Standardbreds and trail riding

In our ‘Life After Racing’ series we have been focusing on the various roles the Standardbred breed has been playing after their racing careers.

This has included trekking horses who showcase our scenery to Hollywood Stars such as Reese Witherspoon, and Standardbreds taking the show world by storm at Horse of the Year.

In this profile we focus on the world of Competitive Trail Riding, widely known as CTR.

For Diane Wansborough of Woodville, Tararua in the North Island, her future in Competitive Trail Riding was all planned out, and this did not include a Standardbred. That was until she met Nick Riviera.

She explains her journey into the CTR world and her love affair with riding Standardbreds.


Me and Horses

I’ve always advocated the Standardbred as a willing and sensible mount.

I’d come from a racing background and spent many mornings at Trentham helping my Dad with his thoroughbreds, yet when it was time to move off my pony, we purchased a Standardbred.

P.J. was the ‘typical’ Standardbred of those times, unschooled, unbalanced and undervalued.  I was 14 and I adored him.

I eventually moved on to Thoroughbreds, but never forgot the life lessons I had learnt on P.J.  I never rode another Standardbred in the following years, yet when my own children were ready to move up to the hacks, I brought them a Standardbred.  My non-riding husband also ended up with a Standardbred.

We moved to the Tararua District and I developed an interest in Trekking and Competitive Trail Riding (CTR).  I found the Thoroughbreds not well suited, so started a love affair with the Clydie/Thoroughbred crosses.

Life is funny – I had it all planned.  I even bred from my Clydie/Thoroughbred cross mare, that was supposed to be, my ‘forever horse’.  Then my ‘novice’ sister-in-law (Dee) asked me in help her find a horse.  And I encouraged her to look for a Standardbred.

We found Nick Riviera, who originally came from Jackie Law at Canterbury Standardbred Rehoming, and I agreed to ride him for six months to ‘get him going’ and give him some experiences.  Oh my gosh, the pleasure I got from riding this willing little horse was huge. And it was an introduction to Jackie Law, as she had followed Nick’s sale, and had been in contact with Dee. 

I started trawling the Standardbred Rehoming Page, eventually selling one of my Clydie/TB X’s to finance the purchase of Uprizing (Prize) and Diamond Frost (Jack).  Riding Nick changed my riding life.


Competitive Trail Riding

The objective of CTR is “to complete a marked course as close as possible to a set time, with the horse finishing in sound condition with good recovery heart rates”.

Simple rules must be adhered to and include:

  • You must not have on-board heart rate monitors, GP’s or any other navigational equipment.
  • You must follow the course markers and maintain forward motion.
  • You must not have any riding aids such as spurs, whips or reins over 3 meters.
  • No time wasting i.e. weaving, circling, zigzagging or grazing.
  • You must present your horse at each vetting phase within the time allocated.

You can be eliminated for not complying, and/or be ‘vetted out’ if your horses’ heart rate is over 64 beats per minute (BPM) at the final reading, or presents as lame.

A day at CTR starts with riders signing in and receiving their back numbers.  You are then expected to present your horse, in a halter and lead rope, for vetting.  This involves a ‘trot out’ for soundness and a pre-ride heart rate.  Although this heart rate is recorded, it is not added into your final score and is generally used by riders as a guide.  A horse new to CTR may have a high heart rate reading at this time due to the excitement and activity going on around them.  I teach my horse to ‘trot out’ and to stand quietly for heart rate reading prior to introducing CTR.

Riders are allocated their ‘ride out time’ and should arrive mounted 5 minutes prior for gear check. You can ride individually or with a maximum of 3.  I prefer to ride as a pair and try to match my horse with another of a similar stride.  Ride out times are set at 5-minute intervals.

Upon completion of the course, the time is recorded as you ‘cross the line’ and points are awarded as such:

  • 2 points per minute under the set ride time
  • 1 point per minute over the set ride time.

Your horse’s heart rate is then taken.  I choose to dismount for this reading, but many riders stay on. This heart rate is recorded towards your final score.

You then have 30 minutes to cool/calm your horse down and represent to the vet ring for your final heart rate and trot out.  The winner is the lowest recording i.e.

  • Time penalties + across the line heart rate + final heart rate = WINNER.

CTR has different classes with maximum distances and recommended speeds to achieve the ride at the set time

  • Intro                             -   10km at 7km per hour
  • Novice                         -    25km at 8km per hour
  • Short Intermediate      -    25km at 10km per hour
  • Intermediate               -     40km at 10 km per hour
  • Open                          -     40km at 12km per hour


The Standardbred and CTR (in my opinion)

The Standardbred is an athlete used for racing.  They have generally been exposed to harness and the racing environment prior to life as a ridden horse.  I suspect that the Standardbred has a naturally lower resting heart rate, than other horse breeds and find they accept the vetting ring activity with very little interest, which is vital for good scores. They have an efficient gait (low oxygen cost of exercise), which combined with fitness training and their inclination to conserve energy (going to sleep when not ridden), is why I think they are ‘making a name’ for themselves within the CTR circles.   

My Standardbreds

I got Prize (Uprizing) in April of 2016 and introduced him quietly to trekking and CTR.  He came from a racing background and I had a few challenges to help him adjust to riding.  He is competitive in his nature and would kick out if people rode up behind him (or speed up if kicking wasn’t an option). 

I needed him to be independent of what other horses were doing and only change pace, when I asked him.  Lots of steady, consistent riding and I now have a horse that is responsive and calm.

Prize, has done ten CTR’s and has placed at 6 of them.  As I write this and reflect back over his scores, it is obvious that rider error has impacted on his stats.  Often the difference between placings comes down to time faults and this is where I slip, because I just have too much fun and go too fast! 

We have been competing at Novice level, which is generally a good Standardbred walk with about 20 minutes of forward trotting.  He consistently crosses the line with a heart rate of less than 50 bpm and drops to around 35 bpm.  His best heart rate to date was at a 20k ride.  We had 2.30hrs to complete the course but I did it in 2.18.01, 12 minutes early.

  • Across the line Heart Rate 38 bpm
  • Final Heart Rate 29 bpm
  • Time penalties 24
  • Total Score 91

We were lucky on this occasion to place first. His heart rates were fantastic and made up for my time faults.

My intention for next season is to try going up a grade.  I will continue to trek him as this gives me a good basis to develop stamina and maintain fitness.  I have also started jumping him, as I’d like to get back on the hunt field in the future.

Diamond Frost (Jack) arrived in October of last year and I honestly don’t know why I brought him except that I couldn’t stop looking at his profile that Jackie had put up on the Canterbury Standardbred Rehoming Page.  He is completely different.  Although, broken to harness, I believe he never raced or saw much of the world before coming to me.  Jack is the greenest horse I’ve ridden in many years and he has had difficulty learning how to get down hills, resulting in a number of injuries, and limiting our riding. 

That aside, he is very honest and endearing and I’m certain that once he figures out what to do with his leg he will be a showstopper. 


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