Selecting an Endurance Standardbred

Standardbreds as a breed have good strength and endurance. So why aren't more than a handful of standardbreds seen in endurance competitions?

The main reason is because the Arabian horse is basically 'purpose built' for travelling at speed across country for long distances. Like dressage aficionados choose warmbloods for their excellence in gymnastic abilities, endurance riders choose arabian horses for their supremacy of stamina.

However the standardbred, usually obtained relatively cheaply as a 'track reject', often suffers the repercussions of its racing life when it comes to endurance. The stresses of racing can produce injuries which aren't a problem for most post-racing pleasure activities - trail riding, hacking, adult riding club, pleasure driving, etc. But once the strains of 80km rides are placed on a horse, these old racing injuries tend to rear their ugly heads.

But its not all gloom and doom. Not all off-the-track standardbreds have old racing injuries. All this means is that they key to selecting an Endurance Standardbred is being a little more scrupulous about soundness, conformation and temperament.

The level at which you want to compete is important too. Most Pleasure Standardbreds can quite easily get around a 40km training ride, given the basic amount of work. There are quite a few riders who never aspire to open competition and are quite happy to achieve within the 'training ride' circuit. At this level, selection of endurance qualities in a standardbred is far less important.

The discussions below, however, assume you are after finding an off-the-track standardbred with the intent of progressing to open endurance competition.



While there are some injuries which won't affect a horse's endurance career, ignoring a known racing injury when selecting an off-the-track standardbred for an endurance prospect is obviously going to carry more risk of problems later on than a horse who hasn't these injuries.

When first enquiring about the horse, ask the trainer questions about the horse's racing history. Has it ever been lame or suffered injury which has caused it to be spelled? How many races did it run? Over how many years? How old was the horse when it was first raced? Why is it being retired? The more likely prospects are those who are being retired after only a season or two of racing, having demonstrated to the trainer that they are simply too slow! On the other hand, a horse who has given years of reliable service with no soundness problems is also likely to be a good reliable well-legged-up endurance prospect.

Providing you have the correct racing name and/or freeze brand, you can also get details of the horse's breeding and racing history from the Harness Racing In Australia website (click the link to AHRC Online for this database). To learn how to read a freeze brand, go to the SPPHAV website for their information sheet on how to do this.

When going to look at the horse, if you are not confident in assessing a horse's soundness, take someone knowledgeable along. Have the horse walked and trotted out - you are looking for even gaits with no hint of lameness, and nice straight free-flowing movement. Feel all over the horse's body, watching for where the horse tells you it might be tight or sore, and feel for old lumps and bumps, and any heat or swelling, particularly in the legs and back.

A vet check is an option you may choose to utilise should the horse still be of interest at this stage.



As with thoroughbreds, there are two main groups of racing standardbreds - sprinters and stayers. Successful sprinters tend to have more of a 'quarter horse' conformation - solid build, big muscles and strong round hindquarters. Stayers tend to have the leaner 'thoroughbred' type of build. This is just a guideline though - there are plenty of horses out there who haven't read this article!

While you will see some 'sprinter' types doing endurance, a 'stayer' is going to be more likely to have what it takes for endurance. The big solid round muscles of a sprinter type are more prone to 'tying up' with longer distances and the bulkiness retains more body heat, however good management can still have these horses completing successfully.

Otherwise general conformation issues come into play - overall balance, setting of neck and shoulder, cleanness and straighness of legs, angles of pastern, length of back, quality of hooves etc.

Naturally a balanced and well conformed horse is going to find it easier to travel than one who is fighting a conformation fault. Again the trot out will show you whether the horse has the easy ground-covering movement that accompanies good conformation.



Standardbreds carry a reputation for generally being sensible and quiet horses. While this may be so, 'generally' is the key word, meaning that not every single standardbred is sensible and quiet. Remember, too, that an off-the-track standardbred is still a racehorse, and a quality re-education to saddle is required to subdue the racing mentality. Otherwise the straight lines and open roads of endurance rides can trigger the racing button and result in an excited horse who wastes a lot of energy pulling and rushing along.

When looking at a prospective Endurance Standardbred, handle the horse on the ground, watching how it responds to your commands. See how it responds to something new - for example, pulling a plastic bag out of your pocket, and if unfussed about that, waving it about or rubbing the horse with it. Try leading the horse over a log or through a puddle.

An anxious or spooky sort of horse is likely to waste much-needed energy on its emotions and is therefore likely to be more stressed and have higher heart rates after an endurance ride. A confident rider with good horsemanship skills can help a horse overcome such spookiness, but you need to be honest with yourself here if you are going to take this on. Similarly, a horse who excitedly rushes forward with everything is going to need an extra cool hand to settle him down to a level that is workable for endurance. Starting off with the stereotyped 'quiet and sensible' temperament certainly makes things easier all round.


Finding A Standardbred

Having said all the above, there are horses out there who haven't got the ideal conformation or temperament yet are competing and completing successfully in endurance due to careful management by their owners.

There are no guarantees when selecting a horse for any equestrian discipline. An 'ideal' horse may still not succeed where the most unlikely type does. However, it goes without saying that choosing a horse with the desirable qualities for the purpose you have in mind is obviously a 'better bet' than one who is lacking those qualities.

There's a wise saying that says "It costs as much to keep a good horse as a bad one". And it's a sad fact that every day dozens of sound and not-so-sound standardbreds finish their racing careers and end up at the knackery - far more than find homes with new careers as pleasure horses. If you are planning to do the noble thing and provide a good home to a retired standardbred, you might as well spend the time to find and choose a good one.

To find a retired standardbred, most of the state Standardbred Pleasure & Performance Horse Associations offer placement services, where they try to match future owners to appropriate horses. See the home page for links to these Associations.

Or you can search the ads in The Trading Ring on the Harness Racing In Australia website, where there is a section that is specifically for Retired Standardbreds

There are several private businesses and not-for-profit organisations that specialise in re-educating off-the-track standardbreds to saddle, for resale or rehoming:

There are also several private businesses and individuals who are specifically breeding pure and/or partbred standardbreds for the performance horse industry:


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Copyright Jo Brock 2001
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