Hobbled by Innovation

Battle over hobbles divided the sport in its early days

By Tim Bojarski

One of the earliest pieces of equipment developed for Standardbred racing was hobbles.

Oddly enough, they were also one of the most controversial.

Invented by John W. Browning of Indiana in 1865, they soon caught on with many horsemen and their use became increasingly widespread.

There were two types designed: one style for pacers and one for trotters. The pacing hobbles were used pretty much the same as today, while the trotting hobbles connected the front and back legs on the diagonal.

They came to be known as “Indiana Pants,” but also were called “Indiana Tanglers” because some horses simply did not adapt and got tangled up in them and fell. As more horsemen started to use them in the 1880s, a great divide over regulation was formed, basically pitting two groups of horsemen against each other.

The first group was the breeders and affluent owners who raced high-priced horses mainly on mile tracks. They wanted to keep the royally bred stock prices high and the breed’s gait “pure.”

The second group was the lower-level horsemen who raced at predominantly half-mile tracks. They looked to get cheap horses to the races to make a day-to-day living.

Over time, the cheaper horses started beating the better stock, and more and more of the owners of the latter didn’t like it. They wanted to ban the use of hobbles in the guise of safety. But the real issue seemed to be hobbles were leveling the playing field.

The first call to ban hobbles came in the late 1890s, but it was in relation to racing at certain tracks only.

The first sport-wide ban proposal came from the American Trotting Association (ATA) in 1907 and was followed up by a similar version from the National Trotting Association (NTA) in 1910. But the NTA changed their feelings in 1912 because of member horsemen wanting to race with them and the NTA wanting to keep members. In 1913, the ATA relented as well.

This left a gray area concerning records taken with hobbles. Many breeders still wanted to outlaw them to protect their interests. So a third group named the American Association of the Trotting Horse (AATH) had a meeting in 1914 to put forth a breeder-backed ban designed to phase them out.

It stated no record against time using hobbles would be recognized by 2-year-olds in 1915, 3-year-olds or under in 1916, 4-year-olds or under in 2017, 5-year-olds or under in 1918, and 6-year-olds or under in 1919, when hobbles would be banned altogether.

Many small-circuit horsemen still wanted hobbles used because so many lesser-value horses could be raced with the straps–without them, the horses had no value. As a result, a good number of racing jurisdictions and local associations kept using them and lobbied hard to keep them.

One owner from Ohio was quoted in a newspaper saying, “In my opinion, for a pacer that has no other mission than to race, it makes no difference to the average buyer if he races in hobbles.”

At that time, W. H. Gocher was the secretary of the NTA and was aware how important membership was to his organization’s bottom line. He knew that with multiple national organizations vying for those dollars, he needed to get as many small association constituents for his group as he could.

Gocher knew the areas that valued racing with hobbles, sided with their cause, and as a result, gained large swatches of membership from those beleaguered owners and trainers that wanted them.

As such in 1919, the stipulation that hobbled horses could not race over NTA tracks was dropped from their rules. This was so popular that a great percentage of members from the ATA switched organizations and gave Gocher and the NTA controlling power in the sport. In a last-ditch effort to keep their remaining members, the ATA also wiped the ban from their rule book and hobbles were now recognized as legitimate by all governing bodies.

The multiple associations continued to divide the sport on many issues for another 19 years until 1938, when the directors of the “big five” at the time–the United Trotting Association, National Trotting Association, American Trotting Association, American Trotting Horse Register and the Trotting Horse Club of America–voted to merge and go under the title of the United States Trotting Association, which has been the mainstay for licensing, registration and rules ever since.

Upon approval of all five associations, incorporation papers for the new group were filed as a not-for-profit organization and it took over on Jan. 1, 1939, giving birth to the USTA.

To see more from the September 2017 issue of Hoof Beats, click here.

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