(Note: I asked Ray and Alice if they would share their experience with OTT horses. This is their response.)
By Ray and Alice Hubert
WOOOO HOOOO!!!! I won a horse!!! That’s how it started with us. In January 2003, Alice won a chance to adopt a Standardbred from the American Standardbred Adoption Program. A few weeks later, Mini Hapi Times trotted into our lives. Since then, we have adopted four more from the program (Pistol Pete-N, Sunny Forecast, Penguin Beware, and Cam’s Matte Finish.) Getting the horses was the easy part.
We tried riding, as the two horses we had at the time had been trained to ride by the adoption agency, but we soon became interested in driving. There did not seem to be all that many drivers around and after attending the Midwest Horse Fair, the Villa Louis Carriage Classic, and a driving clinic sponsored by the Dairyland Driving Club, we were hooked. We thought, Standardbreds are already trained to pull a cart, how hard could it be?
We did have a few minor wrecks, but these were entirely our fault, not the horses’. The first wreck taught us the hard way (and all the driving books we have read since then will tell you) don’t take the bridle off before unhitching. We started with an inexpensive nylon harness, but quickly realized that this harness did not have much structural stability, so it can be uncomfortable for the horse. Buy quality harness. We would recommend biothane or Beta type harness, unless you plan on doing serious show ring competitions which prefer leather harness. Biothane is much easier to care for, and with padding, has good breathability. It is nice after a muddy competitive trail drive to be able to just hose off the harness.
Three of our five horses do not like to use blinkers/blinders, which is unusual for the average driving horse. For Penguin, we were told by his owner that the only time he wore blinkers was on race day, so if we don’t want him to go at race speed, we better not use them. Another one prefers to be able to see who or what is coming up beside him. But the two that use blinkers seem to prefer to be able to only concentrate on what is in front of them. Whether they use blinkers is a good question for a former trainer, or something that you can see when you get a copy of a winner’s circle photo.
As for bits, we did a lot of trial and error, and now have a vast collection. If possible, find someone who has several horses, so you can experiment if you aren’t able to speak with a former trainer. We started all of ours with a simple O-ring snaffle bit, and found that for Pete, we had to have long shanks, because when you pull to turn, he would open his mouth and let the bit slide through. For Penguin, he seems to work best with a sweet iron bit. Sunny needed something a bit stronger than a snaffle. Once we got Pete and Mini responsive to snaffles, we switched them to “bitless” bridles, and they seem very happy with them. Yes, they do sell bitless bridles with blinkers. Most of our snaffles are the ones with the extra link in the middle, which is more comfortable for the horse. We did not use any racing bits on them, as these are a bit harsher than needed for pleasure driving. We also do not use an overcheck on any of our horses.
Four of our five horses are pacers. They generally do not pace in harness after retirement because they are not wearing the pacing hobbles used during racing. However, sometimes if they are going very fast, they might switch to a pace. You will notice that their body seems to be going more side to side rather than up and down; it won’t make any difference for the harness or cart which you might be using.
After some trial and error we modified our training carts so that we could use “Quick Hitch” racing harness on the horses. If you’re not familiar with Quick Hitch racing harness, essentially there are metal clips you can buy which fit on the end of the shafts; these clip into metal clips on the saddle pad. There is no breast collar or breeching. It takes literally seconds to hitch and unhitch the cart. The off-the-track horses are already used to this harness, so it is one less thing they need to work through as they adjust to retirement. This harness is very sturdy, and has withstood every thing we have done with it. Remember, it can withstand the rigors of racing at more than 30 m.p.h.
It varies from horse to horse, but typically a harness race horse is not trained to stop or stand still. As soon as they are hitched they want to go. Having someone hold them while you are getting in the cart is very helpful. We also found that if they are following another cart, they will want be as close as possible to the cart ahead. Initially, it was not uncommon for us to come back with horse slobber on our shoulders or in our hair from the horse that was following. Ex-racers are also still quite competitive, so if there are two of them going down a trail, each will try and get in front. We have found that they want to trot with a purpose for the first mile, then they are much more willing to allow you to tell them where and when to go. The longer they are retired the less of an issue these things become.
The racing harness allowed us to train the horses to stop without having the breeching tighten up around their back side. We use lightweight carts and contrary to what we had heard, the horses are not bothered by pulling the carts up and down hills without the breeching. Once the horses get used to the noise of the carts (racing sulkies are very quiet), stand for hitching and unhitching, and stop on command every time, we then tie a breeching to the race harness so the horse gets used to the feel of the breeching on its back legs. We then switch to a full harness which includes a breast collar and traces. Once they are comfortable with the full harness, we hooked them up to our Meadowbrook cart or our bigger show cart. The transition from the racing harness to full harness depends a great deal on the horse. Pete, Mini, and Sunny all made the transition after a couple of months, Cam did it in a matter of a couple of weeks but it has been more than two years with Penguin (there were a few mitigating circumstances that slowed his training a bit).
Off-the-track Standardbreds do have a lot to offer. They have a strong work ethic; as a general rule our horses seem to happiest when working. Due to their track experience, they are excellent with the vets and the farriers. They have good trailer manners. Life at the track exposed the horses to a variety of machinery like cars, tractors, bicycles, and golf carts. From the start, our horses weren’t the least bit bothered by cars and trucks on the highway or the ATV’s on our local multiuse trail. They handle the organized chaos of competitions such as distance drives very well. They are also extraordinary athletes. They tend to recover quickly after a workout. They have very hard hooves. We left them barefoot until we started competing with them on rocky trails.
There are several rescue organizations that specialize in retired harness racers. We adopted all of our horses through the American Standardbred Adoption Program (www.4thehorses.com ) Susan, who runs the agency, seems to have a good knack for matching people and horses. They are located in Southwest Wisconsin near DeSoto. www.racerplacersinc.com is located in Southeastern Wisconsin. The Standardbred Retirement Foundation in New Jersey www.adoptahorse.org also has horses available, and there are numerous other adoption agencies throughout the US.
One thing that we have found helpful is to contact the horses’ former owners or trainers to learn more about what bits were used, whether the horse prefers blinkers or not, etc. If your STB is or was registered with the US Trotting Association, www.ustrotting.com you have ready access to a wealth of information about your horse. By looking up the horse’s name, tattoo, or freeze brand number, you can get your horses’ entire racing record, genealogy, and the names of owner(s) or trainers. This service is not free, but most of the records only cost about $1.00. Most owners who put their horses up for adoption do so because they want the horse to have a good home, and are more than willing to communicate with you. For instance, it was a former owner who informed us that our retired brood mare hates blankets, and will kick at them if you try to put one on her. This was good information to know.
We have found several resources very helpful in our life with retired harness racers. www.bigdweb.com is the home of Big Dee’s Tack Shop. They specialize in harness racing equipment and have excellent customer service. www.iowavalleycarriage.com is also a great source for regular harness and supplies. Sandy who owns Iowa Valley Carriage is very knowledgeable and will help you find anything she might not have. www.drivingessentials.com and www.carriagedrivingessentials are also great resources. Carriage Driving Essentials seems to have a good selection of things for competitions such as Combined Driving. Also, if you have any Amish living in your area, they will probably have a harness shop. Many of them drive off-the-track Standardbreds, so the harness they make fits them well.
Adopt a Standardbred! They are great horses with great personalities, they love to work, they are easy to work with, and they will provide years of love.