While most people recognize the swift and athletic Thoroughbred when they hear the word “racehorse,” that isn’t the only equine breed hurtling towards the finish line. Here are 9 of the best racing horse breeds – and some of them will probably surprise you.
|Flat, Endurance, Cross-Country
|Harness (Trotting or Pacing)
|Flat (Tolt or Flying Pace)
|Flat, Barrel, Gymkhana
Table of Contents
- Speed: Average speed is 37-40 mph, top speeds have been clocked at 45-50 mph during a race (the record is 44 mph). (source)
- Race Type: Flat, Steeplechase
- Typical Distances: 5 to 12 furlongs (.63 to 1.5 miles)
The leggy Thoroughbred is a lean, mean speed-machine. Developed specifically for racing (a favorite pastime of British royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries).
English horse breeders developed these tall, slender horses by breeding imported Arabians with local mares.
Thoroughbreds have long legs which gives them a ground-covering galloping stride and large ribcages to house powerful hearts and lungs. Over the years, racing Thoroughbreds became slender and light enough to break speed records, but powerful and spirited enough to charge across the finish line.
As horse racing grew in popularity, Thoroughbred influence spread across the world. Today, Thoroughbred racing is popular in countries like the United States, England, Australia, Japan, India, Ireland, and New Zealand (among others).
Not only are Thoroughbreds impressive on the track, but retired racehorses participate in a variety of other equine disciplines such as show jumping, eventing, or even barrel racing.
- Top Speed: 55 mph
- Race Type: Flat, Barrel, Gymkhana events
- Typical Flat Race Distances: 220 to 870 yards
In the early 1600s, English settlers brought versatile working horses with them to the first American colonies.
These multi-faceted family horses would plow the fields by day (and later work cattle on the open range) – and then race through the center of town on the weekends.
As more people arrived in the Americas, so did their faster riding horses. They bred these swift English Thoroughbreds with local horses, which were often smaller descendants of Spanish horses from the 1500s.
The result was a hardy little horse with a powerful hind end, good cow sense – and an extremely quick takeoff at the starting gate.
In those days, hard-working settlers didn’t have the resources or inclination to build the same long, flat tracks that they used overseas for Thoroughbred races.
Instead, they raced their speedy little horses over short distances only a quarter-mile in length (hence the name Quarter Horse).
While they are still a popular flat racing breed (particularly in the United States), many Quarter Horses are used for various Western racing events such as barrel racing, pole bending, and other gymkhana games (or as working cow horses or pleasure horses).
While most ordinary people don’t grow up to become racehorse jockeys, plenty of cowboys and ranch kids race their favorite Quarter Horses down back roads in the time-honored tradition of the early settlers.
- Top Speed: 40-45 mph (25 – 30 mph average for endurance races)
- Race Type: Flat, Endurance, Cross-Country (Eventing)
- Typical Distances: 4.5 to 1.75 furlongs (avg 6 furlongs), 50 or 100-mile endurance races, 120 km desert endurance races
While Arabian flat racing is less popular in the US than it is for the Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse, Arabians are some of the most impressive equine athletes, recognized across the world.
These horses have been bred for thousands of years to have refined, compact bodies and sturdy legs – as well as unparalleled stamina.
They are small, efficient, and hardworking – perfect for withstanding the rigors of long-distance endurance races in some of the harshest conditions on planet Earth.
Hundreds of Arabians compete each year in grueling 75 mile races in the Saudi Arabian desert – where only a handful will even be able to finish the course.
While Arabians are exceptionally popular pleasure and show horses, many of them are also bred specifically for racing.
They are designed to sustain high speeds over long distances, and their exceptional endurance and potential to pass on good genes became a cornerstone in the foundations of many other athletic breeds.
- Top Speed: 33 trotting, 34 mph at the pace
- Race Type: Flat Harness (trot or pace)
- Typical Distances: Most races are 1 mile long (but some may be ½ mile or 5/8th mile)
As roads became more prevalent in the early days of America, so too became the need for efficient carriage horses.
By crossing Thoroughbreds with breeds well-known for their comfortable pacing and trotting abilities, the American-born Standardbred was born.
Over time, harness racing became a popular pastime for these hard-working horses, who either compete at the trot or the pace (which is determined by their genetics and abilities).
Originally, these harness horses had to pull a sulky cart over a one-mile course in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds – the “standard” pace for trotting and pacing horses at the time.
Modern Standardbreds are much quicker, often making the distance in less than 1 minute and 50 seconds.
Standardbred racing is still popular in the US, and retired racing Standardbreds can be used as a pleasure or buggy horse.
- Top Speed: 20-30 mph at the flying pace
- Race Type: Flat
- Typical Distances: 100m, 150m, 200m, 250m
While most people know about Thoroughbred racing, did you also know that the Icelandic horse is a popular racehorse as well?
In Iceland, only one breed of horse is allowed – the small, gaited, hardy little Icelandic horse. No other horses are allowed into the country, and exported Icelandics can never return.
Icelandic horses are gaited, and perform two extra gaits outside of the traditional walk/trot/canter – the tölt and the flying pace.
The tölt is a fast, ground-covering ambling gait, but the flying pace is just that – a two-beat gait in which the horse has a moment of suspension above the ground (like with the gallop).
Icelandic Horse enthusiasts often race their horses as events during larger horse shows, where judges can evaluate the speed and quality of their gaits.
- Top Speed: 20-25 mph
- Race Type: Steeplechase, Show Jumping
- Typical Distances: Varies, but the Grand National track is a little over 4 miles long (source)
While Thoroughbreds typically excel in steeplechase racing as well as racing on the flat, the Selle Francais is also a successful steeplechase racehorse breed.
Steeplechase racing is most popular in the UK and Ireland, the most popular of which is the Grand National. This 4 mile course features 30 fences that horses must clear in two laps.
In France, non-Thoroughbreds are allowed to compete under the title “AQPS”, translated to “other than Thoroughbred”.
Generally, this refers to a horse with Selle Francais breeding (although it can also be indicative of an Anglo-Arabian or other riding horse breed).
Because steeplechase racing takes more technical skill of both the horse and rider, many steeplechase horses have flat racing experience under their belt.
Selle Francais horses successfully compete in steeplechase races all over the world, as they are particularly adept jumpers with a lot of stamina, speed, and scope.
In 2012, a Selle Francais named Neptune Collanges won the Grand National, making international headlines. They are also adept at show jumping, in which horses must successfully complete a course of obstacles in a race against the clock.
Japanese Draft Horse (Belgian/Percheron/Breton purebreds or crosses)
- Top Speed: 6 mph
- Race Type: Pulling (Ban’ei)
- Typical Distances: 200 m (660 ft)
Considered to be the “world’s slowest horse race”, the Japanese sport of ban’ei (Ban’ei kyoso aka “pull-race”) is a competition between several draft horses as they pull heavy sleds up and down ramps made of sand.
The sport’s foundations began in the early 1900s when horses were used for agricultural work, much like the pulling competitions at county fairs in the US. Ban’ei became popular in the 1950s, but today – only one official ban’ei course remains in Hokkaido.
The track is divided into lanes with ropes on the ground, and is only 200 meters in length. Each sled weighs 990 – 2000 lbs, and younger less experienced horses pull less weight than their seasoned competitors. Jockeys stand on the sled and urge the horse up and over the two obstacles (the second hill is steeper and more difficult).
Horses used in ban’ei are selected from stock raised for meat, and are mostly solid-colored draft mixes of Percheron, Belgian, or Breton.
Gaited Horses (Racking Horse, Single-Footed Horse, Tennessee Walking Horse)
- Top Speed: 35 mph at the rack
- Race Type: Flat (non-professional)
- Typical Distances: varies, usually short
Standardbreds and Icelandics aren’t the only horses to compete at an unusual gait.
Gaited horses such as the Racking Horse (and North American Single-Footing Horse or Tennessee Walking Horse) will often compete in local races down hard-packed dirt lanes in the traditional style of the old settlers.
You likely won’t see them on a professional racecourse, but speed racking is a popular sport, particularly in the southern states.
Racking Horses (and other gaited breeds) perform a smooth, 4-beat gait called a rack. Depending on the specific breed and training, this can look like the high-stepping running walk of the Tennessee Walking Horse, or a more understated shuffle – but either way, speed is prized.
Local event rules vary (and most of the time, the races are just for fun), but these smooth “drag-racing” events are certainly exciting to watch!
- Top Speed: 27 – 43 mph, depending on race distance
- Race Type: Flat, Barrel, Gymkhana Games
- Typical Distances: Generally 2 – 8 furlongs (440 yards – 1 mile)
One of the oldest American breeds, the versatile Appaloosa serves in many different roles in the equestrian world from Western events to show jumping – but did you know they can be racehorses, too?
While they were not originally bred just for racing, their strong hindquarters and hardy legs and feet carried them for thousands of miles over the open range – and a speedy horse was a useful horse.
Fast forward to the 1960s, Dainty Doc became the first claimed racing Appaloosa. In the beginning, Appaloosas only competed against other Appaloosas, but that changed in 1994 when the National Color Breed Racing Council formed to include Paints as well.
They have also raced against Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds in specific match races – and won.
While the Appaloosa is generally not as fast as a Thoroughbred or Quarter horse, these spotted little horses currently compete in professional races on tracks in 10 different states across the country. (source)