Endurance racing is a unique sport where horses and riders hit the trail in a competition of, well, endurance. Races are typically anywhere from 25 – 100 miles in length with various checkpoints along the way. Horses are checked by a veterinarian routinely to ensure they are fit and healthy enough to continue.
But what breeds of horses are best suited to traverse long miles over sometimes difficult terrain? Let’s have a look at some of the best horse breeds for endurance racing.
1. Arabian Horse
The Arabian horse is known for not only it’s grace and beauty but also stamina in traversing long distances. Prized by the Bedouin, their adaptations for desert life make them well suited for modern-day distance events. In fact, the 2019 winner of the Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance race was RA Ares Bay, a 10-year-old Arabian Gelding.
In fact, for the past 23 years, the Tevis cup has always been won by an Arabian. In 1996 the winner was a 3/4 Arabian and in 1995 the winner was an Anglo-Arabian (Thoroughbred/Arabian).
The Arabian horse is often mixed with other breeds, like the Thoroughbred, to increase size and speed. Arabians and half-Arabians are both registered by the Arabian Horse Association where their pedigrees and performance are tracked.
Given the breed’s ability to be in the top placings of endurance riding events, it makes sense that we list them first. Learn more about the Arabian breed in our Arabian Horse Breed Profile.
2. Mustang Horse
Bold and beautiful the American mustang has endured natural selection making him an excellent choice for endurance racing events. Because they breed naturally, in the wild, strong traits are favored. Natural selection helps to ensure the horses that are most adaptable survive to pass along their genes.
Mustangs still roam wild throughout the western United States. The Bureau of Land Management manages the wild horses and, when their population is too high the horses are gathered and offered up for adoption to the public. In fact, you can adopt a BLM mustang for as little as $25!
In 2018 two BLM Mustangs finished in the top 10. MM Cody and MM Woodrow, finished 8th and 9th respectively.
While Arabians dominated the top 7 placements, these two formerly wild mustangs were able to finish faster than 55 other amazing Tevis Cup finishers, a lot of which were Arabians.
Adopting a mustang is a great way to get started with endurance racing on a budget and still get an absolutely beautiful horse!
If you want more information, check out my post on how to adopt a BLM mustang.
With Arabian horses dominating the endurance racing sport, it is no surprise, then, that Arabian crosses make excellent endurance racing horses as well.
An Anglo-Arabian is half-Thoroughbred and half-Arabian. Typically Arabian stallions are crossed with Thoroughbred mares although, the reverse does happen as well.
The resulting foal is even registered by the Arabian Horse Association (AHA). They have a separate part of the registry for Anglo-Arabians.
The Anglo-Arabian horse typically inherits the larger size (both height and muscle development) from the Thoroughbred parent. The Arabian parent contributes refinement and stamina.
Together, the Anglo-Arabian can have the best of both worlds. The size and speed of a Thoroughbred and the elegance and endurance of an Arabian!
4. Morgan Horse
Have you ever heard the saying “Justin Morgan had a horse…”? Justin Morgan did have a horse, named “Figure”, who was the founding sire fo the Morgan breed.
The Morgan horse is known for its versatility. It a horse that was bred to be able to work on the farm during the day and yet be elegant enough to pull a carriage by night.
This meant that the Morgan horse needed to have stamina as well. He had to be able to work all day and then still be able to pull the owner’s carriage if it was asked of him.
This versatility and stamina make the Morgan great endurance horses. Some are even gaited which makes traversing long distances that much easier on the rider!
In the 2018 Tevis cup, the Morgan “Silver Valley Tate” successfully completed in 58th place. Remember, the Tevis is considered one of the ultimate endurance races and merely finishing is a great accomplishment for any horse and rider.
5. Rocky Mountain Horse
One of my favorite colors in a Rocky Mountain Horse is a beautiful bay silver. The dark brown coat with the contrasting white mane and tail is just so incredibly beautiful.
The Rocky Mountain Horse isn’t just pretty though, they are also competitive.
In fact, in the 2018 Tevis cup, the Rocky Mountain Horse “Jackson Blue” was ridden by rider Leahe Daby to a 21st place finish.
As the only Rocky Mountain Horse entered that year, he proved that Rocky Mountain Horses have the endurance and stamina to compete with the best of the best in endurance riding!
While not technically a horse, Mules aren’t Donkey’s either. They are the result of a male donkey (a Jack) crossed with a female horse (a mare).
Depending on the breed and conformation of the horse mother, some mules can make extremely good endurance riding horses. They inherit the hard feet and sure-footedness from their donkey sire and the conformation and endurance from their mare mothers.
Mules are sometimes described as “Arab Mule”, “Draft Mule”, “Thoroughbred Mule” etc depending on the breed or type of horse that was their mom.
Any of the horse breeds on this list, when crossed with a donkey, has the potential to produce an excellent endurance riding mule. Though, keep in mind that even if you don’t know a mule’s pedigree, with the proper training they could still make excellent endurance mounts.
In the 2018 Tevis cup, the mules “Ticket” and “Raptor” finished 35th and 36th. They weren’t the only mules to cross the finish line in great condition that day. The mule “Bizmo” finished in 52nd place just under 20 minutes after the first two.
7. Quarter Horse
The Quarter Horse isn’t typically a breed that you think of when you think about endurance horses. They are kind of big and stocky and, while they are typically used for trail riding, they don’t “look” like the type of horse that would do well at long-distance riding.
2018 Tevis rider Shelley Kincaid would probably tell you that looks can be deceiving. She proved that when she entered the 2018 Tevis cup on the Quarter Horse mare Leos Driftwood Baby (“Scarlett”).
While the pair didn’t finish, it wasn’t because Scarlett was lame or tired or failed a vet check. They just made it to the last stop outside of the required time.
The 2006 mare is foundation bred and traces back to the famous Quarter Horse, Leo, on both sides. She makes it clear that an American Quarter Horse can be competitive at the highest levels of endurance riding.
If you want to learn more about the breed, check out my American Quarter Horse Breed Profile article!
Dressage riders and jumpers say what! I bet you weren’t expecting this traditionally “English” breed on the list. I mean, a Hanoverian, those horses are only good for jumping and dressage right?
Ken Campbell rode his Hanoverian mare, Fantazia, in the 2018 Tevis Cup. While he did decide to pull her from the race partway through, it nevertheless goes to show that sometimes, your horse can accomplish things that aren’t “typical” for their breed.
I mean, think about what the Hanoverian was bred for. They were designed to be military horses and pull carriages. It was only after the Second World War that they started becoming popular for use as sport horses. (source)
If you happen to own a breed, like the Hanoverian, that doesn’t typically compete in endurance, just remember that anything is possible. Start at the lower levels and work your way up as far as your horse can take you. You never know, she might surprise you!
9. American Saddlebred
Here is another breed I really didn’t expect to see. The Saddlebred Horse is known, well, for being an awesome show horse and a smooth ride.
In fact, if you read my 15 Fun Facts about the American Saddlebred Horse, you know that they were specifically bred to be a comfortable farm horse.
The American Saddlebred is known for its versatility and can compete in a variety of disciplines like eventing, western pleasure and even dressage.
In the 2018 Tevis cup, the American Saddlebred gelding, Haven’s Haute Digity “Dig”, was entered into the Tevis Cup with rider Aemi Miller aboard.
While Dig didn’t finish, he proved that an American Saddlebred can qualify for this difficult event. Unfortunately, he arrived at one of the checkpoints too late and was disqualified due to time. That doesn’t make it any less awesome that he competed!
10. Tennessee Walker
The Tennessee Walker is another 2018 Tevis Cup entry. This gaited horse breed originated in, you guessed it, Tennessee. In fact, they are the state’s official horse!
The Tennessee Walker breed was founded by crossing a variety of other breeds including American Saddlebreds, Morgans and Thoroughbred horses. It makes sense, then, why you might see them competing in endurance races.
The Tennessee Walking Horse gelding Spin-Out Merlin (“Merlin”) started in the 2018 Tevis Cup with rider Lora Wereb. Though his rider did choose to pull him out of the race 3 hours in. Still, it goes to show how versatile this breed is!
If you haven’t checked it out already, read my post with 11 Terrific Facts about the Tennessee Walker Horse.
11. Grade Horse
The last horse on this list, not to be forgotten, is the grade horse. Just what is a “Grade Horse” anyway?
Grade is a term used to describe any horse with an unknown pedigree. Much like you might use the term “mutt” or “mix” for a dog. The parents could be purebred or mixes, but typically they aren’t known.
The grade horse Kassidy and the Bandit (“Bandit”) came in 44th in the 2018 Tevis Cup with rider Kassidy Zulliger aboard. The pair, from Redding, CA, show us that you don’t have to have a fancy horse with a fancy pedigree to compete in endurance racing.
What you do need is dedication and a horse with the strength, stamina, and temperament to carry you through the finish line.
The Tevis Cup
The Tevis Cup is widely considered to be the “Holy Grail” of North American Endurance Riding. Not any horse can enter, they must qualify and meet strict requirements.
This competition requires horses and riders to complete 100 miles in just one day! Most horse and riders cover 5-10 miles on an average trail ride, so 100 miles in a single day is certainly a feat of endurance.
It takes months and months of training for a horse to be able to reach the level of fitness it will need to carry the rider over this distance. The rider has to be in great shape as well. The race takes over 18 hours from start to finish.
Qualifying is just one obstacle. Not all horses that start this grueling race finish it. Horses are monitored at routine checkpoints by veterinarians who determine if they are fit to continue.
At any point, a horse and rider team can be pulled for failure to pass a veterinary inspection. The trail is grueling with very steep uphill and downhill slopes.
In fact, horse and rider teams must climb over 17,000 feet of uphill and almost 22,000 feet of downhill in order to reach the finish line. This isn’t straight up or straight down, rather a series of slopes which add to the challenge.
Because this race is so grueling, horses that compete it are considered the ultimate endurance horses. Luckily, they also track the breed of each horse which enabled me to help you find the best horse breeds for endurance riding.
How to Choose a Horse for Endurance
When you are just getting started with endurance racing, you want to choose a horse that is conformationally correct and sound. Those are the two most important things to look for.
Next, you want to make sure that the horse is large enough to carry you, the saddle and your saddle-bags. The weight of a rider does affect a horse and, the longer and harder the horse is working, the more important it becomes that your horse is adequately sized.
If you aren’t sure what size horse to look for, check out my article on finding the right sized horse for your height and weight. I cover many different factors involved in selecting a horse that can easily handle the weight of a rider and a saddle.
The breed of horse isn’t as big of a consideration for lower level, beginner competitions. The biggest thing is to make sure you get a sound horse. Soundness is essential because the ride veterinarian will not allow your horse to continue if he becomes lame.
If you are a good rider, you may want to also try hanging around events. Riders often have multiple horses that they condition for the race. You may be able to find someone who could use help exercising their endurance horses.
It’s possible you could get even luckier and find a rider who qualified two horses but can only ride one. That way you get to compete without having to purchase a horse!
This is a great video showing what it’s like at a vet check stop for the Tevis Cup ride. Check it out!
Where to Get Started with Endurance Racing
If you are ready to give endurance racing a try, the first thing you want to do is head over to the governing webpage. The American Endurance Ride Conference, the AERC, is the best place to start.
They have lots of great information as well as a monthly magazine where you can learn more about the sport.
You should also check around your local area. Often, your local feed & tack store will have information about local, non-sanctioned fun rides that you can participate in to “get your feet wet”.
Sometimes, even starting with a smaller organized event, like a Poker Ride, is a great way to get the feel for riding your horse in a large group and having to follow trail markers and check in at different points.
These are only 11 of the many different horse breeds that are great for endurance riding. The longer the distance, the more difficult it is to train and condition a horse. Remember that, even though the sport is dominated by Arabians, there is room for other breeds among the top finishers!