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Unharnessing the Potential

It is lovely to hear of success stories of people who have put in the hard yards with their horses health, training and presentation to have it pay off in the show ring. However, it is not every day that a Standardbred can hold his own against the Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods in the open ring, and that is exactly what the Mullan family have achieved with MF Hollywood.

Standard PhotoKathleen Mullan grew up in a Harness Racing and show family with her dad as trainer, her sister is a driver and trainer and her mum is the backbone of the operation making sure all the attention to detail is taken care of before entering the ring. At age five, Kathleen was the youngest driver to race at Moonee Valley in the pony trots and has never looked back.

Kathleen’s recently retired Standardbred stallion Titan Thunder (aka Tom) was one of the most successful show Standardbreds in the country. He has been the National Highpoint Standardbred, four time supreme winner at the Melbourne Royal Horse show, Supreme Led at the Sydney Royal show, Supreme Led and Ridden at the South Australian Standardbred state championships, a multiple winner at the Victorian Horse of the Year and the accolades continue. His success was attributed to his eye catching looks, movement and correct confirmation as well as a refinement which was similar to the thoroughbred breed. Once the decision was made to retire Tom, Kathleen never dreamt she would find another horse as special as him, but along came James (MF Hollywood).

Kathleen’s dad was training MF Hollywood but wanted to turn him out for a spell as he believed he had a lot of ability but was immature. Whilst he was spelling Kathleen broke him to saddle. James showed so much ability under saddle, that her dad soon realized he probably wasn’t getting him back as a race horse!

Standardbred RidingHis flashy colour and white socks had Kathleen wondering if he could go the distance in the show ring. Broken to saddle only 14 months ago, this year has been his first show season under saddle and he has exceeded all expectations. MF Hollywood won open Galloway at the Sunbury Agricultural Show, Reserve Champion at Lancefield Agricultural show against a quality field and many open breed wins. The most pleasing aspect to these wins for Kathleen is that judges are starting to look past the large brand on his neck and judge the horse on his merits. Kathleen says “occasionally we experience prejudice because of his breed but I’m keen to contest the open Galloway classes and hopefully continue to change people’s perceptions of the breed and pave the way for more Standardbreds to do the same”. Accordingly if MF Hollywood wins one more open Galloway class he will qualify for his open class at the Melbourne Royal Show which will be a first time that any Standardbred has qualified for the open Galloway class. Ultimately Kathleen would love to be the first person to compete in the Garryowen on a Standardbred. Remember only a couple of years ago the Garryowen was won by a Clydesdale cross who worked foot perfect and is proof that it can be done.

The Mullan family are long time users of HYGAIN products and use HYGAIN RELEASE for their Harness & Show horses. We were keen to dispel some of the myths associated with the Standardbred breed so we asked Kathleen to share some of her thoughts and experience with us:

What are the best features of the Standardbred breed?

These horses are sensible, trainable and most importantly they will try their hearts out for you, they are gentle souls and generally very hardy with great feet and do not require as much feed as some other breeds to maintain condition. The last 15 years has seen a remarkable change in the type/build of these horses. The influx of USA bloodlines has seen them become a far more refined horse, almost thoroughbred in build without the clunky legs and big heads that everyone knows them for. There are still the occasional ‘ugly’ one but you will find undesirable types in every breed.

What do you say to people who think Standardbreds are stubborn, difficult to train and can’t canter?

I broke in and educated my first Standardbred in my mid-teens, and between my sister and myself we have broken and educated to a high level at least 8-10 Standardbreds. It is one thing to get on their backs and install some basic buttons, the real challenge comes when you want to refine those gaits, get them working in a frame, with correct flexion and rhythm however that is the same with educating ANY breed of horse and it is definitely just as achievable with a Standardbred. If anything I actually find them more willing and trainable than most breeds, they will try and try until they get it right and they love to be told how clever they are!

I do not class myself as a superstar rider and I would be lucky to have had 20 riding lessons in my whole life, yet I have been able to get these horses working at a level that sees them become competitive against any other breed of horse.

The problem is that their calm temperament, reliability and relatively cheap price means they are snapped up as pleasure horses for weekend riders and beginners. This is great as they are certainly brilliant horses for that sort of thing but the perception then becomes that being a pleasure pony is all the breed can do, when in reality it’s just that many of these horses have simply never been given the opportunity to learn or be trained to do anything more advanced than hack around the trails as that’s not what interests their riders.

They certainly CAN canter and many actually do some canter/gallop work as part of their race training, the key is that they need an experienced rider or instructor to help ‘delete’ the pacing gait and ‘re-install’ canter in their minds and their bodies as an allowed and desirable gait.

Do you train an ‘off the track’ Standardbred differently to other horses?

Not really, all the basic principles of pressure/release training still apply and these horses are very giving so it’s often a very rewarding process to see them offer up different answers until they get it right. The main thing I have found with these horses is they will give past their physical capacity so in the early days of retraining it is important not to push them past that. It’s important to allow them to give you the ‘right’ answer and to immediately take the pressure off and praise them heavily for that rather than waiting until they ‘lose’ whatever it is you were asking for. A great example is canter, at first they should be praised simply for attempting canter, one stride, two strides then back to trot and lots of praise, that way they understand canter is now a good thing, it’s no good pushing them until they break as then they have not been given a release (praise) and therefore don’t really understand what answer they should be giving.

If someone is interested in finding out more about owning a Standardbred where would you direct them?

www.spphav.org is the website for the Standardbred Pleasure and Performance Horse Association of Victoria which I am a member of. The website has lots of information on the breed itself, a placement program for horses retiring from racing as well as links to the associate bodies in each state of Australia, most of which have some form of placement/rehoming program www.raisingthestandards.com.au local to them.

If you are interested in meeting MF Hollywood, Titan Thunder and Kathleen Mullan, you can visit them at the Breed Village at Equitana Melbourne from the 15th-18th of November.

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