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Fast Horses: What Makes Them Run Faster Than the Others

Last updated: March 7, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Horse owners, breeders, and trainers are always looking for fast horses. At the end of each horse racing season, I notice the same names at the top of the leaderboard for sires, owners, trainers, and jockeys. Is this a coincidence? Do fast horses have common traits or experiences?

Some people say that horses are fast because it is in their DNA. Others say that it is because they have perfect conformation. But many things contribute to a horse’s speed, including genetics, conformation, diet, and training.

This blog post will look at a horse’s anatomy and other factors that affect its speed. We’ll also cover some training techniques to help your horse run at its best. So whether you’re an avid equestrian or just curious about fast horses, read on to learn more.

What Makes a Horse Fast?

If you’re into performance horses, you likely need a fast horse to be competitive. And while many factors contribute to a horse’s speed, there are a few key things that all fast horses have in common.

Studies have consistently shown that the length and frequency of a horse’s stride are two of the most important factors affecting its speed. In fact, a longer stride with a quicker cadence is often associated with greater overall speed.

For instance, most racehorses maintain a stride rate of 130-140 strides per minute, covering an average distance of 20 feet or more with each stride. These figures suggest that a horse’s stride length and frequency are key considerations in evaluating its potential for success in horse racing.

Picture of a fast horse at Evangeline Downs race track.

Great racehorses such as Man O’ War, Secretariat, and Justify had 27.8, 24.9, and 24.6 feet stride lengths, respectively. But, stride rate may be even more critical than stride length.

Winx had an average stride length but a fast stride rate and won 33 straight races, often against horses with superior stride lengths. So how do you get a horse with a good stride length and rate?

First and foremost, horse racing is all about genetics. A horse’s lineage significantly affects how fast it can run. If both of a horse’s parents were fast runners, chances are their offspring will be too.

That’s why racehorse breeders carefully select stallions and mares with proven track records. They want to produce foals that have the potential to be fast and successful on the racetrack.

Another critical factor in a horse’s speed is its conformation. A horse’s build needs to be balanced and in proportion to generate the power necessary to reach high speeds.

In addition, horses need to be fit; that’s why many top racehorses undergo intense training regimes that help them build up their strength and stamina. Finally, a horse’s diet affects how fast it can run.

Like humans, horses need the right mix of nutrients to fuel their bodies and perform at their best. Many racehorses are fed special diets high in protein and other nutrients that help them maintain their energy levels and stay in peak condition.

How Advanced Technology is Revolutionizing Horse Training

As technology continues to advance, trainers are increasingly incorporating it into their horse training methods to optimize the performance of their horses. Wearable sensors are one such technology that has gained popularity in the world of horse racing.

These sensors can be attached to the horse’s body to monitor various aspects of its performance, such as stride length, cadence, heart rate, and speed. They are designed to be lightweight and unobtrusive so as not to disrupt the horse’s natural movement.

With the help of these sensors, trainers can track their horse’s performance and adjust their training regimen accordingly. For example, if a horse is found to have an irregular cadence or shorter stride length, the trainer may work to improve the horse’s gait through specific exercises or adjustments in the horse’s riding gear.

By monitoring these metrics over time, trainers can track the progress of their horses and tailor their training to improve their performance. In addition to wearable sensors, trainers are also using video technology to analyze a horse’s performance.

With high-speed cameras and specialized software, trainers can review footage of their horse’s stride and identify any areas that may need improvement. This allows them to make necessary adjustments to the horse’s training regimen, gear, or other factors that may be affecting its performance.

Overall, the use of advanced technology in horse training has provided trainers with more tools to help their horses reach their full potential. By incorporating sensors and video technology into their training methods, trainers can better monitor their horse’s performance and identify areas that need improvement.

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

Factors That Affect a Horse’s Speed.

Many factors affect a horse’s speed, including its breed, age, weight, and health. Other important factors include the quality of the track or ground surface, the weather conditions, and the rider’s experience and skill level.

The breed is perhaps the most crucial factor in determining a horse’s speed. Some breeds, like thoroughbreds, are bred specifically for racing and are, therefore, faster than other breeds. Age is also a significant factor – young horses tend to be faster than older horses.

Weight is another essential factor to consider. Heavier horses have more mass, requiring more energy to move. Therefore, they cannot reach the same speeds as lighter horses. Think of large draft horses compared to lightweight Arabians.

Health is also a key factor – if a horse is sick or injured, it will not be able to run as fast as a healthy horse. The quality of the track or ground surface is also an important factor in determining speed.

A horse can only run as fast as the surface allows – if the surface is deep and soft, the horse will not be able to reach its full potential speed. The same is true for weather conditions – if it is raining or snowing, the ground will be slippery, and the horse will not be able to run as fast.

Finally, the rider’s experience and skill level can affect a horse’s speed. A skilled jockey can get the most out of their horse, whereas a novice rider may not be able to control the horse as well, resulting in a slower speed.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Horse anatomy in relation to speed.

Horses are built for speed. Their long legs and lean bodies are perfectly designed for running, and they have powerful muscles that help them propel themselves forward at high speeds.

Several other anatomical features contribute to a horse’s speed, including its skeletal structure, heart size, musculature, long legs, and lungs. But how do these physical traits make a horse fast?

Horse’s long legs

Horses have excellent running ability and are heavy animals, putting a lot of pressure on their lower extremities. This means their legs must be long in relation to their body and be able to move back and forth fast.

Their legs also need to be light but strong, so they can deliver a lot of thrusts and bear the force of their heavy load. Horses have evolved to have highly efficient legs that can move quickly and effortlessly over long distances.

Horse’s legs are specifically designed to absorb the impact of each stride and minimize energy loss. This allows them to maintain high speeds for extended periods and travel vast distances relatively easily.

Leg conformation

Horses with straight, correct legs have a good range of motion and move cleanly, contributing to their ability to run fast. A horse with crooked legs may move awkwardly and is prone to injuries.

While horses with good legs may not always be the fastest on the track, they usually have the advantage when combined with other factors to look for in a fast horse. Overall, horses with straight legs tend to be healthier and more successful in racing and general riding.

Large hearts

If you’ve ever seen a horse running, you know that they’re pretty darned fast. But you might not know that their speed is thanks partly to their large hearts. Their unique cardiovascular system efficiently pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout the horse’s body, allowing them to run for long periods without getting tired.

The horse’s heart is so efficient that it can pump up to 7 to 10 gallons a minute at rest and up to 65 gallons per minute when running. That’s enough blood to overflow a standard bathtub in just one minute.

On average, a horse’s heart weighs roughly ten pounds, about one percent of its body weight. However, some great racehorses have enormous hearts. For example, Secretariat’s heart weighed 22 lbs. and Phar Lap’s 14 lbs.

The horse’s cardiovascular system is truly remarkable, and it’s one of the things that makes them such incredible animals.

How horses use their muscles to generate power and run quickly.

Horses are built for quick and sustained bursts of speed to escape and outrun predators. They have deep muscles close to the joints that are primarily responsible for their posture, and superficial muscles, which are located further from the joint, provide horses with power and movement.

The primary source of horsepower is the hindquarters, which contain the most significant and strongest muscles in the horse’s body. When a horse gallops, these muscles work to generate a tremendous amount of force.

The horse’s legs serve as shock absorbers, absorbing the impact of each stride and redirecting that energy back into forwarding motion. This muscle arrangement in horses allows them to maintain balance and stride at high speeds.

Below is a YouTube video of a two-year-old horse we are training.

The skeletal system of a horse is designed for speed and agility.

A horse’s skeletal system comprises interconnected bone, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. These components work together to support the horse’s weight, protect its internal organs, and allow it to move.

The horse’s skeleton also dictates the horse’s conformation, which is the overall shape of its body. The horse’s conformation affects its musculature and determines its way of going and stride length.

Finally, the horse’s skeleton provides leverage points that muscles can use to generate power. Therefore, the horse’s skeletal system is essential for it to run fast.

Horses have a large lung capacity.

A big part of what makes fast horses is their lung capacity. Studies have shown that horses have a much higher lung capacity than other animals their size. This allows them to take in more air with each breath which helps to increase their speed.

A horse’s breathing during exercise only occurs through his nose. This is because horses are obligate nasal breathers, meaning they must breathe through their noses to get the oxygen they need.

In addition, when a horse gallops, its breathing, and stride are linked. The horse takes one breath with each stride, drawing air into its lungs and then exhaling as it propels itself forward.

When a horse is galloping at full speed, its lungs work overtime to move air in and out. The horse’s breathing rate increases drastically, taking in a large volume of air with each breath.

This air is used to supply the horse’s muscles with oxygen, which is essential for generating the energy needed to run. The horse’s lungs are incredibly efficient at moving air and can easily keep up with the demand during intense exercise.

As a result, the horse can maintain its speed for long periods without tiring because of the coordination between stride and breathing.

Picture of a young thoroughbred horse in training.

Training Techniques to Increase a Horse’s Speed.

You can use several training techniques to increase a horse’s speed. One common technique is interval training, alternating between short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by low-intensity work.

This type of training helps the horse build its muscles and endurance, allowing it to run faster for more extended periods. For example, we often warm our horses up with a slow gallop for about a mile and then pick up the pace for 3/8 of a mile. We are typically asking the horse to sprint at roughly three-quarters effort.

Afterward, we jog them for about an eighth of a mile and let them cool down with a walk. Do this a couple of times a week. Horses are individuals, just like people. Some can do more than others, and you’ll need to adjust your horse’s training accordingly.

We use a heart rate monitor when working our horses which provides us the information we use to see how their fitness level is progressing and set up a training routine. Another effective technique is to incorporate cross-training.

Cross-training involves incorporating other activities, such as swimming your horse or working it on hills. These exercises help the horse build its overall fitness level, ultimately leading to improved speed on the race track.

However, there is a swimming pool for horses near our barn, and it rarely gets used for speed training. Its primary purpose is rehabbing horses after an injury.

Picture of a horse eating from a hay bag.

The importance of diet in ensuring horses have the energy to run fast.

A horse’s success is largely determined by the type of feed it consumes. The right kind of feed can provide a horse with the energy and nutrients it needs to perform at its best, while the wrong type of feed can lead to poor health and performance.

Even the best horse will struggle if not fed properly, so it is essential to plan your horse’s diet wisely. Many types of horse feed are available on the market, so it is crucial to consult a veterinarian or experienced horse trainer before making a purchase.

In addition, it’s essential to know when to feed your horse. If preparing for a competition, do not give your horse any grain three hours prior. With the right care and feeding, your horse has the potential to be faster.

Note: A horse’s primary fuels when running are free fatty acids and glucose. Avoid sweet feeds with high sugar content. Most horses do well on a diet of high-quality hay and grain.

Picture of a quarter horse.

Genetics and fast horses.

Horse genetics have always been fascinating to me. Some horse breeds are just naturally speedier than others. For example, the quarter horse is known its incredible bursts of speed, while the thoroughbred is built for longer distances.

That’s where genetics comes in. By understanding which genes are responsible for speed and endurance, breeders can create horses specifically designed for either.

In a recent study, researchers found that the myostatin gene, “Speed Gene,” is the primary determinant of why some horses are born sprinters and others are distance runners.

The study, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, analyzed the genomes of over 3,000 racehorses and found that a single gene largely determines a horse’s sprinting ability.

The researchers believe this finding could have important implications for the horse racing industry, as it may be possible to predict a horse’s racing ability before it even starts training. It’s all about finding the right mix of genes to create the perfect horse for the job.

horse on the Irish plain

Horses evolved to run fast.

The horse family is a fascinating example of evolution in action. Over the course of millions of years, horses have undergone a dramatic transformation, becoming larger and faster to adapt to changing environments and predators.

The earliest horses were small, dog-like creatures that lived in forests and plains. Over time, some of these species became larger, while others remained small before going extinct.

The changes from small equines to the modern horse exhibit several evolutionary trends, including a reduction in the number of toes, loss of footpads, lengthening of legs, and fusion of bones in the lower legs, all of which contributed to increased speed.

However, a study supports the theory that the single-toed horse lineage evolved a ‘spring foot’ apparatus. The “spring foot” trait evolved in horses 20 million years ago in North America, allowing them to store elastic energy in their limbs.

The energy storage in their limbs allowed them to roam vast regions in search of forage. This trait is believed to be the primary factor horses survived when many other species didn’t.

Picture of a cheetah running.

How Do Horses Compare to Other Animals When It Comes to Speed?

Horses are one of the fastest land animals, reaching speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. However, they are not the fastest animal on earth – that title belongs to the cheetah, which can reach speeds of up to 75 miles per hour.

Other animals that are faster than horses include the pronghorn antelope and gazelle, which can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

So, while horses are not the fastest animals on earth, they are still quite fast. With proper training and conditions, they are capable of reaching speeds that few other animals can match.

Picture of a horse running


Overall, horses are incredibly fast animals, capable of reaching high speeds and maintaining them for extended periods. Their anatomical structure and training methods contribute to their speed, making them some of the fastest creatures on earth.

Horses have long legs and powerful hearts, allowing them to run at high speeds for extended periods. They also have large lungs that enable them to take in more oxygen, which helps them to maintain their speed.

In addition to their physical attributes, horses are also trained to run at high speeds. Some techniques used to train horses include working them at intervals and crossing training. By using these methods, horses can reach their top speeds.

So, how do horses compare to other animals regarding speed? They are certainly among the fastest, but they are not the only ones. Cheetahs, for example, can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. However, they can only sustain these speeds for short bursts.

Below is a helpful YouTube video showing multiple horses with an analysis of them running.