Standardbreds have “great minds and an incredible work ethic,” says Charlene.
When the five-year-old Standardbred gelding Leo came into Charlene Barry’s life as a sweet-16 birthday present, she knew she loved him right away. But she had no idea that over the next decade their partnership would evolve quite like it has. Charlene, now 26, and her handsome 16-hand dark bay can be found not only competing in horse trials in her home province of Alberta, but also at various venues spreading the word about the merits of retraining off-track Standardbreds as riding horses.
Often disparaged, most former racing Standardbreds have a lot going for them. They’ve been well-handled, met farriers and veterinarians, and have had to deal with stressful situations and environments. Accustomed to racing gear, they generally make the transition to riding tack easily. Perhaps Leo in his early years was appealing for a career change to riding horse because as Charlene says, “he really didn’t like racing.”
Registered as Westerone, Leo has a stellar pedigree. By Western Hanover out an Abercrombie mare named Key of Life, he was the 2003 sale-topper at the prestigious Select Yearling Sale in Harrisburg, PA, where he sold for $160,000 (USD). Clearly, none of this mattered to him.
To demonstrate how much he hated his livelihood, the young pacer would lay down in the barn to avoid training, buck on the track, and he even caused thousands of dollars of damage after dumping his driver and running through the barns with the bike still attached. Understandably, he went from barn to barn until his last race owner, Alberta trainer and driver Kelly Hoerdt, retired him just before he turned five. Leo then went to an Edmonton rider who put a little walk-trot work on him before putting him up for sale.
I’d rather be a riding horse, thanks
Meanwhile Charlene, a rider since age 10, was looking for a “quiet, reliable, sensible trail horse.” She and her family responded to the online ad, met Leo, and were impressed with his personality and maturity for his age. On May 6, 2007, he became a member of the family.
Not into competing at the time, Charlene tried a few different activities with Leo, but it wasn’t until they took part in a 4-H cross-country clinic that they – actually he – discovered what sport they would pursue.
“Leo loved it! I had never seen him light up like that before. So I started eventing, because that was what he wanted to do,” says Charlene, who competes him under the name West Point (a nod to his sire). “As a riding partner, Leo has always shown incredible heart and a willingness to learn and tackle whatever I’ve placed in front of him, regardless of how challenging it is.”
It hasn’t always been easy, but that has less to do with Leo than the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the breed, Charlene admits. Trainers and others in the riding community from whom Charlene has sought guidance over the years haven’t always been encouraging because her boy is a Standardbred.
But not everyone harbours this bias. In 2012, she attended a session with Canadian horsemanship trainer Jonathan Field at the Mane Event in Red Deer. “Jonathan started the clinic by asking each of us about our horses, and when I said that I had a Standardbred he looked at me like I had said Quarter Horse, Paint, Thoroughbred, Arabian, or any other breed. It was the first time that an industry professional had looked at Leo and I at face value without any preconceptions about his capabilities because of his breed,” says Charlene.
“It was a total game-changer and turning point for me as an equestrian. The remainder of the clinic was amazing, and I still use many of the things I learned from him regularly, but that moment still stands out in my mind as a crucial point in my time with Leo.”
Spreading the word
The negativity she and Leo have faced has changed how Charlene thinks about horses, highlighting the importance of “looking at a horse for what it is, and what it has to offer, versus how it fits a specific preconceived mould or ideal.” It has also led Charlene to become a staunch breed advocate. She attends trade shows, performs lectures and demonstrations, and answers many questions, often with Leo by her side. She also blogs and is co-chair of the Canadian Standardbred Network (canadianstandardbred.net), a group providing information and assistance for those interested in obtaining off-track horses.
Through these efforts, in 2016 she became an ambassador for Go & Play Stables (goandplaystables.org), an Ontario charity dedicated to finding second careers for Standardbreds. She says the racing community has been very welcoming and credits Leo’s former owner Kelly Hoerdt and his team at Bedrock Training Centre in Beaumont, AB, for supporting her efforts both on and off the horse.
Charlene also praises her coach and mentor Noel Clark of Two Jack Farm north of Calgary. “He constantly encourages his students to expand their education, and actually understand not only what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. With a horse such as Leo, having an open mind and willingness to try different approaches is essential, and I’m lucky to have found a coach that embodies that.”
But Charlene says her mom, Georgia Barry, is the most important part of her support team.
“My mom is one of the few people that truly understands how hard I’ve worked to get Leo and I to where we are, because she’s literally been there watching, helping, and cheering for every failure and success we’ve had. She’s always been in my corner, and I couldn’t have done it without her.”
As for 2017, Charlene hopes to compete at The Event at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana, July 19-23, in the novice long-format three-day. Leading up to this, she and Leo will do two pre-training level events.
Over the years, Leo has been a “constant” and a “sanctuary,” says Charlene. He has also taught her a great deal about patience and perseverance, and that you can’t always plan ahead. Most importantly though, “Leo’s shown me that everyone, horse and human alike, have something to offer the world – even if it’s not easily apparent.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about pacers is that they can’t learn to trot and canter. “They are gaited. But it’s an additional gait, not a replacement gait, meaning they are still fully capable of walk, trot and canter, just like any other non-gaited horse,” Charlene explains.