The History of Harness Racing


The history of modern harness racing goes back to colonial America, when roads were improved enough so that a light carriage could be driven with some speed. This early means of transportation grew into the sport of harness racing, which gained status as a major American sporting event. The earliest competitions were between ordinary farmers, who had a natural curiosity about whose farm horse could go faster. The sport spread, and horses began to be bred more for speed than for farm labor. American harness racing is generally thought to have begun in earnest in 1806, when records began to be kept.

The breed of horse that was developed for racing was the Standardbred. The Standardbred breed encompasses both trotters and pacers. Pacers differ from trotters in gait, as they move both legs on one side at once. This gait is fast, but does not make for a comfortable ride. Since carriage horses in the colonial days also doubled as riding horses, the pacers were not as popular as the trotters.

The Standardbred breed benefited greatly by the introduction of the English stallion Messenger. His progeny were among the most famous trotters of their day. Ethan Allen, a descendant of Justin Morgan, sired fine trotters as well. The greatest sire in trotting history was a great-grandson of Messenger, by the name of Hambletonian. Almost all of today’s trotters and pacers can be traced back to this one stallion.

Before 1823, all harness racing took place on roads. Complaints from pedestrians finally forced the roadsters further afield, but still it was a few years more until the regular race tracks were developed. The sport was hampered not only by the lack of tracks, but also by the lack of standardized rules and regulations. A variety of vehicles were used, and many races were between paired teams of horses. A boost for harness racing came as a result of the bicycle industry. Pneumatic tires and ball bearings were invented, and in 1892 were used in the creation of the light sulky. The modern sulky weighs about 25 to 30 pounds.

In 1870, an association of harness racing was set up, which standardized the rules and regulations for trotting races. At the time, trotters were more popular than pacers, because pacers suffered a major disadvantage. Once a pacer broke stride, he could not resume his gait. A trotter who broke into a gallop could be checked, and would return naturally to trotting. The advantage for pacers was that they were faster than trotters, and it was the pacer Star Pointer who first broke the two minute mark for the mile.

In 1885, a leg harness was invented that successfully prevented horses from using any gait except the pace. This harness is called the hobble, and it became an accepted piece of equipment in pacing races. Today, approximately 4 out of every 5 harness horses are pacers.

Harness racing fell from favour after the advent of the automobile, but regained its popularity in the 1940’s. The resurgence of the sport came about as a result of nighttime harness racing, pari-mutuel betting, and the invention of the mobile starting gate.

In races, Standardbreds usually reach speeds averaging 25 to 30 miles per hour for the one mile distance. When they leave the mobile starting gate, top horses achieve speeds close to 35 miles an hour.

Harness racing is very popular in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in many countries in Europe. Fans in the U.S. wager about $2.5 billion a year, while Canadian fans wager about $1 billion a year. Roughly 80% of the total money wagered is returned to the fans who wagered it.

I hope you enjoy the photos of the Starting Gates from my collection from around the globe.  Let me know what you think.  If you have any pictures your would like to add to the blog, please send them to me at



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