The Many Faces of Dressage: A Standardbred’s Perspective

Photo by Megan Kruse

Join us on an exclusive first hand account of dressage riders, owners, and breeders and their unique mounts! This series will explore the dressage experience across a full spectrum of unconventional breeds, both large and small, with some familiar faces and some potentially unknown. These are the real life stories, from the humans that know and love them best.

Standardbreds are a breed developed in the United States in the 19th century and used primarily for harness racing. The foundation sire of this breed was the English Thoroughbred Messenger (1780–1808), imported to the United States in 1788. His progeny, of great trotting capacity, were bred with other breeds and types, especially the Morgan, to produce speedy trotters and pacers. They are solid, well-built horses with good dispositions. In addition to harness racing, the Standardbred is used for a variety of equestrian activities, including dressage.

Standie’ owner Amanda Preston gives us an account of what life is like with this versatile breed.

By Amanda Preston

“He won’t eat those treats,” the trainer said to me. “We don’t feed them that fancy stuff here.” 

I offered the awkward 2-year-old colt a horse cookie anyway.  He sniffed twice and took it.  I offered him a second, and then a third, asking him to raise his lip to reach for the treat like a smile. 

“He doesn’t want to be a racehorse, he wants to be a movie star!” I informed the trainer. 

The day Amanda brought Jose home as a 2-year-old.

That was the day I fell in love with a rather unassuming colt, then named Vegas Black Jack.  “Jack” was a son of a very successful stallion named As Promised.  Unfortunately, “Jack” was not interested in pacing, what he was bred to do, so he would never make a racehorse.  That’s what brought me to the barn that day.  I was looking for a companion gelding for my young warmblood stallion – my future dressage superstar, and I’d always enjoyed the gentle nature, heart, and mind of the Standardbred horses I’d worked with in the past.  I offered a whopping $400 for the 2-year-old colt (who had been regularly handled, feet trimmed, vaccinated, dewormed, tacked, worked appropriately for age, etc.) and popped him in my trailer. 

If you’re not familiar with (in my opinion) the most under-appreciated breed of horse, Standardbreds are the harness-racing horses.  They are bred in two bloodlines and race accordingly; one bred to race as trotters, and the other as pacers.  Pacers are a gaited horse and are trained to run their races in a 2-beat gait, like a trot, but using lateral legs together instead of diagonal pairs.  It’s a natural gait and is incredibly fast! Unfortunately, many people are under the impression that “pacers” can’t trot and can’t be trained to canter.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Like a Saddlebred, Morgan, or other gaited breed, Standardbreds can absolutely trot and canter, but the quality of their gaits will vary from individual to individual. 

The first thing to change with my black colt was his name.  Vegas Black Jack may forever be attached to the freeze brand on his neck, but his disposition and personality gave me a much better idea for a “stage name.”  Inspired by Jeff Dunham, Jose Jalapeno went for training under saddle late in his 3-year-old year.  He tried hard and showed promise from the first day.  After two months, I brought him home and began to teach him tricks alongside his under-saddle training.  Teaching tricks gives us more connection and better communication.  It’s given him something more than just circles and straight lines to do in the arena. 

Myself, I am a bit of a dressage purest because dressage training makes the most sense, in my head, so we worked in that direction in training.  The two things that I’ve found the most challenging with Jose have been getting his back to loosen up and the poor fellow has no rhythm.  He will ride straight lines and every corner, hold his circle bend no problem, leg yield, travers, and renvers, but getting body relaxation over the topline for good swing isn’t something that comes naturally, unfortunately.  However, with work and time, it has improved greatly, I’m very proud to say!  You’ll notice that cantering is NOT on his list of challenges.  Although he is more apt to trot (big trot!!), he absolutely can and does canter and he has never paced.  His canter is a bit more lateral than the warmbloods, like other gaited breeds, but it’s still very clear and correct. 

What I found very helpful to get him to strengthen his canter work was simply working in deeper footing and keeping him bending.  Cantering a straight line is more challenging than cantering a large bend. As he’s aged and training has progressed, he’s developed the most rock-solid walk-canter-walk transitions.  I never expected that! Jose is surprisingly flexible and isn’t a horse you’d ever consider “stiff”.  Laterals are no issue for him.

Being 16.2 hands and black, Jose is most often thought to be a Friesian mix.  He is upright, round, and impressive, and I adore telling people that he’s a very different form of “black pearl”.  In the show ring, we are really across the board.  It’s been an interesting journey watching which judges will look at him fairly and which will just dismiss him.  In open shows, western judges rarely look at him because he is upright and forward.  In dressage shows, we have been crucified for our weak rhythm, regardless of the accuracy of movements and riding letter to letter.  We have also won against branded warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, and a variety of other (more traditional) breeds, and we are often crowd favorites. 

The most enjoyable part of my “unusual” horse must be the sheer enjoyment of taking him out and breaking down stereotypes. For me, it’s not the ribbons and placings that give me satisfaction, it’s connecting with my equine community.  In my experience, Standardbreds are all similar to him, full of heart, sensibility, and a willingness to try. They are easy keepers, sound, and the list goes on and on.  The part that’s made him exceptional is that he was given a chance to shine.  He’s a local celebrity in his own right and has gone beyond just being a riding horse and good Samaritan. 

Since Jose took to trick training so quickly, he has helped me teach hundreds of other horses and their humans to train for tricks too!  In doing clinics and demos, he earns a better annual income than my fancy warmblood stallion (who turned out to be a stellar dressage horse in his own right, but that’s a different article for a different day…) and didn’t stop there! 

Photo by Visions of Heaphen

Last autumn, a good friend of mine decided that horseback archery was going to be the next “big thing” to come to our area.  Turns out she was right!  Turns out Jose is a fantastic archery mount too!  In recent years, my trick-trained black horse has caught the attention of local photographers.  We’ve done shoots for cosplay characters, haunted house promo posters (he does a mean headless horseman mount!), and even a “country boys” calendar which was probably the most enjoyable days I’ve spent because the view was always great!  He hasn’t made the movies yet, but he’s only just turned 10.

Photo by Visions of Heaphen, model (and Jose’s bff) Goran Simonji

What I’ve learned about this horse is that his answer to ANYTHING I ask him is firstly “yes”.  Even when he’s quite convinced that ditch in the cross-country field may come up and bite him, or the water hazard isn’t for cantering through, or really, we don’t jump, but we can pop over that log, just for fun, his first response is always to give it an effort.  Oh, speaking of jumping, if you don’t think Standardbreds can jump, Google Halla.  That’s right.  The only horse to win 3 Olympic gold medals in jumping is a Standardbred.  And really, if you look, the Standardbred influence is all over the modern sport horses. 

While we all know that Thoroughbreds are great post-race career animals, do you know that Standardbreds outnumber them in some areas by 300% or more?  Due to the general public’s preconceived opinion of them, sadly many end up at the bottom of the chain after their racing careers and are shipped to slaughter.  Standardbreds off the track are normally well handled, incredibly quiet and sensible, reasonably priced, easy keepers, quite trainable, and suitable for a broad range of careers. 

Are you looking for a new best friend to enjoy the little white fences, but also something sensible and versatile enough to hack out, jump cross country, try a new discipline, and not need to be bubble wrapped?  I would encourage you to consider loving a Standardbred.  It’s the best investment I’ve ever made.

For more information about Standardbreds, visit the The International Museum of the Horse’s website.

Join us February for the next installment of The Many Faces of Dressage: A Canadian Horse’s Perspective!


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