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HorseShowCentral > Riding Styles & Disciplines > Harness Racing

Harness Racing - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Sulky, Driver and Pacer with all hooves off the ground. Harness Racing Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

Harness racing is a discipline and sport in which horses draw light gigs or sulkies and compete a the trotting or pacing gait, rather than at the gallop. Along with the light harness many horses always wear a head check, and the pacers wear a leg harness or hobbles, designed to discourage the horse from breaking into a gallop. Sometimes special races are held for horse trotting under saddle, and for these also, harness such a check and hobbles is used.

By the mid 18th century most European countries and the United States turned their attention to the production of harness racing horses as a specialized breed. In all of these attempts the English Thoroughbred played a significant role.


The origins of harness racing truly date as far back as 1350 B.C. when horses were trained to trot at speed to please the king of Mitanni. A racing chariot found in a tomb at Thebes, has been traced to at least the 14th century B.C. and this chariot actually is of very light construction, bearing some resemblance to the swift bikes of today.

By the mid 18th century most European countries and the United States turned their attention to the production of harness racing horses as a specialized breed. In all of these attempts the English Thoroughbred played a significant role

In Russia, Count Orlov was at this time producing his famous Orlov Trotters, and later they were reinforced with Thoroughbred blood.

In England in the mid 1700’s, horses pulling public vehicles (stage coaches or mail) were often matched in informal contest on country dirt roads and Britain began to develop the smaller but speedy Norfolk Trotter, a product of local mares and selected stallion descended from a foundation sire of the Thoroughbred breed. One of the resultant foals was Bellfounder, who in turn sired Messenger, the most famous and influential of all harness racing sires. The English Thoroughbred and their progeny Norfolk Trotters were also in great demand for crossing purposes in France, the Netherlands, and other European countries.

In America from earliest time, harness racing as a sport has been important for rural America. Among farmers and villages, it provided close to two centuries of sporting fun. The old American road horse was first raced along dusty country roads while the family buggy bounced around, challenge events evolved, often jogging back from church. As the farmer pushed westward, so did the sport.

In the early days of the sport in America, the foundation sire of the Morgan breed also sired some top class harness horses whose progeny on into the middle of the 19th century achieved speeds of 2:00 or better for the mile.


The origins of the America Pacer in harness racing is a little different than that of the trotter. Prior to 1700 in America, pacers were known in the county of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and the horses became known as the Narragansett Pacer.

The breed developed rapidly in colonial America and there are records of George Washington entering in a pacing race held near Mt. Vernon, New York. However, when general road surfaces improved, the Narragansett Pacer lost favor and gradually disappeared and a Canadian pacing horse came into favor.

Three Canadian harness racing sires, all pacers, were imported: Copper Bottom, Old Pilot and Tom Hall, the ancestor of many pacers today. These horses were basically responsible for the pacing horse families in American, yet the blood lines of every pacer in the sport today can be traced to the Narragansett pacer.


In 1788 the great sire Messenger was brought to America where he stood at stud for 20 years. One of his sons, Hambletonian, became the father of the American Standardbred breed of harness racing horses.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the National Association of the Trotting Horse Breeders of America laid down a standard of requirements for this type of harness racing horse, broadly based on the stallion Hambletonian, and the breed became known as the Standardbred.

As the breeding, training and care of the Standardbred improved steadily through the years, there evolved in this breed a speed and stamina which begged for harness racing on the highest competitive level. Lighter designed and constructed sulkies were invented (now called bikes) and finally the mobile starting gate came into existence.

For many years harness racing, as a sport and as a business, developed in America as nowhere else in the world and the Standardbred horse was unequalled in stature, representing over a hundred years of selective breeding.


One of the first harness racing tracks in America, if not the first, was the Harlem Lane course in New York, although it also carried Thoroughbred racing and the first speed record in American trotting history was set her in 1806.

As the country’s roads improved so did the vehicles harness racers pulled. The first were stripped down four-wheel buggies and carts. Around 1840, a two wheeled, high wheeled vehicle was the norm, The height allowed the driver to see over the horse’s back and better speeds were achieved.

As the popularity of the sport increased, other tracks were built. In 1940, the opening of Roosevelt Raceway was the beginning of harness racing’s current era, with really took off after the end of World War II and most large tracks were lighted for night racing also. And the modern sulky, or bike, is very light weight, very low and very aerodynamic and is used across the world at big tracks where world records are broken and set.

Today with Pari-mutuel harness racing, the sport is a national pass time in many countries as it continues to grow in popularity, as anyone who has witnessed the Prix d’Amerique harness racing classic in Paris, France where the country has developed the French Trotter, second in quality to none in the world.

Despite the speed of modern harness racing today, despite the modern race tracks and miles of tote machines, despite such innovations as the all weather racing strips , harness racing remains a nostalgic link with the past in America as it does in many countries. It was and wasn’t so long ago that village by village, the owner of the fastest harness horse locally was a well known man because of his horse.

Close up of a beautiful Standardbred head. Pacing harness racers on the track. Harness racing trotters on the tack.
1) American Standardbred head study. 2) Pacers. 3) Trotters.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Photos © Ed Keys and the USTA Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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