An exciting day was planned for the Sullivan County 4-H group who traveled to The Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame and the Goshen Historic Track, located in Goshen, NY, in July.
Barbara Moran, 4-H Animal Science Program Coordinator, from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County, put together the day-long excursion and coordinated with the museum staff and the Harness Horse Youth Foundation; funding for the event came from The Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund for Standardbred and Harness Racing education.
Barbara explained that this program was brought about through a Standardbred grant she applied for in order to work with the Harness Horse Youth Foundation and Ellen Taylor, of Ohio, whose mother founded the Harness Horse Youth Foundation back in the 1970s.
“Established in 1976, The Harness Horse Youth Foundation is a charitable 501(c)3 organization dedicated to providing young people and their families educational opportunities with harness horses, in order to foster the next generation of participants and fans. The Foundation has been making a difference in young people’s lives since its inception, and its programs include interactive learning experiences with these versatile animals, scholarship programs, and creation and distribution of educational materials.”
Ellen Taylor is carrying on her mother’s mission — as she travels across the country and hosts camps for kids. Fortunately for Sullivan County, she had agreed to offer this exciting project for the group. This special one-day camp was designed to bring the Sullivan County 4-Hers to the Museum to first learn the history of harness racing, experience hands-on learning (including fun games!) and then after lunch head over to the barns and get to meet in person and work with some of the Standardbred horses.
Ellen was assisted by her driver, John Reames, and her experienced young staff, Morgan, Lily and Katie, who introduced the 4-Hers to the horses in the barn and explained much of what goes into caring for them, showing how to groom and harness and allowing the youngsters to participate in the process. John explained to the group that before cars were invented, if you needed to go somewhere, you could either walk, ride a horse, or you got a horse and buggy or wagon and drove to wherever you needed to go. Two or three generations ago, he said, the first thing you were taught as a child was how to drive a horse.
The 4-Hers were busily engaged in grooming the horses and in learning how to harness them, aided by Morgan, Lily and Katie, who travel around with Ellen to staff the various camps and programs. The girls explained the parts of the harness, and offered to let the 4-Hers try their hand in harnessing. They harnessed up “Queen Bee”, a 12-14 year old Standardbred mare who is a Pacer, nicknamed by some as a “sidewheeler.”
The youngsters learned the difference between the two types of harness horses: Trotters and Pacers. Trotters have a two-beat diagonal gait, meaning they move their back left leg at the same time they’re moving the right front leg, then the front left leg in unison with the rear right leg, with the two opposite feet on the ground. Pacers have a two-beat lateral gait, which means that they move their legs on the same side in unison — the left front and left rear together, followed by the right front and right rear.
Most pacers wear hopples — which are straps connecting front and rear legs on the same side. Hopples help the horse maintain their stride without limiting their speed, and most pacers wear hopples on all four legs to help with gait maintenance. Occasionally, you might see a free-legged pacer, a horse racing without hopples. Interestingly, many pacers will trot naturally while turned out in a field; they can be trained to trot for second careers as riding horses. But the opposite isn’t true — trotters don’t usually pace. Usually trotters do not wear hopples, and some inexperienced horses may tend to go off stride (into a canter) or try to trot too fast; this is called ‘breaking.’ The tendency to trot or pace is inbred, but the ability to maintain the gait at high speeds over a distance takes years of intensive training.
Pacers are far more common on the racetrack than trotters. The New York Times reported that researchers in Sweden discovered a gene called DMRT3 that determines whether or not a horse can pace. With genetic testing, breeders can now make decisions knowing that particular horses have DMRT3 and are unlikely to produce offspring that break their gait while racing.
After a quick walk from the stable to the race track, everyone in attendance (including coordinator Barbara Moran and this writer) was given the opportunity to drive — after first being fitted with a safety helmet, goggles and a safety vest, a professional driver sat next to each youngster and demonstrated how to hold the reins, and directed how to stay toward the middle as they jogged Queen Bee around the entire one-mile racetrack. Each started out and returned with a huge smile and great enthusiasm… the experience of being connected to a powerful, fast-moving racehorse through the reins in your hands, and driving the historic racecourse was tremendously exhilarating. One could only wish for more!
After the youngsters all had their drive, we headed back to the barn and had the final learning session of the day. As the horse was unharnessed, Ellen questioned the 4-Hers about how you would offer water to the horse after she was finished jogging — explaining that she would be given only about 10 sips of water to stay hydrated and not allowing her too much at once. She was gradually cooled out (lowering her heart rate and body temperature and getting hydrated) and the students were assigned tasks to assist in giving the horse a bath and cleaning harnesses.
A question-and-answer period followed, and the group was delighted when Ellen presented each of them with a T-Shirt with the Harness Horse Youth Foundation logo on the front, and the 2018 summer camp schedule on the back (complete with this date of the Sullivan County 4-H group), along with some Harness Horse trading cards and magazines. A wonderful time was had by all, and many thanks are extended to Ellen and her staff.
For more information, please visit the website and get the word out to youngsters to sign up for next season’s camp! You can e-mail HHYF Executive Director Ellen Taylor at, or call 317.908.0029. The mailing address is: 217 East Main Street, Sudlersville, MD 21668.