Harness racing is a popular horse sport in Australia, where Standardbred horses are raced around a track in harness while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart called a sulky or a gig. Standardbred racehorses compete in two gaits – pacing and trotting.
Races are conducted in an anti-clockwise direction and tracks range from 700 to 1000 meters. Race meetings are usually conducted at night, with many major metropolitan meetings held on Friday and Saturday nights. This was introduced to increase in attendances and the development of a major racing industry.
Where did harness racing originate from?
Harness racing as we know it originated in America, but early records indicate that harness racing was linked to chariot racing.
Assyrian Kings in 1500 BC kept stables for horses used to pull chariots, both in war and sport hunting. Homer’s famous account of a chariot race in The Iliad remains one of the sport’s crowning tales. The ancient Greeks even included four-horse hitch chariot races in their Olympic Games, dating back to the 7th century BC.
In Greece, chariot racing was limited to rich men. But by the time it came to Rome, the sport involved companies of everyday people, with each competing horse-drawn chariot distinguished by colour.
In 1840 trotting was officially a sport in America where it was a staple event at the state fairs. Eventually 23 tracks were built and the races moved from fairs to commercial harness tracks where droves of people met to enjoy the sport, race against each other and place bets.
In the 1890s, the sulky, which was once no more than a cart, developed into what is basically a U-shaped shaft mounted on two bicycle wheels with an accompanying seat. This is what we see in today’s races. While any breed of horse was used in the early trotting races, the circuits eventually featured Standardbred horses.
Harness racing isn’t just popular in Australia and America; countries such as France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Malta, New Zealand, Canada and Russia also have a large following of harness racing fanatics.
Trotting or pacing – what’s the difference?
Although Standardbreds are used for harness racing, there is a difference between their gates.
Trotters use the natural gate of the trot to race – although it is at high speed rather than the usual trot we ask for under saddle. The horse moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs (right front and left hind, then left front and right hind striking the ground simultaneously)
Pacers move the legs on the same side of their bodies together: It’s a lateral gait rather than a diagonal one. Occasionally, you might see a free-legged pacer, a horse racing without hopples but most pacers wear hopples on all four legs to help with gait maintenance.
Hopples are part of the racing harness which are located at the top of the leg and assist the horse in high speeds to not break their gait.
The Standardbred originated in America and the breeds that have contributed the foundation stock to the Standardbred breed include the Narragansett Pacer, Canadian Pacer, Thoroughbred, Norfolk Trotter, Hackney and Morgan.
The majority of Standardbreds are bay or brown however greys, chestnuts and blacks occasionally occur and they range in height from 14 to 17 hands.
The breed gets its name from a ‘standard’ time for racing one mile. The current standard for 2-year-olds is 2 minutes 20 seconds and the standard for 3-year-olds is 2 minutes 15 seconds.
Want to know more about harness racing?
Rules and regulations in harness racing are set per state, but if you are looking for more information, Australian Harness Racing is a great place to start.