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I’ve always been fascinated by how fast horses can run. So I decided to find out what makes some run faster than others, the physical traits that are most important when it comes to racing, and what are the top speeds horses can run.
55 MPH is the top speed of the world’s fastest horses. Quarter horses racing 440-yard have been timed running 55 mph, the fastest recorded speed of any horse. Guinness World Record recognizes Winning Brew, a Thoroughbred, as the fastest horse in the world at 43.97 mph.
The world’s fastest horses are incredible animals. They are large, many weighing over 1,000 pounds, yet can outrun almost every other animal on the planet. How are they able to do this? Let’s find out as we explore their magnificent bodies.
Anatomy of A Running Horse
Every horse has the same components used to move their bodies. However, the confirmation of horse breeds varies, resulting in different capabilities. Some can pull a wagon better, while others can run longer or faster. What separates an animal to allow it to be the fastest horse?
The anatomy of movement in horses can be divided into two parts, the skeleton, and the muscles. The frame is the supporting structure, and the muscles overlay and control the movement of the structure.
Groups of muscles work together to propel a horse forward when they are running. If the muscle groups are correctly proportioned, they perform their tasks well, and a horse runs fast.
The goal is to stretch out and then recoil the horse’s frame; the longer the stretch and the faster the recoils translate into speed.
What is the perfect combination of frame and muscle? Average. Average in all aspects of a horse’s conformation makes the ideal running specimen. Taller horses are not faster.
Thicker muscled or skinnier horses don’t run faster — average height with average proportioned muscling results in the fastest horses.
Eclipse, a thoroughbred from the 18th century, is thought of as the greatest racehorse in history. He won all of his 18 races and usually won by 10-20 lengths.
Researchers studied Eclipse’s skeleton and built a computer model to recreate his running movements; they were determined to find out what made this horse so great. Their conclusion, he had an average build.
Eighty percent of the time a horse is running, his legs are off the ground. A great horse needs to be balanced, and Eclipse was just that, a balanced, average-sized horse. Balance is the key to the fastest horses of all time.
Check out my article on the greatest racehorses of all time, and I have Eclipse rated number 10: Top 10 Greatest Racehorses of All Time. Two You May Not Know
What Factors Determine Speed In Horses?
The factors that determine speed are not what most would typically think of; for example, height isn’t a factor. There have been many instances of racing that prove this.
But the most obvious is the great Seabiscuit, at only 15 hands dominated the racing circuit in the late 30s and early 40s. And more recently, the Canadian champion Northern Dancer was also a small horse.
The average quarter horse is shorter than a thoroughbred but is still quicker. What’s determines a horse’s speed is the length of the horses’ stride and its corresponding stride rate. To excel and be fast, a horse needs to bring its legs forward quickly; this is difficult for horses with long legs.
Stride is the distance a horse travels in a single leap. In other words, the distance from the spot a horse’s front foot hits the ground to where that same foot next lands is the horses’ stride.
The average length of a racehorses’ stride is 20 feet. However, champion Man O’ War’s stride length was 28 feet.
The stride rate or turnover ratio is the number of strides a racehorse completes in a given time. Most racehorses’ stride rate is between 130 and 140 strides per minute.
The fastest horses can speed up their stride rate without shortening it. Some champion horses’ stride rates are over 160 strides per minute. Quarter horses naturally have a faster stride rate than thoroughbreds.
However, thoroughbreds are required to maintain their stride over a longer distance and time during a race. To be able to run the necessary intervals in a race with the speed needed to be successful, their anatomical systems must be in sync.
The respiratory system must be working at peak levels. We all know horses need oxygen. However, a horse running hard and taking long strides with a high stride rate requires increased oxygen.
A horse can provide this need during a race by intaking air when they extend their bodies. With their frame stretched, they draw in large amounts of air through their nose, and as they constrict their bodies, they exhale.
Horses that can breathe freely and easily are likely to be the best striders. Open airways are why you will see some racehorse’s tongues tied. The tongue tie is to keep the airway unobstructed during the race. A horse’s circulatory system provides the necessary movement of blood.
Racehorse’s heart performs at a high level. The heart of a racehorse can circulate 75 gallons of blood each minute. The circulation increases the amount of oxygen-rich cells in the bloodstream, providing oxygen to the horse. On average, a horse’s heart weighs 9.5lbs.
Another relevant term used when referencing a horses’ speed is its stride angle. The stride angle is the distance between a horse’s front and back foot, usually measured at the push-off point of the rear foot. The stride angle is used to calculate how far a horse will flatten out when racing.
A higher stride angle results in long strides. Secretariat has the highest stride angle of any racehorse; his stride angle was 110 degrees. Many horse racing and speed analysis students believe stride angle is an essential factor in determining the success of a racehorse.
For a horse to have a long stride, great stride rate, and high stride angle, take synchronized anatomical systems. Airflow, a strong heart, excellent muscle tone, and a solid frame are the keys to speed.
The fastest horses have superior stride angles. You can find similar physical characteristics in the horse breeds used for racing.
The fastest Quarterhorse ran 55 mph.
Quarterhorses have been clocked running 55mph, the fastest rate of any horse breed. Quarterhorse racing started in colonial America over 200 years ago.
The breed was named after the usual distance they raced, a quarter of a mile. The Colonial quarterhorse owners were always breeding for speed.
The establishment of Quarter horse racing began with the formation of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). There are 11 recognized distances raced by quarterhorses, from 220 yards to 870 yards.
The All-American Futurity has the largest purse in quarter horse racing at 3 million dollars.
The fastest Thoroughbred ran 43.97.
The Guinness Book of Records lists the top speed run by a thoroughbred at 43.97 mph. The horse holding the record is “Winning Brew.”
She was only a two-year-old when she broke the record in 2008 at the Penn National Race Course. For comparison, the average Kentucky Derby winner typically runs about 37 mph. Secretariat won the race running 38 mph.
Thoroughbreds race long distances and have to pace themselves over the course. Thoroughbreds have long legs with a lean muscular body. They are also are taller and lighter than quarter horses. Thoroughbreds are built to run a longer distance race than a Quarter horse.
The fastest Arabian horses run 40 mph.
Arabians are known for their endurance, not their speed. However, there have been some reports of Arabians that have hit top speeds of 40mph.
An Arabian running 40mph would be uncommon. Arabians are slower than Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds but are durable and would fare well in an endurance race.
An American Paint Horse ran 350 yards in 17.26 seconds.
Paints are fast horses, and the good runners have lots of quarter horse breeding in the pedigree. The Paint horse breed combines conformation traits of quarter horse and pinto spotting pattern.
The Paint horse breed developed from horses brought to America by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. The American Paint Horse Association was established in 1962.
The fastest Standardbred paced a mile in one minute, 46.20 seconds.
Standardbreds are fast horses but in a different way. They are fast trotters. They have a similar body as a thoroughbred horse. However, they have been bred for trotting speed. Standardbreds race, pulling a two-wheeled cart.
They have a good disposition and are people-oriented animals. Standardbreds derive their speed is the muscularity of their shoulders and hindquarters.
The Appaloosa record for 350 yards is 17.:40.
Appaloosa horse racing is held at tracks across the Western United States. Many of the racing Appaloosa’s have a running Quarter horse in their pedigrees.
Appaloosas were used by Native American tribes in the northwestern United States. Appaloosa compact horses with a unique spotted coat. Appaloosa’s often have quarterhorse blood in their pedigree. They have a well proportionate body, which attributes to their athletic ability.
Who was faster, Phar Lap or Secretariat?
Secretariat ran faster than Phar Lap over the same distance, but there is a caveat, Phar Lap ran carrying heavier weight. If the two were to race under the same conditions, it would be difficult to predict the winner.
Could Seabiscuit have beaten Secretariat?
Although Seabiscuit was a great racehorse with amazing heart and stamina, it’s doubtful he could beat Secretariat in a race at any length. Secretariat could come off the pace or run from the front, traits that make Secretariat great.