Why your Standardbred Can’t Bend Properly and How to Fix this Common Problem

When I first started my journey as a standardbred retrainer, I didn’t take much notice of the way my horses moved.

Their wooden straightness went straight past my gaze.

I didn’t pay attention to how they turned like sprinklers.

I had such limited knowledge of equine anatomy and biomechanics (movement).

In the early days I didn’t realise how difficult I was making my job to retrain off the track standardbreds.

My horses didn’t have the physical capabilities to actually do the tasks being asked of them.


Why Standardbreds Struggle with Bend

As I started to develop sound standardbred retraining systems and a step-by-step process, my eyes opened.

I was invited into harness racing operations and educated on the way the horses were trained, in a way which promoted straightness, pulling power and speed.

standardbred pacer

I got up close to harness racehorses and saw that the gear they wore restricted the amount of bend the horse could achieve.

I marvelled at the huge racetracks, with long straight lines and big, sweeping bends.

Noticed how harness horses were muscled very differently to the physique of a riding horse.


The problem with having a standardbred that doesn’t bend

The job a harness racehorse was bred and trained to do, is very different to that of a riding horse.

The tracks they work on.
The gear they wear.
How their bodies are put together and developed.
The actual task of pacing or trotting at high speed.

When a standardbred retires from harness racing, they will hang onto familiar movement patterns.

It will take time for the horse to recondition their body to increase in suppleness and build the topline muscle platform to support the weight of a rider.

The problem is that riders often buy a standardbred with little knowledge of harness racing, or equine biomechanics.

And this is pretty understandable, as standardbreds make fantastic entry-level horses!

You don’t need to be a horse anatomy whiz to be a fantastic mate to a standardbred.

As standardbred owners we need to accept that there’s a bit of work to be done and to commit ourselves to learning as much as we can so that we can become the best possible partner to our horse.

Rehabilitation and retraining is a long-term process, with lots of changes.

 

Common behaviours you can expect from your standardbred before they’ve developed bend and suppleness:

  • Your standardbred runs out through the shoulder
  • Your standardbred flexes out and away from the direction they’re heading in (counterflexion)
  • Your standardbred can’t turn a corner properly
  • Your standardbred can’t do circles
  • Your standardbred picks up the wrong canter lead
  • Your standardbred can’t canter under saddle
  • Your standardbred is pully


Kind and considerate standardbred retraining

If we actually stop to think about it, expecting our standardbred to naturally switch roles without any pre-training is a pretty unfair ask.

Take for example even just the change in the horse’s work space.

Harness racehorses run on flat racetracks, with two massive straight lines and two long, sweeping bends.

A harness racehorse is not required to turn or change direction.

Riding arenas are very small when compared to racetracks.

The movements we ask our standardbreds to perform in arenas are completely new and require gymnastic abilities the horse simply will not have until they’ve been through rehabilitation and reconditioning activities.

It’s a lot like asking someone to do the splits….
Even if the person is relatively fit, unless they have trained to increase flexibility (or are freakishly bendy), they’re going to find this uncomfortable and put themselves at risk of strain injuries.

Even trail riding, with its uneven terrian and hills, requires a new sort of physicality from a horse who’s worked its whole life on a flat, perfectly-graded surface!

We can be kind and set our standardbreds up for success by ensuring they have had adequate preparatory training to condition their bodies for the tasks we’re going to ask them to do under saddle.


Retraining a standardbred to bend

So now that we have a better understanding of why standardbreds struggle with bend, it’s time to look at how we fix this common issue.

Firstly, we need to go in with the mindset that this is going to take time.

As outlined in our Standardbred Horse and Rider Body & Mind Workshop, it can take up to 90 days of consistently working on a new skill before it becomes a habit.  For standardbreds, bending, flexing and turning is a new set of skills.


Also discussed in the Workshop is how long it takes to physically transform a standardbred to have the longitudinal suppleness to be able to bend and flex as we will ask of them under saddle.

We need to shift our thinking from ‘my standardbred won’t or doesn’t bend properly’ to ‘my standardbred can’t bend properly just yet, but we can train towards this and improve with time and practice.’

We would always recommend you seek guidance on rehabilitation exercises and stretches which are safe for standardbreds specifically, because overloading is very easy (and potentially damaging) to the horse.

If you’d like to learn specific exercises introduced by our wonderful guest experts, including Annette Bowen & Dr Raquel Butler featured in the video clips above, we recommend you check out our Standardbred Body & Mind Workshop.

This awesome online program will run you through the following topics:

  • Why a quick fix won’t work: healing/ learning/ adaptation, movement patterns, habits, the time taken to build muscle strength
  • A systematic approach: progressive loading and road blocks
  • Common mistakes: expectation vs reality, skipping ahead
  • Suppleness: strength and flexibility​
  • ​Getting it right the first time: preparation and prevention
  • The value and importance of stretching for standardbreds 
  • The alterations from trotter/pacer to riding horse
  • Why stretch your horse
  • ​How often to stretch your horse
  • ​How to perform stretches correctly: the important foundations
  • ​Basic stretches to begin with: includes video demonstrations + activities to try at home

+ expert presentations on equine gut health, nutrition and chiropractic

+  a 4-week rider mindset, confidence and stretching program

Exceptional value for hours and hours of exclusive video tutorials and downloads, for just $59.

Click here to sign up and get instant access to all the great content!

Or learn more here: https://www.raisingthestandards.com.au/standardbred-body-mind-workshop