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A friend told me about a fantastic horse competition he saw; horses were racing around a track pulling small two-wheeled carts. He didn’t know anything about the sport, which made me realize that many people may not be familiar with the various horse racing styles.
Horse racing with a two-wheeled cart (a “sulky”) is called harness racing. The racing horses are either trotters or pacers, depending on their gait. Harness racing is a global sport but is most prevalent in New Zealand, Australia, North America, and Europe.
Harness racing is fun to watch, but there is a lot to understand about this unique sport to appreciate it fully.
Horse racing with a cart.
Harness racing is a horse racing variety where horses race, pulling a small cart while running in a specific gait, either pacing or trotting. Horses racing while pulling carts is an ancient sport.
Records dating back to 1500 BC indicate that horses were trained and bred for chariot races. The most famous era of harness races occurred during the 4th century in Rome.
The ancient chariot races displayed bravery and skills developed on the battlefield. Huge arenas called hippodromes were constructed for the competitions; some of these structures had seating for over 100,000 spectators.
These ancient chariot races evolved into modern harness races.
Starting the race.
Harness races start two ways: either behind a moving starting gate or from a standing start. The most common method is the “moving start”; the horses follow behind a gated pulled by a vehicle. Once the horses reach the starting line, the gates fold up, and the racing begins.
In standing start races, the horses line up behind lines across the track. Often horses begin at different distances to provide better competition and even the field.
Some standing start races begin with the horses trotting in a circle behind the starting lines. Standing start horse races are more common in Europe and Australia than in North America.
You can click here to see a standing start harness race from Australia. The only harness races I’ve seen began with the horses following moving gates mounted to a truck.
Once the starter truck hit a predetermined spot, the gates flew up, and he zoomed off, out of the way of the racers. Moving starts are the way most harness races in the United States begin.
How long are harness races?
Almost every harness race is one mile long. Competitions can be different distances, but most race tracks stick with the standard one-mile race. Track course lengths vary slightly but are typically one-half mile oval or one-mile oval courses.
I like to watch harness races over a smaller track because the racers pass more turns. The turns require skillful driving, and it also adds more excitement to the competition.
The horses that pull the carts
In most places, harness racing is restricted to Standardbreds due to their long, muscular bodies and shorter legs. In fact, its unique build and extraordinary ability to trot or pace with speed earned the standardbred its name way back in the 19th century.
Harness horses typically start their racing career as two or three-year-olds. If a horse is a trotter, it only competes in trotter races, and pacers race only pacers.
What is a sulky?
I’ve come across more than a few people who enjoy watching harness racing but unfortunately don’t know what to call the “cart” led by the horses.
The cart pulled by the horse in harness racing is called a sulky. More casually, it’s also referred to as the bike, gig, or spider.
Sulkies are lightweight, two-wheeled, and intended to carry a single person. They are thought to be named after an English physician known for his sulkiness and thus invented this ride to spend more time alone.
Using two poles, the sulky is attached to a harness that goes around the horse’s neck and shoulders. There are typically two types of sulkies – “jog carts” and “race bikes.”
Jog carts are primarily used for training the horses. They have larger seats to support beginner drivers easily. Their poles are made of dense steel or wood, which gives them extra weight and strength.
Race bikes, as the name indicates, are aerodynamic and designed for speed competition. They have smaller seats that demand more athleticism from the driver. Some lightweight material like aluminum or carbon fiber is used to make their poles.
The use of modern structural material and designs significantly decreased the weight of sulkies. When the sulky first came into use in the early 1800s, it weighed approximately 125 pounds, contrasting with today’s versions, weighing only 25 lbs.
Lighter and more efficient sulkies have led to faster and faster racing times.
The driver of the cart is not a jockey.
The person steering the horse in harness racing is called a “driver,” rather than a “jockey,” which is a term used for professional riders. Certain qualities distinguish a driver from a jockey.
When cart racing started, races pitted horses driven and trained by their owners against one another. Over the last couple of decades, harness racing has become more specialized, and now owners engage professional drivers and trainers for their horses.
The driver must be athletic enough to maintain a proper posture on the seat and use their weight to their advantage. The strategy is critical in harness racing, and a driver must have a trusty bond with their horse to frequently alter its speed or steer into an opening.
Drivers usually carry a light whip to direct the horse. The whip is generally struck at the sulky shafts, and its use is strictly regulated by statute. In reality, whips in harness racing encourage the horse with cues and aren’t used to inflict pain.
To learn more about the concept of whipping in horse racing, check out this article.
Interesting fact: A driver that doesn’t train or own the horses they drive but instead is hired by other trainers and owners to drive for them is called catch-drivers.
Which is faster, pacer, or trotter?
Depending upon the gait or the sequence of foot movements of a horse, it can be a pacer or trotter. But pacers are typically faster than trotters.
“Trot” is when a moving horse lifts and strikes its diagonal pair of legs simultaneously. So, for instance, first, the left front and right hind legs move in unison. As they hit the ground, the right front and left hind ones move forward and so forth.
“Pace” is a lateral gait in which a horse alternates between the left and right pairs of legs. Pacing horses often wear hopples on all legs to help maintain their gait. Like trotters, pacers also keep two feet off the ground.
Trotting is the typical gait found in most four-legged mammals, the “pace” gait is rare, and I can think of only one other animal that moves like this, a camel.
In my experience with different horses, they are either born as trotters or pacers. The reason for this might be a heritable “gait keeper” mutation of the DMRT3 gene, which is more frequent in horses that are naturally inclined to pacing.
Most harness races are exclusive to pacers because a good pacer is generally faster and more agile than a trotter. Also, pacers are less likely to break stride – meaning drivers don’t have to leave the track to get them back to pacing or trotting without losing ground.
How the Standardbred got its name.
The origin of the name “standardbred” came from the 1870s when horses were required to trot or pace a mile under the standard amount of time (which was two and a half minutes) if they were to be admitted to the breed registry.
The relatively short legs, dense muscles, and longer bodies of this breed meant they were prepared for the task. Additionally, the Standardbred’s calm nature, friendliness, and quick learning trait made it the ideal choice for harness racing.
Below is a YouTube video of an interesting sulky race.
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I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.