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Discover the Top Factors That Affect a Horse’s Speed

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One of my horses, who typically has slower training times than the other horses in my stable, consistently performs well and typically finishes in the money during races. On the other hand, my horses with faster training times don’t always perform well. This led me to wonder what factors influence a horse’s speed and performance. Here’s what I found:

  1. Genetics and breed: Some breeds are naturally faster or more athletic than others.
  2. Training and conditioning: A well-trained and physically fit horse will be able to perform at a higher level and run faster than an untrained or poorly conditioned horse.
  3. Age: As horses age, their physical capabilities may decline, leading to slower speeds.
  4. Health and overall fitness: A horse that is sick or not in good physical condition may not be able to run at its maximum speed.
  5. Terrain and conditions: The type of terrain and weather conditions can impact a horse’s speed. For example, a horse may run slower on muddy or uneven ground compared to a firm, flat surface.
  6. Weight and experience of the rider: The weight and experience of the rider can also affect a horse’s speed, as a heavier or less experienced rider may inhibit the horse’s performance.

A horse’s speed is not just about how fast its legs can move, but many different elements influence a horse’s performance. In this article, we’ll delve into equine athleticism and explore various factors that impact a horse’s speed.

1. Primary Factors That Affect Speed: Stride And Cadence

Even horses with short legs can run fast if they have the stamina required to increase their cadence. The term cadence is simply a fancy term for how quickly a horse (or human) can take another step after the last one.

Running speed = Cadence (which is linked to stamina) X stride length. To cover ground faster, either the horse’s stride length needs to increase or the frequency at which it makes those strides.

A racehorse usually covers around 20 feet per stride when it is in full gallop. A horse with a more extended gait doesn’t require the same cadence as a smaller horse to run faster. A good example of this is the thoroughbred racing horse Man O’ War who was able to cover an incredible 28 feet in each stride.

Picture of a Thoroughbred heading to the training track.

2. The Conformation Of A Horse’s Body Affects Its Speed

According to the University of Minnesota Extension, the athletic ability of a horse is directly related to its conformation. A huge horse with long dainty legs may excel in the dressage arena, but it may never outrun a companion with a short back and a long neck.

That is not to say that any horse won’t benefit from an exercise routine and diet set up to increase speed. Like humans, healthy, toned horses that exercise regularly are more likely to outperform their counterparts who have a more sedentary lifestyle.

3. Diet And Exercise Affect  A Horse’s Speed

Diet and exercise are the two most important factors that horse owners can work with when hoping to improve their horse’s times. An overweight horse that is only occasionally exercised will be much slower than if it trimmed down and had a regular training schedule.

Influence of a horse’s diet and nutrition on speed

A horse’s diet and nutrition can influence its speed and performance. Proper energy, hydration, and feed quality are critical for a horse’s energy and to help it reach its full potential for speed.

Horses that are exercised regularly will require a different diet from paddock ornament types. The nutrient requirements of horses should take into account the amount of exercise it does and include aspects like age and overall condition.

To produce speed, horses naturally burn a lot of energy, so if you need consistent speed from your horse, its diet needs to match. Diet may need to be adjusted to include more protein in the form of grain or a complete concentrate mix. This must always be provided in addition to the staple diet of roughage.

Here are some points to consider about the influence of a horse’s diet and nutrition on its speed:

  • Energy: A horse needs energy to perform at its best, and its diet is a key source of this energy. A horse that is not getting enough calories or nutrients from its diet may not have the energy it needs to maintain its speed and endurance. On the other hand, a horse that is getting the right balance of nutrients and calories can have the energy it needs to perform at its best.
  • Hydration: Hydration is also important for a horse’s speed and performance. Dehydration can lead to fatigue and a loss of speed, while proper hydration can help a horse maintain its energy and performance. It’s important for horses to have access to clean, fresh water at all times. They may also benefit from electrolyte supplements during heavy exercise or in hot, humid weather.
  • Quality of feed: The quality of a horse’s feed can also affect its speed and performance. Feed that is high in nutrients and digestible fiber can help a horse maintain its energy and health, while low-quality feed may not provide the nutrients that a horse needs to perform at its best.
Picture of a big racehorse.

Effects of proper training and conditioning on a horse’s speed

A regular exercise schedule is essential to produce a fit, conditioned horse that can run at maximum speed. Well-toned muscles can only be achieved with a training schedule.

Proper training and conditioning can significantly affect a horse’s speed. Here are some points about the effects of proper training and conditioning on a horse’s speed:

Physical fitness: Training and conditioning can help a horse build muscle, improve its cardiovascular fitness, and increase its overall physical condition. This can help the horse improve its speed and endurance during exercise or competition.

Technique: Proper training and conditioning can also help a horse develop good technique and form, which can help its stride and speed. For example, a horse that is trained to swap leads in a turn may be able to maintain its speed better than a horse that is not trained in this way.

Mental conditioning: Training and conditioning can also help a horse develop mental toughness and focus, which can help it focus under pressure. In contrast, A horse that is not exercised regularly may become bored or anxious, which can negatively affect its speed and performance.

Picture of three horses in training.
Horses in training

4. Age, Health, and Wellness

Thoroughbreds have been found to peak between 4 and 5 years of age. That is a gap when they are most likely to outrun older and younger horses of the same type. It goes without saying that an elderly horse will not be able to pick up as much physical condition or speed as a horse in its prime.

An additional factor that can affect speed is the health of a horse. Respiratory conditions are a particular concern for horses where speed is required. Any bouts of sickness, lameness, or even long periods spent on trailers traveling can also have a ripple effect on performance.

Role of health and wellness in maintaining a horse’s speed

Health and wellness play an essential role in maintaining a horse’s speed. Here are some points to consider:

Physical fitness: A horse that is in good physical condition is more likely to be able to maintain its speed and endurance. Regular exercise, proper nutrition, and proper care can all help a horse stay fit and maintain its speed.

Health issues: Health issues, such as injuries or illnesses, can affect a horse’s speed. For example, a horse suffering from lameness or pain won’t be able to run fast and may need to be rested or treated to recover.

We have one young horse that was training great but recently began losing weight. I had the vet check him out, and he couldn’t pinpoint any reason for his weight loss. We decided to cut back on his training and change his dewormer, and he began to feel better.

Mental well-being: A horse’s mental well-being can also affect its speed. A stressed or anxious horse may not be able to focus and perform at its best, while a relaxed and confident horse may be able to maintain its speed and focus.

I bought a horse cheap after it ran four races and didn’t perform well. I noticed the horse seemed sullen and knew it rarely left its stall. However, she quickly changed, became enthusiastic, and pranced around the barn shortly after joining my other horses.

In her first race after I bought her, she ran second in a tough field of 11 horses. Proper physical fitness, good health, and mental well-being can all help a horse’s speed and performance.

Picture of our horse heading to the starting gates for a stakes race.

5. The Role Of Genetics In Determining A Horse’s Speed

There is no denying the role of genetics in determining the potential speed of a horse. Below I mention two of the fastest racehorses in history, and it is no surprise that Man O’ War was Seabiscuit’s granddad.

Like people with natural physical abilities, some horses are genetically primed to cover ground faster than others. That is why thoroughbreds from specific lines are more sought after – since they start with the best physical characteristics, with proper training and diet, they are more likely to run faster than most other horses.

Role of breed in determining horse’s speed

The breed of a horse can play a role in determining its speed, as certain breeds are generally known to be faster than others. For example, breeds that are used for racing, such as Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, are generally known for their speed and athleticism.

In contrast, draft breeds, such as Belgian Drafts and Shires, are typically bred for their strength and power rather than their speed and are typically not as fast as lighter racing breeds.

Influence of pedigree on speed

Pedigree, or a horse’s family tree, can also play a role in determining its potential for speed. In general, horses with successful racing ancestors in their pedigree are likelier to have the genetics for speed.

This is because certain genetic traits, such as conformation, muscle structure, and athleticism, can be passed down from parent to offspring.

6. Exterior Factors That Affect A Horse’s Speed

A horse carrying 160 pounds could not move as fast as it could if it had no tack and rider. Weight affects the stride of the horse – the heavier the weight it carries, the shorter its stride becomes, and the slower it moves.

Other factors to consider when measuring a horse’s speed include the following:

  • Terrain – It is more likely to move faster over straight flat areas than in hilly landscapes filled with obstacles. In addition, some horses run better over turf than dirt.
  • Distance – Some horses, like quarterhorses, are built for short bursts of high speed, while others, like Arabians, are more likely to excel over longer distances.
  • Weather – driving wind or rain can make running at full speed challenging for anyone, including horses. Extreme heat or cold will also affect performance.
Picture of a small jockey riding a racehorse.

7. Riders Can Influence a Horse’s Speed

As any equestrian knows, a horse’s speed is not solely determined by the animal itself. In fact, the rider is also a key factor in determining how fast a horse can run. From the rider’s weight and position to their skill and technique, there are numerous ways in which a rider can influence a horse’s speed.

Role of the rider’s skill and technique in maximizing speed

The rider’s skill and technique can play a significant role in maximizing a horse’s speed. Here are some ways in which a rider’s skill and technique can affect a horse’s speed:

  • Balance and position: A balanced and centered rider can help the horse maintain its stride and reach its full potential for speed. In contrast, a rider who is unbalanced or off-center may cause the horse to lose its stride and lose speed.
  • Communication and cues: A skilled rider can effectively communicate with their horse through the use of cues such as leg pressure, rein aids, and vocal commands. This can help the horse understand what the rider wants and encourage it to perform at its best.
  • Timing: The timing of a rider’s cues can also affect a horse’s speed. For example, if a rider asks for a change of pace too late, the horse may not have enough time to adjust its stride and may lose speed as a result. On the other hand, if a rider anticipates a change of pace and gives the horse the appropriate cues in advance, the horse may be able to smoothly transition and maintain or even increase its speed.
  • Strategy: A rider’s strategy can also influence a horse’s speed. For example, a rider who knows the course and anticipates turns and obstacles can help the horse navigate the course more efficiently and potentially increase its speed.

The rider’s skill and technique can significantly maximize a horse’s speed. Proper balance and position, effective communication and cues, good timing, and a well-thought-out strategy can all help a rider maximize their horse’s potential for speed.

Influence of the rider’s weight on a horse’s speed

A rider’s weight can affect a horse’s speed in several ways. A heavier rider may weigh down the horse, making it more difficult for the horse to move quickly and reach its full potential for speed.

On the other hand, a lighter rider may be more comfortable for the horse, allowing it to move more freely and potentially increase its speed.

Picture of our two-year-old running.  It shows the horse's speed.

What Factors Affect A Horses Speed?

The factors that affect a horse’s speed are similar in humans and all other animals. A person in the audience of the 100m sprint at the Olympic Games is unlikely to be a competitive substitute for their country’s representative in the event.

Fine-tuning a horse to unlock its top speed is about taking a holistic approach and understanding what makes some horses faster than others. A range of factors determines speed, or lack thereof, in horses.

Some, like physical size and conformation, are immediately evident. To get the best from your horse, owners need to understand precisely what makes a horse fast and the elements that may be hindering top performance.

Imagine the Easter Bunny and Santa in a race. It wouldn’t be hard to guess who would win. As lovable as Santa may be, his physical condition, age, and genetics would all work against him from reaching the finish line before a light, energetic bunny.

Similarly, putting a Shetland pony in a lineup of Thoroughbreds would be adorable, but the short legs and chunky conformation are unlikely to keep up, no matter how fit it is. That is not to say that bigger horses will always outrun smaller ones.

Long legs are often a gangly hindrance when high speed is required. The legendary Seabiscuit was a diminutive 15.2hh and consistently outran much bigger horses because of the speed of his gait.

The speed of a horse is determined by its stride length and cadence. These two factors are affected by the breed, genetics, conformation, physical condition, diet, and age of the horse. External factors like terrain, weather, weight, and the rider’s ability will also affect a horse’s speed.  

As you can readily see, speed is a combination of many factors. Most horse owners don’t need to win the Kentucky Derby – they just want to shave a few precious seconds off their round at events.

By understanding all the elements involved, training can become a mindful process that will benefit the horse and owner.

Picture of a jockey with a whip.  Some studies show this doesn't increase a horse's speed.

Does Whipping A Horse Make It Go Faster?

Whipping has been a controversial issue for a very long time. Most of us have seen horse races where jockeys aren’t shy with their crops to urge their horses forward.

Science has finally got an answer. There is no evidence to support the theory that whipping a horse will make it run faster or straighter. To perform to its best ability and move at top speed, a horse only needs to be well-trained, fit, comfortable and ridden confidently. Good news indeed for animal lovers everywhere!

Below is an informative YouTube video that points out some Thoroughbred traits that help them run fast.

Conclusion

The speed of a horse refers to the combination of the length of its stride X its cadence. Factors that affect this include breed, conformation, diet, exercise routine, genetics, health, and age. External factors like weather, rider weight, and terrain also impact speed.

How can I increase my horse’s speed?

To increase your horse’s speed, focus on improving its strength and stamina through regular training and maintaining proper nutrition and weight. In addition, you can help your horse run its fastest by sitting correctly in the saddle.

How fast can a horse run?

Generally, the average top speed of a horse is around 30 miles per hour, but some horses can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour in short bursts. The Guinness Book of Records lists the top speed run by a thoroughbred at 43.97 mph.

How long can a horse run?

In general, most horses are capable of running for several miles at a time without experiencing undue strain, although the speed at which they run and the terrain they are running on can also affect their endurance. A well-conditioned endurance horse can travel 100 miles in a day.

References

Fazlu Fakih

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

Doing horse racing in India would like to understand how the extra weight, even a kg affects the running of a thoroughbred. please explain from 5 furlongs to a mile. thank you.

Bil

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

Generally, 1 lb additional weight equals 1/5 of a second in time, which translates to 1 horse length in a mile race. I wrote an article about racing weight you can check out: https://horseracingsense.com/why-do-some-race-horses-carry-weights/

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