds. Additionally, countless of us who have participated in the European-breed fad have been disappointed in our breeding returns. After spending decades following the European method of sport breeding and incurring all the great expense this practice requires, many have found that our results do not reflect our investment.
Concurrently, we were also starved from a lack of exposure to our own true history and heritage in sport horse breeding, resulting in many now believing the “common wisdom” peddled to the equestrian: America is new to sport horse breeding and doesn’t know how to breed sport horses. This is a tragedy, for North America-–new world or not—has a far better and richer record in international sport horse production than any other country—including England! We also have become so out of touch with our own equine history and resources that we don’t recognize that we are surrounded with the highest quality horses for our own use in our domestic sport and saddle horse breeds.
This book is the third in a series that explores and reveals the wealth of sport resource available to the North American breeder, and I hope it becomes a valued reference for both the large and small breeders of sport horses, as well as for the horse owner. We have all we need to succeed in our sport horse breeding programs right here, such as the new knowledge in breeding practices, genetics, and pedigree designs that is ours for just a small commitment in the time required to absorb the information, and we possess an immense treasure of superior raw material for our sport recipes in our North American breeds, populations that turn out to contain concentrations of the greatest root source of athletic prowess found in the equine anywhere—and it is right here, accessible and affordable to us all. Let’s learn what a prize the Standardbred is for our riding and sport breeding programs.
Kathleen Kirsan Lincoln, CA, 4/14/16