In which I answer the question "What IS a standardbred, anyhow?"

I often play the "guess my horse's breed" game with other horse people. Most people look at her legs and guess "thoroughbred."

Close, but no cigar.

(Cigar was a thoroughbred).

Some folks look at her color (dark bay) and guess "morgan."

Again, this is a good guess. But no.

After these two attempts, some people will start desperately naming off every breed of horse they can remember, from Appaloosa (uhhhh, no) to Warmblood (again, no). I've never had anybody guess "standardbred."

People who recognize her as a standardbred usually aren't guessing; they've had extensive experience with STB's and actually recognize what Fiddle is, because she looks like what she is--a pacing standardbred--even if most people around here have never heard of it.

"You mean a saddlebred?"

Uh, no. (I'm always amazed that people get really adament that I don't know the "real" name of the breed. Saddlebreds are different, I promise!)

Although Fiddle does gait, sometimes.
(Most vets know all about STBs, because--and this makes me sad--this breed is often used as practice animals in vet school because they are generally gentle, tolerant, and cheap.)

So, then, what IS a standardbred? You probably know more about them than you think!

Sing along with me:
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is to ride in a
One-horse open sleigh--hey!

That horse with the bells on his bobbed-tail in the song was undoubtedly a standardbred, the most popular American carriage horse in the 1850's. Further proof is found in a lesser-known stanza:

Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young,
Take the girls tonight
and sing this sleighing song
Just get a bob-tailed bay

Two forty
as his speed
and Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead.

"Two-forty" refers to the horse's trotting speed over a mile, two minutes and forty seconds (more than 22 miles per hour) which is a goodly pace in snow!

The official standardbred registration book admitted horses of any ancestry, provided the horse could trot a mile in 2 minutes, 30 seconds, or 2:35 pulling a wagon. The far end of modern standardbred pedigrees contain horses who were Arabs, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, and a lot of mongrel horses written in the record vaguely as "William's brown mare" and "Johnson's stallion."

Here are more standardbreds you know:

The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be....

The mare in THAT song was Lady Suffolk, a trotting Standardbred who raced in harness and under saddle. Lady Suffolk was fast, folks--and was winning races against much younger horses at the age of twenty.
Here's another song:

The Camptown racetrack's five miles long
Oh, de doo-da day
Goin' to run all night
Goin' to run all day
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag
Somebody bet on the gray

Yup, it's our old friend the bob-tailed nag...certainly a standardbred, because you would have no reason to bob the tail of a horse that you would only ride; the tail-bob was for carriage- and cart-horses.
I find it interesting that the musical standardbreds are often grey, because many modern race fans consider grey standardbreds to be unlucky, and they won't bet on them. Consequently, American and Canadian breeders will often not breed grey horses (because they don't make as much money from a horse that nobody will bet on to win a race!), and so most of our standardbreds are brown, bay, or black. In Australia, grey and even spotted standardbreds are not uncommon.

Then there's the famous, but somewhat confusing line in the musical The Music Man. Remember? In the song "You Got Trouble", Professor Harold Hill gleefully warns the citizens of River City about the perils of modern life, including (gasp!) racing a horse by riding in a saddle! Here's the line:

Like to see some stuck up jockey boy sitting on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil, I should say.

At the time that Music Man is set (1912), most right-thinking folks believed that saddle-racing was invented by the Devil, and that civilized racing took place with a buggy. Dan Patch was the first American athletic celebrity: he had automobiles named for him, as well as brands of tobacco and washing machines. There were even Dan Patch cigars! Alas, Dan Patch wasn't much of a breeding horse, and most modern standardbreds are only distantly related to him.

You have seen one of his ancestors, though. Yes, you have. He's at the top of this blog: the weathervane horse. That horse was the father of Dan Patch, a big black stallion with a white blaze and four white feet: Joe Patchen. To this day, the weathervane trotting horse is known as "The Patchen Horse."

If you are looking for an excellent book to read about historical horse-training, take a look at Beautiful Jim Key : the lost history of a horse and a man who changed history by Mim Eichler Rivas. This remarkable story tells not only this history of one horse and the man who trained him, but also documents the beginning of the American Humane Society, inspired in part by Jim Key and the Jim Key Pledge: “I promise always to be kind to animals.” More than two million children took this pledge nationwide. Pretty cool, huh?

I guess I don't need to say it, given this context, but I'm going to say it anyhow: Jim Key was the son of a desert arab mare...and a Hambletonian (standardbred) sire.

Modern standardbreds--because they are bred for function, rather than for a conformation show like many modern quarter horses, arabs, and other "show" breeds--are rarely called beautiful. Most folks use kindly words like "honest," "sturdy," and sometimes just "plain."

They often have big, unrefined heads, strong legs, and iron-hard feet. (this is a Canadian STB gelding called "Amigo"...look at that HEAD!)

Some are prettier

than others.

Next time you're out and about and see an honest-looking brown horse, ask the rider:

"Hey! Is that a standardbred?"



  1. What a great post! You get the glory for the something new I learned today! And I like sturdy, honest horses!

  2. Can't say that I've ever met a Standardbred - although I'd like to! Are there SB rescue societies, as with TBs?

    The good legs and feet are a big asset - I wish more TB breeders (and QH breeders, and you name it breeders) would pay attention to that!

  3. If you would like to adopt a Standardbred go to the website, which is the Standardbred Retirement Foundation. They are great horses and have super personalities, fabulous manners and many are great looking.

  4. Leah Fry: I'm so glad to add to your bank of wisdom! I prefer sturdy-and-honest too.

    Kate: STB = standardbred
    SB = saddlebred

    No wonder people get confused! In Canada they call them "standies", but that sounds so strange to me....

    SCC is correct, is a good place to start.

    Also, and the US Trotting Association just announced last week that they are partnering to create a "free STB Adoption service" listing standardbreds that can be adopted free, usually from breeders and track trainers. Here's the link for that:

    There are also regional organizations that work to place STBs in new homes and careers. Here in the Swamplands, Greener Pastures is the place to go.

    They're located in Langely, British Columbia, and are very accustomed to placing horses in the US, so don't let the "foreign country" thing scare you. They've got a nice looking gelding available right now:

  5. wonderful informative post!


  6. As the proud owner of a pacing grey standardbred I did not know why the colour was rare until now, so thanks! Great post.

    After owning Tonka I have been convinced that standies are the breed for me. He is so polite and so sweet, but still a fun ride with lots of smarts. I could not be more pleased and I am happy that I have discovered the breed entirely by accident. He was sold to me as a grade gelding, but I spotted the hint of a tattoo one day when he was giving me some lip. He turned out to be Kellys Mountain, and a full 8 years older than the vet had estimated. I'm told this is also common with the breed.

    Also, I have been meaning to say: get goats. Only those with a sense of humour need apply, but I think you would love some pygmies. That is a compliment.

  7. Oops! STB it is!

  8. dp: our horses are cousins!
    Kellys Mountain (aka Tonka):

    Willow Killean (aka Fiddle's mom):

    Doesn't that make us practically sisters? *g*

    And yes, we WANT goats. First, though, we need a fence that will at least slow goats down a little. Three strands of electric = goat joke. Sigh. Also, goat prices are ridiculously high right now; I'm hoping the prices will drop after the fair in August. Fingers crossed....

  9. HEY! I have seen your comments on others blogs and just checked you out! I loved this post! I also saw your occupation (storyteller) and my mom is one too! Have you ever gone to the Nat'l Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN? I love Jay O'Callahan and my mom is a friend of Laura Simms.... I haven't been since I was about 12, but my mom goes every year and I vow to get there again in the next 2 years! My mom is a librarian to pay the bills, but I tell her once she retires she needs to start up her business again. I tell her all the time to get herself booked at the Nat'l Festival!!! (She is really that good!) I am entranced by her tellings, she can hold me riveted OVER and OVER even tho' I've heard the story multiple times! She came to Texas to visit 2 years ago and told at my son's school. Unfortunately, I don't think they realized she wouldn't just be reading from a book --and the talent they were getting for FREE--so they didn't book her in the gym for an assembly style telling. They were so WOWED by her and my son told me at least 20 kids told him after how great they thought she was and wanted to know when she would come back?
    OK. Sorry for the book, just got excited to see a storyteller out is becoming a lost art....
    I'm adding you to my blog roll!
    OH! And I'm going to purchase that book, it looks GREAT!

  10. LOVE this post! :) I am excited to find your blog and start reading! I love chatting with STB folks!


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