When asked about horse racing breeds most people will, without hesitation, say the Thoroughbred and while there can be no doubt that it certainly is the most famous racing breed it’s by no means the only one. Even the word racing can be quite a broad term that covers a range of different ‘types’ of racing, from harness racing to steeplechasing and endurance racing there’s a breed that’s perfectly suited to it.
Different types of horse racing
There is an argument that every equestrian sport that is against the clock is a race, but while I can see the logic of this argument I don’t agree with it. If that was the case then something like show jumping would be considered a race. Instead, I’ve decided to only include races where speed is the only deciding factor.
As well as being the most common type of racing in the world, flat racing is probably the oldest too. All races are run over a flat track without any jumps, the tracks themselves, which are measured in furlongs (A furlong is an eighth of a mile (660 feet/220 yards)), can range from 400m (440 3 yards) to 4km (2.5 miles) and tend to be oval-shaped, although this can vary.
The original idea behind flat racing was purely as a competition between at least two horses to see which one was the fastest. Ultimately the goal is still the same and a good flat racehorse needs to have plenty of speed but, depending on the length of the track, also needs to have stamina.
Also known as jumping or hurdle racing, the sport takes its name from early races that were run between the steeples of two neighboring churches. Most tracks will be between 3.2 km (2 miles) and 7.2 km (4 1/2 miles) and will have a variety of jumps such as fences and ditches. By far the most famous steeplechase is Great Britain’s Grand National which is held in Liverpool every year. The winner gets an incredible £1million ($1,250,000 approx.) in prize money.
Some countries also have point-to-point racers that are open to amateur riders and horses that have never run in a professional steeplechase race.
As you can tell from its name, all races are run with the horses in harness and the jockey or drivers sitting behind the horse is a two-wheeled cart known as a sulky or spider. Harness racing is only open to a certain type of horse called a trotter. Trotters are horses that have a high knee action and are often used as harness horses.
Most countries allow any breed of trotter to race but in North America, harness racing is only open to Standardbreds.
Saddle trot racing
Saddle trot often falls under the same class as harness racing even though the horses are ridden rather than driven, in fact, they normally have the same regulatory body. More popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, saddle trot races are also known as trot monté which translates to mean mounted trot.
The only difference between harness and saddle trot racing is the position of the jockey or driver, as the name suggests, saddle trot involves a mounted rider.
A lot of people don’t think of endurance as a race at all but its every bit of a race as any of the others mentioned here. As well as a test of speed its also a test of stamina and endurance, of both the horse and the rider. Most one day races cover between 80km (50 miles) and 160km (100 miles) but races can last for multiple days and cover up to 250km (155 miles), although this is equally spaced out over consecutive days.
The ideal endurance horse is fast but doesn’t tire easily. They also need to have plenty of stamina as well as the ability to recover quickly. Some races are run over the desert so the capacity to perform well under extreme heat is highly beneficial.
I didn’t know whether or not to include this as a type of race because its more commonly thought of as a rodeo event than a race (and also because I’ve written a whole article on barrel racing breeds) but then, considering its full title is barrel racing I decided I couldn’t leave it out.
Known as running the barrels, the objective is to ride a clover shape around three barrels as quickly as you possibly can. The competition is run in heats where each rider takes it in turn rather than riding at the same time, although there is a variation (Camas Prairie Stump Race), where two riders compete head to head around two identical courses.
Best breeds for racing
Regardless of the type of race, the most important factor is speed and all of the breeds listed below are exceptionally fast, even the Shetland Pony!
Height: The typical height for a Thoroughbred ranges from 15.2hh (61 inches) to 17hh (68 inches).
Color: Bay, brown, and chestnut are the most common but any solid color is allowed.
Character: Thoroughbreds are world-famous for their speed, but they are also highly intelligent horses that have a spirited nature. They’re friendly horses but aren’t necessarily suited to being handled by inexperienced riders.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Best suited too: Flat, steeplechase, point-to-point, and endurance.
Top speed: The fastest ever speed for a Thoroughbred was recorded in 2008 by Winning Brew who clocked up an impressive 43.97mph (70.76 km/h), you can see the world record here.
It’s no surprise that the Thoroughbred is the most popular breed for flat and steeplechase racing, especially when you consider that it was developed solely as a racing horse. During the 17th and 18th centuries, three horses (amongst others) were imported into England with the goal of creating a breed that was the ultimate fast breed. Those three horses, Byerley Turk (The first founding sire of the Thoroughbred, Byerley Turk (1680 – 1706) was the war mount of English Colonel, Robert Byerley. Said to be of Arabian descent, recent studies have shown that Byerley Turk was actually a purebred Akhal Teké), Darley Arabian (Darley Arabian (approx. 1700) was owned by Thomas Darley who was Consul to Syria during the early 1700s. While said to be an Arabian, Darley Arabian to come from the Munigi strain of Arabians, a strain that is known to contain a lot of Akhal Teké blood) and Godolphin Arabian (Godolphin Arabian (1724 – 1753) was named after his most famous owner, Englishman Francis Godolphin, the 2nd Earl of Godolphin. It was the Earl who began breeding him with mares to increase the speed of the Thoroughbred) set the foundation for the Thoroughbred breed we know today.
If you want to know more about the Thoroughbred click here.
Height: The average height is 14.3hh (57 inches) but Arabians can be as tall as 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Any solid color is allowed but black, brown, bay, chestnut, and grey are the most popular.
Character: Despite their hot-headed nature, Arabians are kind horses that make very good family horses.
Country of Origin: Arabian Peninsula
Best suited too: Endurance, barrel, and flat.
Top speed: While the average speed of an Arabian is 34mph (55 km/h) they have been recorded at speeds of 40mph (65 km/h).
Sometimes called the Bedouin horse, the Arabian is the ultimate endurance horse, especially across the desert. For thousands of years, they’ve been bred by the nomadic Bedouins who needed a sturdy warhorse that had plenty of energy and stamina as well as an ability to survive with little water.
Being hot-blooded, their skin is thinner than that of other breeds which helps them to keep cool in the heat of the desert. This thin skin though also works well to stop them overheating which is just one reason why they make such good endurance horses. Having to travel vast distances in search of water has helped them to develop their phenomenal stamina, this means that in theory, they don’t need as much water as other horses (although I wouldn’t recommend this).
If you want to know more about the Arabian click here.
Height: While Quarter Horses can reach 17hh (68 inches) this is rare and most horses stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: A reddish-brown, known as sorrel, is the most common but all colors are allowed, including Appaloosa and pinto coloring.
Character: The Quarter Horse is a great all-round horse that has a calm nature, they’re highly intelligent horses that are capable of thinking on their feet.
Country of Origin: USA
Best suited too: Flat (especially 1/4 mile), endurance, and barrel.
Top speed: Quarter Horses regularly reach speeds of 55mph (88.5 km/h).
The Quarter Horse’s name is testament to its racing history, having been raced over 1/4 mile streets they were originally known as Quarter Pather Horses before it was shortened to what we know today.
Today, if you ask most people about the Quarter Horse they’ll tell you about their natural cow sense and how they can turn on a sixpence but probably won’t mention their speed. Although the Thoroughbred has surpassed the Quarter Horse in terms of popularity on the track, when it comes to speed over a short distance the Quarter Horse won’t be beaten.
If you want to know more about the Quarter Horse click here.
Height: Most Appaloosas will stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: While they can be solid-colored they’re famous for their spotted coat pattern. All Appaloosas, regardless of their coloring, have mottled skin around their eyes, muzzles, and genitals.
Character: Appaloosas are versatile and willing horses that are loved for their loyal and friendly natures.
Country of Origin: USA
Best suited too: Endurance, flat, and barrel.
Top speed: The Appaloosa can regularly cover the ground at an incredible 43mph (69 km/h).
When you consider that the Appaloosa has Thoroughbred, Arabian and Quarter Horse blood in its history it’s not difficult to see why they can, and do, make great racehorses. Whether it’s flat racing, endurance or running the barrels the Appaloosa can do it all, but it also does it with a splash of color!
The Nez Percé Indians, who originally bred the Appaloosa, selectively bred their horses for speed and stamina as well as for a friendly temperament.
If you want to know more about the Appaloosa click here.
Height: Anything from 14hh (56 inches) and 17hh (68 inches) is allowed but most Standardbreds stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Any color is allowed although brown, bay, black, and chestnut are by far the most common colors.
Character: Standardbreds have a gentle temperament and are very easy to train. Often described as honest horses they’re always willing to engage with their owner/trainer.
Country of Origin: USA
Best suited too: Harness and saddle trot.
Top speed: When racing Standardbreds regularly reach speeds in excess of 46mph (74 km/h).
Considered by many to the best trotting breed in the world, the Standardbred was purposely created during the 19th century as a harness racing horse. All Standardbreds can be traced back to Hambletonian 10 who was foaled in 1849 and is the great-grandson of Messenger (Messenger (1780 – 1808), a grey Thoroughbred who won 10 out of the 16 races he entered. Messenger was by Mambrino who was a trotting Thoroughbred). The influence Hambletonian 10 had on the breed (and harness racing) is recognized by the Hambletonian Stakes, the most prestigious harness race in North America.
While the Standardbred can perform the canter it’s still considered a gaited breed due to its ability to trot or pace (or both), in fact, if a horse canters during a harness race its penalized. The trot is the preferred gait for racing, whereas the pace, which is a lateral gait where the horse’s fore and hind legs move in unison, is considered more comfortable for riding.
If you want to know more about the Standardbred click here.
Height: Most horses stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: All solid colors are allowed although bay and brown are the most common.
Character: French Trotters are energetic horses that are easy to train. They have kind natures and are easy to handle by adults and children.
Country of Origin: France
Best suited too: Harness and saddle trot.
Top speed: The French Trotter can easily travel at an impressive 40mph (64 km/h).
The French Trotter was developed by crossing Thoroughbreds with the, now extinct, Norfolk Trotter in an attempt to create a fast trotting horse that could easily be raced in harness or under saddle. In the early 1930s, the studbook was closed to all horses except purebred French Trotters, although today crosses with Standardbreds are allowed.
The French Trotter is regularly raced in both harness and saddle trot races with Prix d’Amerique (harness) and Prix de Cornulier (saddle trot) being the two most popular race in France. Horses can enter either, or both, races but since 1836 only four horses have won both races. Before a horse is allowed to enter either race he has to prove he’s fast enough by running a kilometer (0.6 miles) within a set time (1 minute 19 seconds for three-year-olds, 1 minute 18 seconds for four-year-olds, 1 minute 17 seconds for five-year-olds, 1 minute 16 seconds for horses aged six and over) frame, any horse failing to do so isn’t allowed to race or stand at stud – a practice that helps to keep the breed true to its roots.
If you want to know more about the French Trotter click here.
Height: Orlov Trotters stand between 15.1hh (60 inches) and 17hh (68 inches) although most horses are around 15.3hh (61 inches).
Color: Grey, bay, black, and chestnut are the most commonly found.
Character: Orlov Trotters are known for their willing and gentle natures. They’re versatile horses that have a great deal of stamina and speed.
Country of Origin: Russia
Best suited too: Harness and saddle trot.
Top speed: The fastest Orlov Trotter set a record for covering 3500 feet in 1 minute 32 seconds which works out to be 26mph (41.69 km/h).
Probably the most famous of all Russian breeds, the Orlov Trotter was developed in the 1770s by Count Alexis Grigorievich Orlov. It was Count Orlov’s intention to develop a breed that was not only able to endure the harsh Russian climate but was also capable of traveling vast distances regularly. He wanted the horse to have a long-striding trot that could cover plenty of ground so that it didn’t tire easily.
In its heyday, the Orlov Trotter was the fastest harness horse in Europe, but with multiple wars, and the fall of the Soviet Union, people began to cross the Orlov Trotter the Standardbred and Russian Trotter, both of which are now faster. That said though the breed is enjoying a resurgence in Russia and they’re regularly raced in Troika races. A Troika is a special Russian harness that is pulled by three horses abreast, its incredible to see because the middle horse trots while the two outside horses gallop at the same time.
If you want to know more about the Orlov Trotter click here.
Height: Most Shetland Ponies stand at 9hh (36 inches) but 10.2hh (41 inches) is the maximum.
Color: Spotted is the only color that isn’t allowed, although black and brown are the most common.
Character: The Shetland Pony is often thought to be stubborn and bad-tempered but this isn’t the case, they’re intelligent ponies that are extremely brave and plucky.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Best suited too: Flat and steeplechase.
Top speed: Despite its diminutive size the Shetland Pony will regularly reach speeds of 30mph (48 km/h).
Okay, so I admit this may be a strange breed to include but there is method to my madness – honestly. While the Shetland Pony clearly could never win a race against a Thoroughbred it’s still is a very fast pony, especially in relation to its size.
Every year the Shetland Pony Grand National holds a number of races, both flat and steeplechase, for children between the ages of 8 and 14 with all of the money going to that year’s nominated charity. You can find out more about the Grand National here.
If you want to know more about the Shetland Pony click here.
Top speeds of the best racing breeds
|Breed||Country of Origin||Used for||Top speed|
|Thoroughbred||United Kingdom||Flat, steeplechase, point-to-point, endurance||43.97mph (70.76 km/h)|
|Arabian||Arabian Peninsula||Endurance, barrel, flat||40mph (65 km/h)|
|Quarter Horse||USA||Flat, endurance, barrel||55mph (88.5 km/h)|
|Appaloosa||USA||Endurance, flat, and barrel||43mph (69 km/h)|
|Standardbred||USA||Harness, saddle trot||46mph (74 km/h)|
|French Trotter||France||Harness, saddle trot||40mph (64 km/h)|
|Orlov Trotter||Russia||Harness, saddle trot||26mph (41.69 km/h)|
|Shetland Pony||United Kingdom||Flat and steeplechase||30mph (48 km/h)|
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