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Recently I learned that many prestigious 18th-century horse races in Europe exceeded three miles. Finding out about these long horse races made me wonder how far horses can run full speed without stopping.
Some horses can run five miles without stopping if they’re fit, but it’s important to note that these animals are individuals. And many factors play into how far a horse can run, including the terrain, pace, age of the horse, breed, and training.
There is no short precise answer to “how far can a horse run?” Because determining how far horses can run involves many factors such as the horse’s breed, age, fitness level, and pace.
How far can a horse run?
There are a lot of ways to answer that question. How far can they run safely? How far can they run with a rider? Do they get hurt if they run more than they should? How does terrain and rider skill fit into this equation?
Do we know any of this from literature or history? I will try to provide the best answers to these questions and more.
How far can a horse run without stopping?
How far can they run? We’re leaving aside that they can run multiple days as needed. The question is, how far can they run without stopping. For this question, we are also considering the horse’s safety and (if one is doing so) the rider.
If the horse is running hard, the standard answer is about two miles at a time before fatigue sets in. But in a race, the horse is likely to be paced and can run up to five miles.
He would start at a slow gallop and increase speed as the race progresses. Each trainer and rider have their philosophy and work with the horse’s natural tendencies.
When traveling fast over a long distance, a horse needs to rest and get its heart rate down. It’s possible that maybe merely walking for a time will suffice, and then they could gallop again.
However, if the horse is a sprinter and not a distance runner, it may not be willing. If the horse is going at a trot, it likely could go for four hours before needing a rest.
But when going for speed alone, a horse can typically run two miles safely. During the early days of formalized horse racing, races were usually much longer than today.
The great English racehorse Eclipse was undefeated in 18 races that averaged three and one-half miles. And he often carried a heavy rider weighing close to 170 pounds. His first win was a four-mile race at Epsom Downs.
Horses run with the weight of a rider and tack
Keep in mind that the horse isn’t just carrying the rider but also the tack. The additional weight changes the equation somewhat. Without these encumbrances, a horse can likely run hard much further without needing a rest.
However, without a rider the horse is unlikely to go so far. They are a prey animal and would, under wild conditions, just run until they were no longer in peril.
Can horses run so far their heart explodes?
When horses die shortly after strenuous exercise or races, it’s classified as a “sudden death.” One of the most common causes is heart failure, triggered by bursting arteries and vessels.
Horses can run so far and hard their heart explodes. Typically the horses that die under these circumstances have an underlying condition such as a structural defect or irregular heartbeat.
Interestingly, irregular heartbeats, arrhythmias or murmurs, are relatively common in some horse breeds. A 2011 study of “sudden deaths” in racehorses was published in the Equine Veternariary Journal.
There are a lot of consequences of abusing a horse with riding. It is something to consider for all of us.
How can horses run for so long and fast?
There are two genetic factors that help a horse with the speed and endurance they have. For the rest, breeding comes into play. However, genetics are more important.
The first part comes from the tendons of the horse’s limbs. They are long and “spring-like.” If you’ve ever been on a pogo stick (hard to do), you might have a better idea.
These tendons provide the spring that the pogo stick gives the person using it. Human tendons don’t have that type of spring, which plays a significant role in their speed. It isn’t the only one.
Have you ever gone for a long run? Some of us, especially those with severe asthma, will never know that feeling. However, it is the second key to a horse’s ability to run fast and for a length of time.
That is in part due to the one to one factor. One stride, one breath. It’s also due to the unique respiratory system that increases lung capacity.
Can humans run further than horses?
Humans can run further than a horse and most all other animals. Our bodies are built to run long distances, and we cool efficiently through sweating.
Most other mammals don’t, so they have to stop, or they will overheat. However, if you’re in a relatively short foot race, the horse will probably beat you.
They’ve got four legs; you’ve got two and can keep a steady speed over a few miles. An exceptional horse will win a marathon over humans in some instances, but typically humans can outdistance horses.
That is not always the same for all people and all horses. The “marathons” between humans and horses are done as a sport. Let’s look at cultures that don’t necessarily have horses but still have needs, which will play a significant role in answering the question.
The prehistoric man ran down his prey.
Prehistoric man used a method of hunting coined “persistent hunting.” Persistent hunting is the chasing of animals until they overheat so hunters can kill them.
It is speculated that hunters during prehistoric ages chased their prey to the point of exhaustion and easily caught and killed them. The persistent hunting method used by prehistoric man may or may not be accurate.
However, there is some evidence to support this theory. A 2006 study of a Bush tribe in Africa found this practice in use, and the Tarahumara of northern Mexico still does this.
They are hunters of deer and/or antelope. Because of the vast open area, the Tarahumara can keep their prey in sight. They continue to run after the deer until the animal eventually gives up and is taken by the hunters.
In their village, running is part of their culture, and young children often run twelve miles without stopping. We consider the Tarahumara “ultra-runners.”
Some have run in ultramarathon and smoked their competition. But competitive running isn’t the real goal of these people. And to be accurate, they don’t call themselves the Tarahumara.
They refer to themselves as the Rarámuri, and they prefer to be secluded from the rest of us. You may thank the Conquistadores for this in part. However, their athletic ability has kept them from being as degraded as some Native Americans.
Which is faster, man or horse? Putting things into their natural states, usually, it will be the horse. As mentioned, four legs to two. However, a horse is a prey animal, and humans will typically outlast a horse when running far.
The only equine I know of that eats other creatures regularly is the Icelandic pony, which eats salted fish in the cold Nordic winters. Humans, smaller than the horse and to a degree weaker, are not prey animals.
We can choose not to be predators and we have the intelligence to fit the bill. We have an alpha animal mentality, and we can become partners with our equine friends. Does that make us faster? Sometimes.
I’ve spent time with horses, and I hope that we begin to learn from them at least as much as they learn from us, maybe more.
Consequences of riding a horse too fast and/or too long.
The first time I even heard about how extreme riding could harm a horse was when I read Black Horse for the King by Anne McCaffrey. It is a story about King Arthur without some of the mythology that follows the story.
In that story, a man came to give a dire message to King Arthur. The hero of the story was a young boy who grew into manhood throughout the story. He was a blacksmith that learned to make some of the first horseshoes.
On the eve before the first battle, a messenger came with an important message. But because of the extensive ride, the messenger had ridden the horse until its hooves were non-existent. Eek.
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