The Standardbred That Can Wear Any Bridle

At the National Standardbred Show. Photo by Vicki Wright

By Helene Gregory

I grew up in Sweden and my father owned trotters. I can still remember how I used to hang around the barn from a very early age, dreaming about the day I could scrape water off of a freshly bathed horse, or paint their feet before they put them away. I was curious, and wanted to know everything! As soon as I was old enough, I started doing barn chores and got to help with the bathing and greasing their feet. My dream had come true!

JB. Photo by Vickit Wright

In Sweden, they work a lot of the racehorses under saddle for cross training and I can remember spending hours in the saddle hacking and training them.  I had attended riding school from age 6-9, but I was a timid rider, and never got much out of the large group classes.

I think I was 11 when I got to ride my first Standardbred. It was a big strong beautiful mare and they handed me the reins and said, “off you go.” We had access to large fields, training tracks, and even some woods at my home track of Jägersro, and without the confinement of a small riding ring, with 10-15 other horses, I started building my self confidence.

Many of the horses we trained under saddle also cantered, and some days we trained intervals up on the big Thoroughbred track. There I found a need for speed!

Since the Thoroughbreds were trained at the same track, the young barn rats often got asked to train the Thoroughbreds, but we didn’t care for them at all. They were flighty and hot, while our Standardbreds were always so calm and willing.

As fate had it, I tried to work with harness horses for a winter in Pompano, Florida in 1997.

It was a great experience, but I was surprised to see no one rode them here. I was only supposed to stay for 6 months, but found a boy I liked, and he asked me to stay.

Helene Gregory

We got married in 2000.

He is a Standardbred trainer and driver, but back then he was a ”catch driver” and didn’t have a stable of his own. In 2001, he went to the yearling auction and came home with a stunning trotting colt named Taurmade. He got to be our little side project, and we broke and trained him ourselves. Unfortunately Taurmade was not fast enough for the racetrack, so in 2003, we decided he needed a new home. Needless to say, I loved the horse deeply and I had an idea.What if I kept him as my riding horse? I missed riding, and I had just discovered a 6000-acre wooded preserve not too far away. My husband reluctantly agreed, and I found a small stable to keep him at.

I had been on Taurmade’s back in the stall a few times, so I basically just put a saddle on and out we went. There were quite a few acres of woods right by the barn, so me, Taurmade, and my dog started exploring. Every day we went a little further. I was unsure about him being by himself, and being so green, but he acted like a seasoned trail horse.

Leading the post parade at Meadowlands Racetrack. Photo by Leslie McLaren

That year, four months after retiring, I took him to a Standardbred show and entered four classes. We earned two firsts and two seconds. I had to have someone by the rail nodding their head if I was on the right diagonal, I had no idea! After the show, I was hooked, and started taking riding lessons at least once a week with a lady that was familiar with dressage and Standardbreds. Pretty soon, we were out almost every weekend at the local schooling shows doing Intro Level.

Taurmade was so willing, and the judges loved him. One judge even asked “what are you doing in Intro Level on this lovely horse?” Little did she know, he was a Standardbred, and he didn’t know how to canter. But with hard work, a lot of help from fantastic trainers we finally got a canter good enough to start Training Level.

Then he sadly passed away, right before Christmas 2007. I was devastated.

A dear friend of mine, who I had ridden with a lot on the trails and also was the neighbor to the farm where Taurmade lived, asked me to come out and ride a few months after my horse died. She said it would be good for me, and put me on her horse, JB (who was also a Trotter that had retired at 3). After our ride, I was grooming him,  and she walked up and asked “do you want him?”

I had slowly started to look for a new horse (a Standardbred, of course), but nothing stood out. And here, she offered me this young, healthy horse, that already cantered, and had show experience!

I walked over the next day with a lead rope in one hand and a dollar in the other (because you never accept an animal for free, it’s bad luck in Sweden).

I put JB in dressage training right away, and I needed hip surgery so the timing was good. The show stable that I sent him to was holding a clinic with Walter Zettl, and there was a last minute rider cancellation. I asked my trainer to take the spot with JB, and I audited. It was the most beautiful thing. Walter was very positive, and although we were still working mostly on trot work, he set them up so nicely, and they ended with a fantastic canter both ways. Walter said, “see, all horses can canter.”

Through the years, JB and I have dabbled in dressage, jumping (we trained with Neal Shapiro for a few years), driving, and western. He attended the National Standardbred Show 17 years in a row. In 2010, we were chosen by our breed registry to attend the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Lexington, KY for a breed exhibition.

Our biggest accomplishment however, came last year, when my trainer suggested showing at the World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Florida, and to shoot for an Adequan®/USDF All-Breed Award. I have never felt so out of place with my (not so little) Standardbred. The horses at WEC were out of this world! Each one was fancier than the next. But my boy was his usual steady Eddie, and we completed four First Level tests, while also earning three qualifying scores over the two days!

At WEC. Photo by Q2 Photography

My winter in Florida came to an end, so up in New Jersey, we decided to try Gladstone.

That was also an amazing experience, but sadly, I broke my wrist a few days before. A very good friend of mine, who is also an adult amateur, took the reins, but JB had a bad couple of days, and in fact, the judge eliminated him from his last class. Once home, we discovered that he had a severe case of Lymes disease.

When he recovered (he recovered faster than me), I had my NJ trainer take him to another recognized show, because I really wanted that All-Breed Award. They earned it with flying colors! She also showed him at the National Standardbred Show at First Level, and earned a whopping 73%!!!

After he was declared healthy from his Lymes disease, my trainer Liz said, “let’s try him cross country!” So she started his jumping training again (which he loves), and a few months later, he made his eventing debut at Beginner Novice. After the dressage phase, he was second out of 13!!!! They put in a clear round of showjumping, but then the racehorse came out, and they got speed faults on the XC course. But he loved it, and jumped everything like a champ!

My husband, who now cut down on catch driving, and I train a small stable of young trotters, and we have spent the last four winters in Florida. We go back to NJ to race them in the summer. This means JB is a snowbird too, and he loves it. He has friends wherever he goes and he’s just a “happy go lucky” guy.

JB has shown through Second Level dressage with my trainer Kristen McDonald, and they have regularly scored over 60%.

2022 National Standardbred Show where JB was Champion at Dressage First Level, Leadline, Western, & War Horse Division, and Reserve Champion in Driving

My farrier, shipper, and vets love him. The shipper even came to WEC and visited when we were there last year. He ships mostly Thoroughbreds, so I’m sure JB’s cool attitude is why he is so affectionate towards him. He sends me pictures and selfies at their layover, every time.

A lot of people come up to me and try to say JB is “special” (well, yes he is) but not in the way people see it. He has always had a canter, but it is not always 3-beat. I have taken so much help from people that are knowledgeable (and who teach me the diagonals, and different leads that I didn’t know existed), but not once has anyone told me to get a different horse if this is what I want to do. Even Neal Shapiro told me one time, when I was a little down after a lesson, that no one in his barn had more connection or more fun with their horse than I did. You can’t put a price on that! Is he perfect? Maybe not, but he is perfect for me.

Follow JB’s journey on his  Facebook page!

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