The versatility of Standardbreds on display at National Standardbred Horse Show
story by Ken Weingartner
Morgan Kiehl arrived at the National Standardbred Horse Show with no expectations. Her horse, a 12-year-old pacer named Carol’s Comet, had been training under saddle for only two months, but the gelding showed enough progress that Kiehl thought it would be fun to bring him to the event.
Kiehl, who enjoyed a successful collegiate riding career as a member of The Ohio State University Western Equestrian team, was amazed by what followed. Carol’s Comet won a Showmanship class, finished second in two others, and was the Showmanship division reserve champion.
He also was reserve champion in Rookie English/Western Pleasure and Western Intro Level Dressage.
“I just wanted to have a good time,” Kiehl said. “It was hard to have any expectations with that little under-saddle training. So, I was amazed at anything he gave me. He went above and beyond. I was absolutely thrilled.
“Every single Standardbred that I’ve worked with in the saddle has exceeded my expectations beyond belief. They are just incredibly intelligent and sweet horses. They really enjoy working with people and being with people. And they enjoy having a job. I think that’s everything you need in a riding horse.”
Carol’s Comet, who finished third behind Sweet Lou and Bettor’s Edge in the 2014 Dan Patch Invitational and earned $455,287 lifetime, was sent to Kiehl by owner Sheila Napier.
“She reached out to me when she found out that I started my own training business,” said Kiehl, who was introduced to Standardbreds through an internship with the Harness Horse Youth Foundation in 2018 and later spent a year working for trainer Jeff Smith in Ohio. “She wanted help converting Carol’s Comet to a riding horse for her daughter Jessica.
“He amazed me at every single step. He is one of my favorite horses to be around and one of my favorite horses to ride. He got so good so fast, I thought we should go to nationals. It was exciting and rewarding. Everyone there was so welcoming. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. If I have the opportunity, I will definitely be back again.”
Carol’s Comet was one of 104 Standardbreds to participate in this year’s National Standardbred Horse Show, which was hosted by the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization (SPHO) of New Jersey and held Aug. 13-15 at the Horse Park of New Jersey. The number of horses entered was a record for the event, which began in 1995, nearly doubling the previous high. Participants came from 10 different states.
“I knew we were going to be big because any time we mentioned anything on social media, it was huge; I just didn’t know it was going to be this big,” said Rob Pennington, the show manager and points secretary for the SPHO. “We don’t want to be just some backyard show; we want to be a real product. We strive for quality—with our judges, with our ribbons, with everything we do. We strive to have the best of the best. I think we’re getting there.
“It’s humbling, it really is. It’s not only the number of horses, but the quality of the horses is unbelievable. We know we have some kinks to work out if it’s going to stay this big, but it was a big success.”
The SPHO, which was formed in 1986 and has 60 members, relies on a network of volunteers and sponsors to put on the best possible show. Among the volunteers spearheading this year’s efforts were James Asprocolas, Jesse Dill, Destiny Sheard, Shyanne Sheard and Shannon Wilson.
“It wouldn’t happen without the volunteers; they’re very good to me,” Pennington said. “And without the racing community, this show wouldn’t be possible. The list of sponsors is tremendous—trainers, drivers, owners, grooms, breeders, horsemen’s associations—they all give to our show. That’s a huge part of it.”
This year’s show offered more than 120 classes in more than 30 divisions.
“People say there are too many classes, but there is something for everyone at every level,” said SPHO President Alison Giorgianni. “We don’t want anyone to think they can’t try it.
“Our mission is to educate the public about the versatility of the breed. That’s why this club was founded, and it’s always been our focus. We don’t just do the show. We do parades, we go to demos, we go to expos. It’s ongoing, all year long, to promote the breed.”
This year’s show included a handful of horses that earned more than $1 million in their harness racing careers: Forensic Z Tam, Golden Receiver, Michael’s Power, Obrigado and Spider Blue Chip. Michael’s Power was Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2012 and Obrigado was a Dan Patch Award winner in 2016.
At the National Standardbred Horse Show, Forensic Z Tam was champion of the English/Western Pleasure division.
“You can do anything you want with Standardbreds,” Giorgianni said. “They have great personalities and are so willing to please. It’s really turned people on.
“And our members are not afraid to go out there and compete against the other breeds in open shows. That’s how people in other places get to see what a Standardbred can do. That’s the stuff we get excited about.”
Lightning Moon, who was this year’s champion in the Jumper division and reserve champion in Intro Level Dressage, is one such horse. The 15-year-old pacer, who retired from racing in 2016 with career earnings of $358,419, has enjoyed success as a jumper at open shows for owner/rider Michaela Schock.
“I love taking this breed and showcasing it to the public,” Schock said. “My favorite question people ask me is what breed of horse is that. When I tell them a Standardbred, their jaws normally drop. Standardbreds aren’t just for harness racing; they can be retrained and repurposed, and they can do it better than most other riding horses. I’ve never ridden horses that try so hard.”
Schock, who is an equine dentist, started riding when she was 5 years old and grew up with Arabians. When she got older, she gave up the horses because of the expense, but returned to riding when she got Lightning Moon to retrain three years ago.
“I started making the racehorses my riding horses and now that’s all I have,” Schock said. “I’m obsessed now. I just think Standardbreds are the greatest breed.”
In addition to Lightning Moon, Schock brought retired 7-year-old trotter Crosby and still-racing 4-year-old pacing mare Rockababy to the National Standardbred Horse Show. Crosby was champion in Intro Level Dressage and the Puddle Jumper division. He was reserve champion in the Green English Pleasure division and Versatility Challenge.
One of the highlights of the weekend for Schock was when Crosby won a jumper class and finished third in the Ride & Drive Challenge, all in the span of less than 30 minutes.
“I’ve never had a horse I could go all out with over jumps and then change them into riding and harness and adjust so well. Most horses, it blows their mind, and they can’t function. I was expecting him to be ready to rumble. I wasn’t expecting him to be so well-behaved and level-headed. He was phenomenal.”
A week after the National Standardbred Horse Show, Lightning Moon was among five horses that competed in the event to appear at the Standardbred Showcase at Ocean Downs. The others were Andy Ray, Big Bikkies, Split The House and Wynnfield Noelle.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Maria Buchanan, who helps train show-world newcomer Andy Ray and owns and rides Big Bikkies. “We did demonstrations between the races, and they talked about each horse. It was really cool to do that. They were all awesome.”
Big Bikkies, a 15-year-old trotter appearing in his 10th National Standardbred Horse Show, was champion of the War Horse division, which was open to horses with more than $200,000 in lifetime earnings, or more than 100 career starts, or older than 20. He also was champion in 2014.
“The class has gotten so big and is such tough competition,” said Buchanan, who took care of Big Bikkies for trainer Noel Daley beginning with the horse’s 3-year-old season. “It was neat to finally be champion War Horse again. I enjoyed that.”
Buchanan also sent out 11-year-old trotter Chocolate Delight, who was the Open Gymkhana champion and Puddle Jumper reserve champion.
“It really is amazing how many Standardbreds are out there competing at such a high level,” said Buchanan, who has participated in the National Standardbred Horse Show for more than 15 years. “They’re all doing so well.
“This show is massive now and it’s great to see all the different disciplines they’ve added, and all the horses do so good in everything that they try. It’s just getting bigger and better. It’s really cool to see.” HB
Ken Weingartner is the USTA media relations manager. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.