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How to Train a Standardbred Racehorse

By Jane Meggitt | Updated September 26, 2017

When you hear the term "horse racing," you probably imagine horses ridden by jockeys charging toward the finish line. That's also known as flat racing, but there is another type of pari-mutuel equine racing. Harness racing consists of Standardbreds hitched to sulkies and driven to the finish line.

Unlike in thoroughbred racing, amateurs sometimes train and compete their horses. One such amateur competitor, Mal Burroughs, won the 1997 Hambletonian -- the most prestigious of North American harness races -- on a horse he owned and drove, Malabar Man.

Trotters and Pacers

Standardbreds race at two different gaits, the trot and the pace, and trotters race only against trotters and pacers against pacers. The trotter moves his legs in diagonal pairs, while the pacer moves his legs laterally, or with the front and rear legs on the same side moving together. The number of pacers far outweighs that of trotters in North America. Both types can begin racing at age 2.

Training Necessities

Unless you purchase your horse as a weanling, he'll already be trained to drive. Standardbreds are generally broken to drive as yearlings. To train your racehorse, you will need:

  • A jog cart for everyday training and a racing sulky, or "bike," for race days
  • A quick-release harness and bridle with blinders

If your horse is a pacer, you will put hobbles on him during training to keep him from breaking his gait. Your horse will also need protective boots on his feet or legs to keep him from injuring himself during training.

Training Center

Professional trainers generally keep their horses stabled full time at a Standardbred training center. These centers not only provide stabling but also access to a racetrack for training purposes. Other amenities often include swimming pools for equine therapy, and the availability of farriers and harness shops. While you don't have to train your horse at a training center, you do need regular access to a track. Many centers allow you to ship your horse in to use the track for a fee, even if you don't board there.

Daily Training

If you're training your horse yourself, you'll need to condition him every other day with a 3- to 6-mile jog. You jog your horse the opposite way -- to the left -- than he would be driven while racing. Harness horsemen refer to "training" as a regular conditioning aid in which horses are turned post-jogging to head to the right and pace, or trot, a speedy mile. A mile is the standard length of most harness races, and the reason the breed got its name. Before your horse is initially eligible to race, he must run a qualifying mile in less than 3 minutes.

Standardbreds race more often than thoroughbreds -- generally weekly. You don't jog your horse on the morning of the race. Instead, walk him for 15 minutes for a muscle warm-up on racing mornings.


Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.