From Harness Racing to Pleasure Driving

A Standardbred that has been trained for racing is definitely broke to drive. Those that have competed at least one season have been driven well over a thousand miles. The average Standardbred racehorse will pull a lightweight cart 2500 to  4000 miles during its career.

 What most Standardbreds haven’t been taught, however, is how to stand still hooked to a buggy with a driver on board. It’s not that they want to run off. They have simply been programmed to move forward whenever there is weight in the cart. A horse that is asked to stop, expects the driver to get out of the cart, uncheck its head, and start to unhook. If the driver remains in the cart and insists on the horse standing still, it will often wiggle or go backwards becoming increasingly frustrated to the point it may become destructive. No place in the Standardbred’s race training has it been required to stand still for any length of time with the driver in the cart.

 Therefore, the first lesson in making the transition to pleasure driving should be to teach the horse to stand still with a person in the seat. Begin by line driving the horse on foot and asking it to stop and stand for a minute or two at a time. It’s also a good idea to teach the horse to back during this process since that lesson is often overlooked at the track, as well. This may seem elementary, but it’s a good way for the handler to get a feel for the horse’s mouth and temperament in harness. Having a fairly loose overcheck, which is common for pleasure driving, helps keep the ex-racehorse relaxed. Don’t hitch the horse until it will stand patiently when line driven.

Learning to stand quietly with someone in the cart is the next step. It’s highly advisable to have a second person help with this important part of the training. If the horse tries to move forward when the driver gets in the cart, the assistant should step up and calmly re-enforce the command to stand. After the horse is still for 15 or 20 seconds, ask it to walk off. It may take several sessions of walking, stopping, standing quietly, and then walking some more, to drill the point home. These lessons help the horse relax and set the tone for its future pleasure driving. Do not allow the horse to trot until it complies obediently.

These transitional training steps are best taught in an arena, large paddock or driveway that winds between buildings. Later the horse can graduate to longer drives around a farm or down country roads. Try to refrain from testing the horse’s speed. Standardbreds can trot up to 35 mph, but doing so is not conducive to laying a firm foundation for pleasure driving. Going fast is fun for the horse and the driver, but the adrenalin rush that accompanies the speed can precipitate unruly and even dangerous behavior. These horses’ racing careers are over. They need to relax in their new vocation.


Developing the Rack in the Standardbred

The smooth racking gait can be developed in just about every Standardbred even the 15% that are trotters, if desired. It’s usually a simple matter of shoeing and collection.

Once the horse is comfortable under saddle and giving nicely to the bit, it can be asked to move out a bit faster than the walk. On a loose rein, most will start trotting. However, if  collected in the bridle and driven with the seat and legs, many will move from the walk right into a very smooth single-foot rack. If pushed for additional speed the rack will change into a rougher side to side pace. The difference is readily discerned by the rider.

Horses that don’t pick up the rack when collected, but continue to trot often respond favorably to a heavier shoe behind. The same sense of balance can be achieved by going barefoot in front with regular shoes behind. The added weight helps the horse swing over into a more lateral gait. A light chain fitted loosely on the hind pasterns will generally encourage even the most reluctant Standardbred to rack.

A few Standardbreds are very pacey right from the walk and don’t hit that smooth single foot gait when asked. These horses benefit from a  heavier shoe in front or having their hind shoes pulled to encourage the rack before hitting a pace. A pair of light chains on the front pasterns also work wonders in helping this type of horse learn to rack.

Once the horse is racking, it’s a matter of encouraging that gait through positive re-enforcement and not pushing for speed until the rack is well developed. Changing from the snaffle driving bit used during the first few rides to one with some leverage is especially helpful. Three bits commonly used on Standardbred racking horses are a Wonder Bit also known as a Gag bit, a Kimberwick, and a western training bit with 6 ½ ” shanks. All of these have smooth snaffle mouthpieces and swivel cheeks to accommodate a direct reined horse.