Whether you enjoy riding long distances for your own pleasure or like the thrill of competing, the right horse can make a big difference. After all, while a Percheron may have plenty of stamina for pulling heavy loads it’s no good at covering at least 25 miles in a single day. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to have a look at the breeds that can not only cover that distance (as well as 4 times that) but can do it with ease.
What is endurance racing?
A test of a horse’s physical fitness and stamina, as well as the fitness of the rider and their navigational skills, endurance racing as we know it today is based on a hundred plus year old military training exercise. The idea was to see how good a horse was over long distances as well as what the horse’s limits were on a battlefield.
Today endurance racing covers a set distance (normally between 25 and 100 miles / 40 and 161 km), with regular vet checks along the way. The idea isn’t just to get to the finish line as quickly as possible but to also have a healthy horse. If a vet thinks the horse isn’t fit or healthy enough to carry on they can withdraw them at any of the checkpoints. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the sports’ motto is ‘To finish is to win’.
The first official endurance race was held in Vermont, USA in 1913 and organised by the Morgan Horse Club although it wasn’t until 1978 that the sport was officially recognized by the FEI. Today The FEI holds over 300 events around the world every year.
What makes a good endurance horse?
Any successful endurance rider will tell you that good conformation and soundness are the two most important things to look out for in an endurance horse, and there’s a very good reason for that. If a horse isn’t sound at any of the checkpoints then the vet will pull them out of the race immediately. Also if they have good conformation then they’ll be balanced and will be able to carry you without stressing themselves.
Once you’ve found a sound horse with the right conformation then you next need to consider their height and build. They need to be big enough to carry you as well as the saddle and saddle bags but not so big that they struggle to carry their own weight as well. Some people say that the ideal endurance horse is between 14hh and 15hh and while this is often true it does also depend on your weight too. If you’re not sure what size horse you should be riding then you should check out this article on finding the right sized horse for your weight.
There are also a few other things you should take into consideration:
It goes without saying that it’s important that the horse enjoys endurance riding but it’s also good if the horse is easy to control. If they’re too eager they’ll tire themselves out and you’ll ache from holding them back but if they’re difficult to get going then you’ll have to work much harder to get the best out of them.
A mild and calm temperament is also a bonus, you don’t want a horse that will spook at the first hint of a loud noise or will be easily distracted if you have to ride past a lot of traffic.
Poor or uncared for hooves are the single biggest cause of lameness in endurance races yet it’s something that’s often overlooked when it comes to finding the perfect endurance horse. Whether you’re competing in a local event or are starting the Tevis Cup there’ll be a lot of rugged and challenging terrain so strong hooves are essential. Horses that need to wear corrective shoeing should be avoided, while they may be perfectly good for a lot of disciplines they’re not suitable for endurance.
Large nostrils, especially when combined with a small head, allow the horse to take in more are and therefore allow them to get the air to their muscles much quicker. It also helps the horse to recover much faster too.
Slow twitch muscles
Sometimes referred to as the endurance muscle, slow twitch muscles mean that the horse is better over long distances than those with fast twitch muscles which are better for short sprints. A slow twitch means that the horse will burn fewer calories and will work with lower blood pressure, again helping them to recover better.
While you probably won’t be able to tell about a horse’s blood cells by looking at them, horses with lots of, and smaller, red blood cells are fantastic for endurance because the cells help them to get more oxygen to the muscles and tissues. It also helps them to get oxygen to those areas much quicker too. I say you ‘probably’ won’t be able to tell because in most breeds you’d need to have tests to find out their blood count, but with desert horses such as the Akhal Teke and the Arabian, this is a prerequisite for the breed.
What are the best breeds for endurance?
I know some people will say that their horse should be on this list but while I agree that, with the right training, any horse can do well at endurance there are some breeds that will generally do better than others and those are the ones listed below. It’s also worth pointing out that I decided to compile the list in alphabetical order rather than the ability of the horse. The reason I did this was that there are some breeds, such as the Akhal Teke and Mongolian Horse that have phenomenal endurance but are rarely raced outside of their homelands. It’s also worth mentioning that, while I know some people will disagree with me, I decided not to include the Anglo-Arabian, Grade Horse, or the Mule. The reason for this is that, although they can all do very well at endurance (especially Mules) they’re not pure breeds.
- Akhal Teke
- Missouri Fox Trotter
- Mongolian Horse
- Rocky Mountain Horse
Height: Horses can stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) although the average height is 15.2hh (52 inches).
Color: Any color is allowed but chestnut, palomino, and black are the most desirable and therefore the most common colors.
Character: Akhal Teke’s are extremely loyal horses that can be a little spirited sometimes, that said though they are also highly intelligent and keen to learn.
Country of Origin: Turkmenistan
When it comes to endurance the Akhal Teke is head and shoulders above any other breed, even though you’re unlikely to see them competing in endurance races outside of Central Asia. Originally bred by the nomadic Teke tribesman as war horses, the harsh conditions of the Karakul desert (where the breed evolved) meant that they needed to have plenty of stamina as well as be able to survive with little food.
While being one of the oldest breeds in the world, the Akhal Teke is sadly also one of the rarest too which is one of the main reasons why it’s rarely seen outside of Turkmenistan.
Why the Akhal Teke is perfect for endurance
Not only is the Akhal Teke famed for its stamina and endurance, but it also has a sensible nature and won’t easily spook over a flyaway plastic bag. They also have good speed and are able to maintain a decent pace for prolonged periods of time.
Want to know more about the Akhal Teke? Check out my recent article on the breed.
Height: While the Appaloosa can reach 16hh (64 inches) most horses stand somewhere between 14hh (56 inches) and 15hh (60 inches).
Color: The Appaloosa is famous for its spots which can be on any color base coat.
Character: Known for their affection, the Appaloosa is a kind breed with a big heart. They’re keen to please and are willing to learn.
Country of Origin: USA
The Appaloosa might not be an obvious choice for endurance but they’re far more capable than you might realize. The once revered breed was highly prized by the Nez Perce Indians for its bravery and courage as well as for its endurance and hardiness. This endurance is put to the test during the annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride which recites the route the Indians took during the 1877 Nez Perce War. Organized by the Appaloosa Horse Club, the ride lasts for five days and covers 100 miles (160km) in that time, it takes 13 years to complete the full 1300 mile (2092km) trail. [source]
Why the Appaloosa is perfect for endurance
If you ever doubted the Appaloosa’s credentials as an endurance horse then look no further than the Haggin Cup. A trophy that’s awarded to the horse with the ‘most superior physical condition’ after every Tevis Cup was awarded to a 10 year old gelding called Ruff Spots Banner in 1969, one of the few times it wasn’t awarded to an Arabian (or a part-bred Arabian). [source]
Want to know more about the Appaloosa? Check out my recent article on the breed.
Height: As a general rule the Arabian stands between 14.1hh (57 inches) and 15.1hh (61 inches).
Color: While black and roan colors can be found bay, gray and chestnut are the most common.
Character: The Arabian is a highly intelligent horse that has a gentle nature, making them easy to handle by children. They’re also very loyal horses.
Country of Origin: Arabian Peninsula
For most people, the Arabian is synonymous with endurance and when you consider their history it’s easy to see why. Like the Akhal Teke, the Arabian is a desert breed that has evolved to thrive in harsh conditions for long periods of time. This has helped them to excel at endurance racing, with an Arabian (or part-bred Arabian) winning the famous Tevis Cup every year except for two. [source]
Why the Arabian is perfect for endurance
When you think of endurance chances are you’ll think of the Arabian and with good reason. Being a desert breed that was originally bred by the nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Arabian has a phenomenal amount of stamina.
Want to know more about the Arabian? Check out the Arabian Horse Association’s website.
Height: There’s no maximum height for the Boerperd so it’s not uncommon for horses to exceed 16hh (64 inches) but mares must be at least 13.3hh (55 inches) while stallions can’t be smaller than 14.2hh (58 inches).
Color: The Boerperd can be found in a range of colors but black, dun, gray, and chestnut are the most common, although palomino and pinto can also be found.
Character: A reliable horse, the Boerperd is trustworthy and extremely loyal. They’re also calm, willing and versatile horses.
Country of Origin: South Africa
Sometimes wrongly referred to as the Cape Horse or Boer, the modern Boerperd is actually descended from those ancient breeds rather than being the same breed. That said though it still has many of the same characteristics of the now-extinct Cape Horse, characteristics which include harness, bravery and above all endurance. These traits are encouraged by the South African Boerperd Society with horses being assessed at 2 years of age, only being allowed to be registered if they are of sufficient quality.
Why the Boerperd is perfect for endurance
During the late 1830s, many of South Africa’s Dutch-speaking settlers traveled from the Cape Colony toward the interior of South Africa. This difficult and treacherous journey was undertaken by many Boerperds who were able to travel long distances safely while carrying people.
Want to know more about the Boerperd? Check out the South African Boerperd Society’s website.
Height: While the average height is 14.3hh (59 inches) anything between 13.2hh (54 inches) and 14.3hh (59 inches).
Color: Most colors are allowed (and can be found) but dun, in its various shades is by far the most common. More often than not horses also have dark points and a dorsal stripe.
Character: The Criollo is an easygoing horse that’s said to be very easy to train. They love being around people and are always eager to please them.
Country of Origin: Argentina
Descending from the horses that were once released into the wild by the Spanish as they fled Buenos Aires, the Criollo evolved into a naturally hardy horse that could survive in extreme temperatures, with little water and only the dry pampas grass to survive on. As a byproduct of these harsh conditions, the Criollo developed its legendary endurance capabilities, something that was encouraged by Argentinian breeders.
Why the Criollo is perfect for endurance
Many Criollo breeds take part in an event known as La Marcha where the horses have to cover a 466 mile (750km) course in just two weeks. Carrying heavy loads all the way, the horses were only allowed to eat the grass growing at the side of the road.
Want to know more about the Criollo? Check out the Criollo Horse website.
Height: Horses can range from 14hh (56 inches) to 16hh (64 inches) although most stand somewhere between 14.2hh (57 inches) and 15.2hh (61 inches).
Color: Any color is allowed but bay, chestnut, brown, and pinto are the most common, and most popular.
Character: The Marwari is a tremendously brave horse that is also very loyal. They have friendly natures and are said to be easy to train.
Country of Origin: India
Not so well known outside of its native India, the Marwari is an ancient breed that evolved in the arid Maru Pradesh desert region of northwest India. This allowed it to evolve into an extremely hardy horse that was able to survive on very meager rations. In order to cope with the extreme desert heat, the Marwari developed a thin coat that allows it to keep cool but also helps the breed to recover quickly.
Why the Marwari is perfect for endurance
As you can imagine for a war horse, the Marwari has a lot of stamina and endurance but on top of that, they also have very tough hooves and rarely need to be shod. While it’s not necessary these days they do have an incredible homing instinct and are able to carry an unconscious rider home safely.
Want to know more about the Marwari? Check out the official Marwari Horse Society website.
Missouri Fox Trotter
Height: The Missouri Fox Trotter has two height classifications, one for horses that stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) and one for ponies that can range from 11hh (44 inches) to 14hh (56 inches).
Color: Any color is allowed although chestnut and sorrel are the most popular colors.
Character: The Missouri Fox Trotter is famous for its gentle nature and the fact that it can be easily handled by children. Being gaited horses they’re also very smooth and comfortable to ride.
Country of Origin: USA
You’d be forgiven if endurance doesn’t automatically spring to mind when you think about the Missouri Fox Trotter but don’t let that fool you into thinking the breed isn’t capable. While they may not have come first in the 100 mile (161km) Tevis Cup, as they say ‘to finish is to win’, so to that extent, they have ‘won’ the race, having finished it numerous times in the past. The most famous being Foxfire’s Little Britches who has competed a number of times, the most recent being in 2022. [source]
Why the Missouri Fox Trotter is perfect for endurance
A native of the Ozark Mountain region of the USA, the Missouri Fox Trotter has evolved to be a very surefooted breed that is more than happy covering vast distances at speed. One of the early influencing horses was a stallion called Tom Hal. In the 1820s his owner rode him 70 miles from Lexington to Louisville to prove a bet, only to ride him home again the next day.
Want to know more about the Missouri Fox Trotter? Check out the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association website.
Height: A small horse (rather than a pony), the Mongolian Horse stands between 12hh (48 inches) and 14hh (56 inches).
Color: As a general rule the Mongolia Horse can be found in gray, dun, bay, or black although every region in Mongolia has its own color preference.
Character: Mongolian Horses have a quiet temperament and are said to be docile but because they spend most of the year roaming freely they have a suspicious disposition.
Country of Origin: Mongolia
The Mongolian Horse is an ancient breed that has changed very little since the days of Genghis Khan, around 8,000 years ago. In fact, they were said to have been a key factor in the success of the Mongol Empire and when you consider the breed’s strength and endurance it’s easy to see why.
Spending their lives outside (even when the temperatures drop to -40°C (-40°F) they have to cover great distances in search of food. This has helped them to develop into a tough little breed that’s able to travel a huge distance steadily and without much in the way of food and water.
Why the Mongolian Horse is perfect for endurance
When you consider they take part in the 621 mile (1000km) Mongol Derby every year it’s easy to see why they’re ideal for endurance. Despite their diminutive size they also have an amazing amount of endurance and stamina and can happily gallop for 10km without stopping.
Want to know more about the Mongolian Horse? Check out the American Museum of Natural History.
Height: Generally Morgans stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 15.2hh (62 inches) although they can reach heights of 16.2hh (66 inches).
Color: While black is by far the most common color any solid color is allowed, with gray horses being extremely rare.
Character: The Morgan is a sensible horse that doesn’t spook easily. They have kind natures, are very loyal, and are famed for their bravery.
Country of Origin: USA
Descending from just one horse, known as Figure, who was foaled in the 1790s the Morgan has always been prized for its endurance, speed, and courage. This is one of the main reasons why the American Morgan Horse Association organizes a series of endurance rides every year. Ranging from 25 miles (40km) to 150 miles (241km), the events can take place over one, two, or three days.
Why the Morgan is perfect for endurance
All Morgans descend from just one horse, known as Figure, not only did he have incredible strength and speed but he also had a phenomenal amount of endurance and stamina. A characteristic that all Morgans still have today.
Want to know more about the Morgan? Check out the American Morgan Horse Association’s website.
Height: Standing between 12hh (48 inches) and 16hh (64 inches), the Mustang has one of the biggest height ranges of all breeds, but they average 14hh (56 inches) to 15hh (60 inches).
Color: Absolutely any color can be found.
Character: Mustangs are confident horses that are known for their hardiness as well as for their intelligence and gentle natures.
Country of Origin: USA
Being a feral breed that has been left to fend for itself for many years (and is still the case today), the Mustang has evolved to be able to cover huge distances every day just in search of food. This characteristic is something that has made them such a popular choice amongst endurance riders. This was proven by Marko B, a 13 year old gelding who won the Tevis Cup back in 1960, one of the few years that it wasn’t won by an Arabian.
Why the Mustang is perfect for endurance
Being feral horses, the Mustang is used to traveling great distances every day so has plenty of stamina. They’re also extremely brave and courageous so aren’t prone to spooking.
Want to know more about the Mustang? Check out the Bureau of Land Management’s website.
Rocky Mountain Horse
Height: All Rocky Mountain Horses must stand between 14.2hh (58 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: While any color is allowed the most common, and most striking colors are chocolate (with a flaxen mane and tail) and silver dapple.
Character: The Rocky Mountain Horse is a calm, gentle horse that is said to be extremely people-oriented. They have sensible natures and are very comfortable to ride.
Country of Origin: USA
Often described as an ‘all terrain horse’, the Rocky Mountain Horse is an extremely rugged horse that is built for endurance and sure-footedness. On top of this toughness, the breed is extremely beautiful and eye-catching with its striking dark body color and a mane and tail that almost glow.
Another thing that makes the Rocky Mountain Horse ideal for endurance is its gait, having a natural four-beat lateral gait, it’s extremely smooth for the rider but still covers good ground.
Why the Rocky Mountain Horse is perfect for endurance
Being originally bred to carry people over the rough and uneven Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountain Horse was purpose bred for endurance and sure-footedness, a characteristic that it’s not lost today.
Want to know more about the Rocky Mountain Horse? Check out the official Rocky Mountain Horse Association website.
Notable endurance events
While the FEI may organize or affiliate with over 300 events around the world there are a few other events that have become famous (or possibly infamous) in the endurance world.
Mongol Derby (621 miles / 1000km)
Known as the world’s longest horse race, the Mongol Derby is a recreation of the messenger system that Genghis Khan developed in 1224. Each competitor has 25 to 27 Mongolian Horses and has to change them every 24.9 miles (40km). The race lasts for ten days but don’t think that makes it easy, it’s just as challenging, if not more so than one-day events with the riders being expected to spend 13 to 14 hours in the saddle for each of those days.
Shahzada (250 miles / 400km)
Like the Mongol Derby, the Shahzada Memorial Endurance Test is set over multiple days although in this case, each person will ride just one horse. Lasting five days each horse and rider team covers 49.7 miles (80km) of rough terrain every day. Said to be the ultimate endurance test, the event is named after Shahzada, a purebred Arabian stallion who was foaled in 1913.
Tevis Cup (100 miles / 161km)
Often said to be the holy grail of North American endurance racing, the Tevis Cup is an amateur event that covers a grueling 100 miles which must be completed in a single day. Taking up to 18 hours to complete it’s a very up-and-down event that requires horses to climb over 17,000 feet uphill and around 22,000 downhill. Since 1955 the event has been held every year bar two, one was canceled due to forest fires while the other was as a result of COVID-19.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉