Story: Horse and greyhound racing

Page 7. Development of harness racing

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Trotting and pacing

Harness racing was formerly known as trotting, because that was the gait originally used. Pacing, a faster gait, came later, and the widespread practice of pulling carts, or sulkies, later still. But the term ‘trotting’ is still often used, meaning both trotting and pacing in harness. Harness racing has ancient origins, but developed as a modern sport in Russia, parts of Europe and the United States at the end of the 18th century, with further refinements introduced in the 19th century.

Trotters and pacers

Trotters have a diagonal gait: their front and opposite rear legs move forward at the same time. They are nicknamed ‘square gaiters’. Pacers move both legs on the same side forward together. Pacers are slightly faster than trotters, and nearly always wear hopples (loose straps) to help keep them in stride. Pacing was originally seen as the poor relation to trotting, but in the 21st century pacing is more popular. About three-quarters of New Zealand harness races are for pacers.

Saddle trots

In New Zealand the earliest races were ‘saddle trots’, with the rider seated on the horse. A few races were advertised as optional for either harness or saddle, but sulkies were seldom used, being regarded as a peculiarity. They were heavy, high-wheeled, clumsy contraptions – nothing like the lightweight, low, aerodynamic sulkies of the 21st century. Saddle trotting is still popular in parts of Europe, and continued sporadically in New Zealand until the 1960s.

Early races

Trotting races and matches (between two horses) were initially included in galloping programmes. Matches on ordinary roads were also popular. The participants often laid large bets – £100 a side was not uncommon – and spectators also gambled on the outcome. Another type of match was a single horse against time.

The animals used in early racing were everyday steeds, carriage horses and farm hacks. What they lacked in speed they made up for in stamina. This suited the rules of the day: most races were run in heats, so horses normally competed two or three times over distances up to three or four miles. Trotting events occurred all around New Zealand, but from the 1860s became increasingly prevalent in the South Island, especially Otago and Southland.

First trotting meetings

The first recorded trotting meeting was held by the Wanganui Trotting Association in January 1881, although reports suggest they ran even earlier meetings. The programme included races for ‘vehicles drawn by one horse’ and ‘vehicles drawn by two horses’. The latter turned out to be a short-lived fad, but the former was the forerunner of today’s harness racing.

What is a standardbred?

Standardbreds evolved in America from around 1800. The term comes from measuring how fast a horse could trot over a mile, thus meeting a ‘standard’. They were originally bred from thoroughbreds (for speed) and carriage horses (for their smooth trotting gait). The stallion Hambletonian 10, great-grandson of the English thoroughbred Messenger, is the ancestor of 99% of today’s standardbreds.

Earliest standardbreds

In 1881 the first American standardbred, named Berlin, was imported by Cantabrian Robert Wilkin. Berlin, a stallion who never raced in New Zealand, was soon followed by a succession of imports to Canterbury and Nelson from the US and Australia. These horses laid the foundation for the standardbred breed in New Zealand.

The emergence of trotting horses kept solely for racing transformed the sport. Canterbury became the trotting centre for both racing and breeding – a position it retained in the early 21st century. Along with the improved horses, new American-style racing sulkies were introduced, resulting in higher speeds. Trotting became fashionable in its own right, not just as an adjunct to galloping.

How to cite this page:

Mary Mountier, 'Horse and greyhound racing - Development of harness racing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/horse-and-greyhound-racing/page-7 (accessed 18 January 2018)

Story by Mary Mountier, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 4 Nov 2015