OK, so are Standardbreds gaited or not? The answer in short is yes, and no.
In my younger Standie obsession phase, I believed all STBs were gaited. By beloved grey Standardbred Breyer Horse, “Stratus”, as I called him, was forever frozen in a lateral movement- left front and left hind leg moving forward at the same time, while right front and right hind strung behind. These types of Standardbreds are “Pacers”, and yes the pace is an extra gait, making the Standardbred a gaited breed. However I did not learn until later, albeit being confused by pictures of racing Standies that did not appear to be pacing, that about half of the STBs in existence are “trotters”. These horses have a regular, diagonally-moving trot like any other breed, just extra super fast. And actually, the trotters made up the breed early on. Pacers came later, and are able to get that mile in quite a bit faster than the trotters.
Ah ha! So, only about half of the STBs are gaited, the pacers, and the trotters are not. Simple enough. Turns out, not quite so simple. On trying to get things straightened out in my head, I asked the Facebook Page “Team Standardbred Distance Riders” (go check them out, right now!). Turns out, some pacers prefer to trot and some STBs that harnessed-raced as trotters will actually pace under saddle! So if that is not clear as mud, in comes this whole thing called “single-footing” AKA “speed racking”. Standardbreds are gaining popularity in the saddle seat world for their ability to “speed rack”, a four beat gait that looks similar to a trot but only one foot is on the ground at a time. This gait is fast but very smooth, as shown in several youtube videos. Pacers and trotters alike have the potential to single-foot AKA speed rack, however, apparently not all STBs are able to do it. So now, I’ll ask you, are Standardbreds a gaited breed?
Lately I’ve been experiencing Sego’s speed in the trot. While conditioning, I am reaching a point with her where I can feel her ask the question, “Can I go for it?”. If we are in a safe environment for speed, I say “Sure. Go for it”. I give her a loose rein and essentially let her pick the speed she wants. Her trot picks up… one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two…. Her head comes up, her ears prick forward… and something happens. A shift in gears. She’s no longer in this two-beat rhythm, her back lengthens and hollows and the ride, though extremely speedy in my dictionary, is very smooth. Smooth enough to sit in the saddle. It seems to have a quick one-two, three-four beat, but it is definitely not the gallop! Whatever it is, it is extremely cool, and Sego absolutely loves it. So much so that she now asks the question quite often, “Can I go for it?” and as hard as it is for me to say no to this riot of a gait, I often have to politely decline. She’s a young horse and I am trying to build her tendon/ligament strength through long, slow distances. Sego doesn’t like slow. It’s so hard to say no!
When I got off the other day, I checked the tracker on my phone. 22 mph was our top speed (no worries, 5 mph was our average over the 9 mile ride!), and we did not once break into the canter/gallop. It was all in the trot. Or the mystery trot, or whatever. To put that into perspective, the average horse (according to the wonderful Wikipedia) trots at 8 mph and canters at 10-17 mph, depending on stride length. The average gallop is 25-30 mph. 22 mph is the fastest we’ve trotted on less-than ideal ground, but racing trotters are reaching speeds near 30 mph. What! Insane. Again, I asked the Standardbred FB group what “gait” I was experiencing. I don’t think she’s pacing, hopefully I’d be able to tell the difference there, ha! Many said I was likely experiencing single-footing, others said it was simply the trot, just the racing version. Apparently, there’s a little discrepancy in the world of Standardbreds. Either way, I need video of her doing this!
I have to admit, I used to kind of be a “gaited horse breed snob” in the sense that I had absolutely no interest in them, since their quirky gaits had no place in the dressage or jumping arena. But I have a handful of riding experiences that I call my “chilly” experiences because they left the hair standing on the back of my neck (in a good way!). They include the first time I felt impulsion, the first time I jumped big on a horse with scope, the first time I galloped bareback… but they also include the first time I ever experienced different gaits, like when I cantered a Missouri Fox Trotter up a hill… I’ll never forget that powerful rocking-horse motion! And when I let Strider, my husband’s Tennessee Walker, pick his footing up a bouldery-path in the running walk and I did not feel a single stone beneath us. Now to add to my list, Sego’s awe-inspiring speed trot… I’ve never experienced anything like it before! I think that’s what’s so exciting about gaited horses… Just when you think you have the four gaits and their hoof-placements memorized, incomes a gaited horse with something entirely new. I definitely have a new found respect for them.
Overall, I am pretty inexperienced with gaited horses. It seems that most gaited breeds have something to replace the trot, that bouncy-bounce gait. And from my experience, most gaited horses are more than capable of regular gaits… the walk, trot, canter and gallop. While these different movements come natural to gaited horse breeds, it takes either an experienced rider or a well-trained horse to ask for and to keep the gait. I know that Strider can trot but we discourage him from trotting so that he keeps his smooth, ground-covering running walk. It’s therefore fascinating to me that many Standardbreds are capable of trotting or gaiting on cue. They are so versatile that they can be anything from a racking horse to a dressage mount. A cart horse to a saddle horse. A racehorse to a pleasure mount. And sometimes, all of the above. This, to me, only distinguishes their intelligence further. A forgotten by most, yet loved by some, American invention.
How is it that he, the Standardbred, is forgotten? Misunderstood? Sego Lily is unlike any horse I have ever worked with or trained. She makes me fascinated and bewildered at the Standardbred breed altogether. RUS (Racing trotting horses Under Saddle) is growing in popularity in Europe and Canada… I hope that it continues to grow in popularity, and with it, I hope the Standardbred regains his fame in the country he was born in.