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Thoroughbred Horse Breed: Facts, Height, and Characteristics

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Thoroughbred horses originated in England and, through selective breeding, developed the characteristics of a perfect sport horse. But I wonder what makes them so special, so I did some research to find out.

Thoroughbred horses are superb athletes with remarkable speed and an extraordinary spirit. They are renowned as racehorses but also excel in many equine activities. Thoroughbred horses typically stand between 15 and 17 hands tall.

If you’re considering a horse for equine competitions, the Thoroughbred breed should be at the top of your list. They were developed for hunting, jumping, and racing.

Picture of a Thoroughbred race horse in a paddock.

Thoroughbred facts

The breed origins trace to three foundation sires from which all modern Thoroughbreds descend. The history of the Thoroughbred horse breed and the evolution of its unique characteristics are well documented.

The three foundation sires are the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk. Each horse is named after its respective owners and came to England in the 17th century.

The offspring of the three stallions and native English mares created the Thoroughbred horse breed.  

The three Thoroughbred foundation stallions

Byerly Turk

The first foundation stud to grace the English shores was Bylerly Turk. He was ridden during the siege of Buda in Hungary in 1688 by a Turkish officer.

This officer was captured and his horse confiscated by Captain Robert Byerly of the Sixth Dragoon Guards under King William III of Orange. Captain Byerly used his new stallion as his battle horse in various wars.

Captain Byerly, between battles, often raced his stallion, and in 1690 he won the top prize at Down Royal in Northern Ireland. The Byerly Turk began his stud career in England and stood until 1701.

The Byerley Turk was an unmarked, dark brown horse with Arabian conformation, despite being referred to as a “Turk.” He was very effective in transmitting his characteristics to offspring, and many are noted to have been brown or black like himself.

The Byerley Turk’s most influential son was Jigg, whose son Partner became a tremendous runner and hugely influential sire. Partner’s prodigy can be traced to modern-day Thoroughbred champions.

Byerley Turk mares were also much-desired horses. Two of his daughters are considered Thoroughbred foundation mares.

Picture of an Arabian horse,

Darley Arabian 

Thomas Darley was a British merchant visiting the Syrian desert when he first spotted The Darley Arabian living among the Fedan Bedouins’ herds.

During Mr. Darley’s travels abroad, he hoped to obtain a colt for his father’s stud farm. He specifically wanted a horse with authentic Arabian bloodline from the Syrian desert because they were famous for their speed and stamina.

A bay yearling colt owned by the tribe’s sheik caught the eye of the merchant. A price was negotiated, and Mr. Darley bought the horse in either 1700 or 1701 for 300 golden sovereigns.

Because of wars and travel delays, the young Darley Arabian didn’t arrive in England until 1704. Mr. Darley never made it back to England; he died of poisoning during his return trip.

The Darley Arabian stood at stud from 1706 to 1719 and produced some tremendous runners from Mr. Darley’s mares. The Darley Arabian also sired some of the best studs globally, including Bulle Rocke, the first Thoroughbred stallion brought to the United States.

Godolphin Arabian (Barb)

The legends of the Godolpin Barb include him pulling a water cart in the streets of Paris, being used as a teaser, and his fierceness as a battle steed. But none of these stories can be proven.

The Godolphin Barb was foaled in modern-day Yemen and given as a gift to the King of France by Bey of Tunis. He technically is a Barb but is often referenced as an Arabian.

Either because of his travels or sickness, the Godolpin Barb was sickly after he arrived in France. He was described as half-starved but beautifully made.

The Duke of Lorraine obtained ownership of the Godolphin Barb and either sold or gave the horse to Mr. Edward Coke. In 1729 Mr. Coke sent his newly acquired horse to England from France.

Mr. Coke stood the Godolphin at his recently purchased farm. The official story of the Godolphin Barb starts in 1731 when he covered one of Mr. Coke’s mares and produced a runner named Lath. Lath was considered the best horse of his day; his success grew the reputation of the Godolphin.

Coke died in August 1733 and willed Godolphin to a friend, Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams sold the horse to Francis, the Earl of Godolphin, a personal friend of Cokes.

The Earl of Godolphin bred the Barb to a great many well-bred mares. His offspring were not only outstanding racers but were great sires and broodmares as well.

Selima, a daughter of the Godolphin, was brought to the States in 1752 and was widely successful as a runner and broodmare. Thoroughbred champions often trace their pedigree to her.

Picture of a Thoroughbred mare.

Thoroughbred foundation mares

The foundation broodmares for the Thoroughbred breed were horses with Irish Hobby breeding. The Irish Hobby was imported to England and Scotland for various equine activities but mainly for racing.

During the early history of the breed, females weren’t considered as significant. The Thoroughbred General Studbook was first published in 1791 and identified 74 foundation broodmares.

The studbook presents a detailed description of the sires but lacks specificity in identifying broodmares. Because of this lack of written information on the origins of female Thoroughbred lineages are debatable and speculative. 

But as DNA science developed, researchers have concluded that the foundation mares of the Thoroughbred breed have Irish Hobby bloodlines, from either Irish Draught or Connemara horses. Click here to read the study.

Connemara mares

The Connemara is an equine known as mountain and moorland ponies that originates from the county of Connaught in western Ireland. It is Ireland’s only native breed and can be traced back to the ancient Celts.

During the latter part of the 1600s, the Spanish Armada shipwrecked off the western coast of Ireland. Aboard the vessels were a large number of Spanish Andalusian horses. These horses were released, and many survived and bred with the native Connemara ponies.

Connemara ponies are known for their surefootedness, jumping ability, and sensible temperament. Their bodies are compact, and they are typically between 12.2 and 14.2 hands tall.

Irish Draught mares

The Irish Draught breed descends from the original Irish Sport Horse, the Irish Hobby, brought to Ireland by the ancient Celts around 500 BCE. These quick and surefooted horses were often ridden in battle and cherished in England and Scotland.

The Irish Hobby combined with larger Norman horses and later with Spanish breeds to develop the Irish Draught, a horse that could perform a wide range of tasks, from farming to fox hunting.

The Irish Draught could work a farm as good as large draft breeds but was light and athletic enough to make good hunter jumpers. This new breed provided the foundation for the development of the Thoroughbred breed.

Thoroughbred horses are smart.

Thoroughbreds developed from breeding local English mares to imported Arab and Barb horses. They possess the physical and mental characteristics of the premier sport horse.

Thoroughbreds excel in various equine disciplines because they have speed, athletic ability, intelligence, and willingness to work.

Picture of a Thoroughbred, standing in a stall.

Thoroughbred Temperament

Thoroughbreds are smart horses with a sensitive nature and strong work ethic. They are considered “hot-blooded,” like their Arabian forebearers, and work well with experienced riders.

They quickly learn to react to riders’ subtle movements and are easy to train. Thoroughbreds like to train and expect perfection. Frequently a Thoroughbred’s sensitive nature is misinterpreted as unruly behavior.

But these actions are often the horse displaying its frustration and desire to work. Under the guidance of a skilled hand, Thoroughbreds can perform amazing feats.

Thoroughbreds want to compete and win; in horse circles, this trait is called “heart.” Thoroughbreds are renowned for their “heart,” and when they understand what is being asked of them, they give everything to reach their goal.

Thoroughbreds have long legs and lean bodies.

Thoroughbreds can’t deny their Arabian influence. They have refined heads, with eyes spaced wide, and a long, arched neck and well-defined high withers.

A Thoroughbred should have deep sloping shoulders, a short and evenly curved back with a high croup, and a healthy broad chest. Their hindquarters are substantially muscled.

Their bodies have lean, smooth and even muscles throughout; their legs are long and clean with pronounced tendons and small thin-walled feet. The horse is large, powerful, and muscular, yet elegant and graceful.

The height of Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds are tall; they typically stand between 15 and 17 hands tall. They can be registered in a variety of colors but are predominately bay, chestnut, and brown. Click the link to read about the colors of Thoroughbreds.

Do Thoroughbreds have bad feet?

Thoroughbreds often have bad feet and suffer thin hoof walls, flat soles, and long toes. There are a few reasons you can learn more about their feet in this article: Do Thoroughbreds Have Bad Feet? 5 Traits of Poor Horse Hoofs.

What are the acceptable coat colors for Thoroughbred registration?

Only black, white, chestnut, gray/roan, bay (brown), and palomino are accepted for Thoroughbred registration. To learn more about Thoroughbred registration, check out this article: Registered Thoroughbred Horses: What Colors Are Permitted?

Do only Thoroughbreds race?

No, many other horse breeds race but Thoroughbreds are the primary horse breed that races. You can check out this article to learn about the different horse breeds that race? Are All Racehorses Thoroughbreds? The Horse Breeds that Race

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