This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What Is It About Standardbreds?

There's something about Standardbreds.  Their fans will tell you about the something special within them - their heart, their work ethic, their indomitable spirit. To their detractors, there's something about Standardbreds that sometimes causes people to betray common courtesy and loosen their tongues, to make those detractors feel obliged to say some rather blunt and brazen things.

Back in the heyday of Veruca Salt's (Legs') show career, I initially had no compunctions about revealing her Standardbred heritage.  I eventually tired of the often negative responses ranging from subtly irritating to downright insulting.  "She doesn't look like a Standardbred."  "Are you sure she's a Standardbred?"  "But she canters."  "But she jumps."  "But she jogs and lopes."  "But she's pretty."  "She must be the exception because there can't be any other Standardbreds that can do what she does."  "You got really lucky to find one so atypical of her breed."  She got her share of compliments, certainly, but it's the insults that tend to stick with you.

A specific example that stuck with me was when I was at a cookout a few years ago where the host introduced me to some friends of his who owned a very small Thoroughbred breeding operation.  It started innocently enough; most non-horse people presume that all people involved with horses are basically the same, and I know there was no malice intended in the introduction.  Once introduced, I explained that I rode and showed ex-racehorses, but not their kind of ex-racehorse - mine were ex-harness racers.
Them - (blank stare.) 
Me - "I have Standardbreds; they used to harness race and I retrain them to ride and show." 
Them - (sounding incredulous) "What kind of riding?"  
Me - (handing them my cell phone)  "Anything and everything.  Here are some pictures of my mare who could do it all - English, western, flying lead changes, jumping, trail, mounted games, leadline with my friend's toddler  She was even chosen to do a demonstration at the World Equestrian Games."
Them (flipping through pictures) - "Huh."  (muttering sarcastically under breath but just loud enough for me to hear) "That's really making a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

As Legs' show career advanced, I slowly tired of having to defend my choice to exhibit a Standardbred in the show ring.  I wanted to start bringing along another show horse, and I owned a Quarter Horse for a while, in an effort to go more mainstream.  I love Quarter Horses, and I appreciate the individual merits that they and every other breed of horse and pony have to offer, but ultimately my heart of hearts belong to the Standardbred.  After all, it is through the chance crossing of paths with my first horse, Legs, that little brown mare who gave me opportunities beyond even my far-fetched imagination, that taught me that dreams really can come true.  Thankfully, my skin has toughened over the years and I have happily returned to the breed that first captured my heart.  

Saxon has certainly not been immune to the blunt and brazen comments, either.  We've encountered a gambit of comments just like those Legs garnered and a few rather memorable incidents of his own.

He is a tall, muscular, nicely proportioned chestnut horse who is happy to adapt to any tack - hunt seat, western, dressage, driving.  Accordingly, he makes a rather good chameleon.  He is often mistaken for many other breeds; nobody has ever guessed Standardbred on the first try.  Some type of Warmblood is the most common guess, followed by Thoroughbred, Appendix, Quarter Horse, and even Draft Cross.

One time that I unwittingly fooled someone into thinking Saxon was a Thoroughbred.  It was an especially cold and windy fall day with lots of horse-eating things around the arena; Saxon had replaced his usual calm, nonchalant persona with a high-headed rather fiery version.  One of the guys helping with the show ( and wearing a Race Canada jacket) saw me with Saxon and said, "What is he?  He's GORGEOUS!"  I replied, "Oh, he's an ex-racehorse."  I didn't offer further explanation, as Saxon's freezebrand was in plain sight.  The guy then asked, "What's his breeding?"  I replied, "He's by Real Artist and out of an Australian-bred mare."  He nodded, so I assumed he knew a little something about Standardbred bloodlines.  I found out my assumption was incorrect when the guy handed me a statuette of a Thoroughbred racehorse with jockey as a prize for one of the classes.  "I thought it was fitting that he should get the Thoroughbred statue." he said.     
One of the more memorable incidents of breed slurring that stands out in my mind was a lady who was visiting my property.  (She happened to own an unrideable Thoroughbred for whatever that's worth.) 
Me - (bathing Saxon at washrack)
Her - "So my friend tells me one of your horses is a Standarbred."
Me - "Actually, both my horses are.  The little dark bay mare out there (pointing to pasture), and this guy right here."
Her - (takes a surprised step back and reevaluates Saxon).  Oh, right...  I see it now.  They call them 'jugheads' don't they?"
Me "Hmmmpf."

Another one was at a horse show with some folks who were talking to me by my trailer where Saxon was tied.  They'd seen Legs show back in her heyday and had just watched Saxon compete successfully in several hunt seat and western classes.
Them - "So what breed is your new horse?"
Me - "He's a Standardbred, too, just like my old horse."
Them - (takes a surprised step back and reevaluates Saxon).  "Oh...  Now I see the head."
Me - (my unvoiced thoughts - "Really?  Because I'm pretty sure you thought he was a fancy Warmblood or Appendix, and you sure didn't 'see the head' when you didn't know he was STB.")   

At another show, as I was entering the show ring, an onlooker said, "If that's not a Thoroughbred, I'll eat my hat."  I replied, "I hope you're hungry, because he's not!"  As I was trotting in, I heard her query to her companion, "Quarter horse?"  She figured it out by the end of the class; it was a driving class, after all, and I'd done a lazy job on his freezebrand since I knew the judge knew about his Standardbred heritage.  The onlooker was wholly positive about his versatility, though, and if she had any negative perceptions about his breed she did not voice them.    

I've had some really interesting reactions from horse show judges, as well.  I compete almost exclusively at open shows, and I generally try to cover up his freeze brand for the show ring.  Mind you, I have no problem telling people that he's a Standardbred, but I would rather he be judged and placed beforehand, on his own merits, before any breed pre-conceptions are introduced.  Sometimes, judges do ask, though, especially in halter classes where they're trying to decide what breed standard to judge him against.  Generally, they are pretty quick and smooth to cover up their surprise, though it does amuse me a little sometimes.  Here are some of their reactions when I answer the question, "What breed is he?"

"Oh.  Well, he's put together really smooth for a Standarbred.  They're usually so angular."
"Oh.  Is he full Standardbred?"
"The chestnut ones are pretty rare, aren't they?"
 Or often, it's simply "Oh.  Huh."

I might add that in all of these instances, he placed well or even won, so I give these judges full credit for judging without breed bias.  I would also like to add that there are several judges we show under locally who are well aware of what breed he is and continue to offer him praise and place him very highly.  :-)

By far my favorite exchange was with a long-time local competitor.  She's seen him show English, western, in hand, and driving.  She has seen Legs show, too, back in the day.  She, herself, has shown Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and some very fancy Welsh ponies.  She finally asked me one day what Saxon was.
Me - "He's a Standardbred."
Her - "Well he's a very nice horse for any breed.  I don't believe in 'good' breeds or 'bad' breeds.  I only believe in useful horses or non-useful horses.  And that (pointing at Saxon), is a VERY useful horse."
Me - (beaming) "Thanks!"

I think that her statement encompasses the best philosophy of all regarding horses.  We as a horse community need to get rid of slurs like "jughead" and misconceptions about what breeds, Standardbred or otherwise, can and cannot do.  Instead of prejudging a horse on what we think its breed can and cannot do, we should instead evaluate each horse on its individual merits.  And, as horse owners, we should work hard to make every horse in our lives healthy, loved, and, of course, useful.  And if you just can't get yourself to adopt this philosophy, please, for heaven's sake, have some courtesy and don't insult someone's horse to their face!    


  1. I've heard all those comments (and more) about my standie mare. And then we leave them all behind us and head out for another 20-mile loop. :-)

    There certainly IS something wonderful about a standardbred, and I look forward to reading lots more about yours!

  2. I've heard all those comments (and more) about my standie mare. And then we leave them all behind us and head out for another 20-mile loop. :-)

    There certainly IS something wonderful about a standardbred, and I look forward to reading lots more about yours!