Highlights From The Harness Horse Youth Camp Held At Shenandoah Downs September 8th

The following was written by Susan St. Amand

In advance of the upcoming 2018 Harness Racing season at Shenandoah Downs, Ellen Taylor of the Harness Horse Youth Foundation led a one-day youth camp at the track September 8th to foster the next generation of harness racing enthusiasts and discuss career exploration in this specialized equine field.  

Approximately 25 local youth, FFA students and adult voluteers participated in this exciting first ever  opportunity at Shenandoah Downs.  Ellen proved to be very knowledgeable and experienced, and served as a great representative of the Harness Horse Youth Foundation. She is from Indiana and has family background in harness racing —  her mother was the first licensed female harness horse driver.

The Virginia Harness Horse Association was a major sponsor of this event as well.  All the youth who participated in today’s event received a special t-shirt which they can wear on September 22nd during the races at Shenandoah Downs. They will all gather in the winner’s circle for a group photo after one of the races in celebration of Harness Horse Youth Foundation Day.   

Participants learned about the Standardbred horses, which are used in harness racing, and the difference between a pacer and a trotter with a team activity using boards.  The standardbred breed developed in earlier times and had to meet a standard two minute time of pacing.  Harness horses, like thoroughbred race horses, can begin competing at the age of two.  Harness horse drivers can be as young as 14, however, they are only able to enter “matinee” races, which are specific for young inexperienced drivers and horses with no purses or winnings to claim.  

Ellen Taylor went on to discuss the horse’s leg parts, and stressed the importance of taking care of those legs. She conducted a demonstration in leg bandaging for protection against damage or injuries.  Just as any other human athlete, the horse must be excercised and taken care of properly in order to give its utmost out on the track.  

Next, Ellen explained about the drivers colors.  The driver can choose up to three different colors as well as his own symbols versus in thoroughbred racing, where the jockeys wear the horse’s owners pre-chosen colors.  Harness drivers however, must wear white pants, just like jockeys do. From a safety standpoint, drivers wear a safety vest underneath their colors, as well as a helmet and goggles for eye protection against the flying dirt thrown up by the horses’ hooves during the race.  Youth had an opportunity to test out and wear a pair of goggles.  

Morgan Marston is a local 10-year-old harness enthusiast who actually owns a couple harness horses.

The young attendees also learned about the difference between the training cart, which is heavier and has wide rubber spoked wheels, versus the racing sulky, which has thin disc wheels and is lighter and safer in preventing a horse’s hoof from getting caught in wheel spokes during a race.  They were taught how to safely mount a cart or sulky and were able to experience sitting in the driver’s seat.  

Ellen went on to explain about the freeze brand located on the horse’s neck, which is required to uniquely identify them in each race they enter.  She also elaborated on the horse race numbers placed on each horse before their race.  The small number indicates the race the horse is entered in and the second larger number indicates the horse’s post position number.  

Betsy Brown, a local Shenandoah County harness horse trainer and driver, was on hand to assist with the Youth Harness camp. She brought out a horse named “Hot Rod Pete”, who is owned by 10-year-old Morgan Marston, an up and coming youth harness racing enthusiast.  Betsy and Morgan demonstrated how they “dressed up” a horse to prepare it to pull a cart, while Ellen described how the bridle and bit helps the driver to control the horse.  

The campers also had the crafty opportunity to create their own colors on a wooden magnet shaped like a drivers longsleeve top.   After a tasty lunch was provided, youth went home with a nice goody bag and t-shirt provided by the Harness Horse Youth Foundation and the Virginia Harness Horse Association.  A good time was had by all, and hopefully many will return to view some of the upcoming harness racing with their families at Shenandoah Downs, especially on September 29th when 14 year-old pacer Foiled Again, winner of 7.6 million in purse monies, will compete in a pari-mutuel race at Shenandoah Downs before his retirement from racing at the end of the year.  A special meet and great with fans will be available.