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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 dapple gray racehorse.

10 Facts about Thoroughbred Horses

Thoroughbreds are a type of horse that is renowned for their speed and stamina. The thoroughbred is a relatively new breed, having been developed in the late 17th century from a cross between Arabian and Barb stallions and English mares.

The resulting offspring was larger and more athletic than either of its parents, making it well-suited for racing. Thoroughbreds excel at distances of a mile or more, and they have set numerous world records for speed over the past few centuries.

In addition to their racing prowess, thoroughbreds are also popular as show animals and riding horses. Thanks to their versatility and tireless work ethic, thoroughbreds have become one of the most popular horse breeds in the world.

Here are 10 interesting facts about Thoroughbreds:

  • The term Thoroughbred can trace its roots back to 1796. The word means pure breed or stock and was used to reference any horse that was bred for racing. However, over time, the term came to refer specifically to a certain type of horse.
  • Thoroughbreds originated in England in the 18th century.They are known for their speed and versatility, which makes them perfect not only for racing, but also for show jumping, dressage, and other equestrian sports.
  • The average lifespan for a Thoroughbred is 20 to 30 years old, but some live much longer. For example, a retired racehorse, Tango Duke was 42 when he died in 1978.
  • Thoroughbred horses were originally bred for racing. Although the breed is versatile and can compete in many equine events, the intent of the initial breeders was to create fast horses to compete on flat tracks.
  • Thoroughbred stallions must “live cover” a mare to produce a foal. If a foal is conceived through artificial insemination it will not be approved for registration.
  • The longest official Thoroughbred race is The Queen Alexandra Stakes. It’s a race in Great Britain that is run annually in June and is 2 miles, 5 furlongs, and 143 yards long.
  • Every Thoroughbred can trace its pedigree to three stallions: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Barb.
Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Characteristics of Thoroughbred Horses

Thoroughbred horses are one of the most popular and widely-recognized horse breeds in the world. Known for their athleticism and grace, thoroughbreds have been used for centuries for racing and other competitive sports. But what sets thoroughbreds apart from other horse breeds?

One of the most distinctive physical characteristics of thoroughbred horses is their long, slender legs. This gives them a unique advantage when it comes to racing, as they can cover a lot of ground with each stride.

Thoroughbreds also tend to have large hearts, which helps to pump more blood and oxygen to their muscles during exercise. This increased circulation helps them to perform at a higher level for longer periods of time.

In addition to their physical prowess, thoroughbred horses are also known for their courage and determination. They come in a variety of colors, but the most common are chestnut and bay.

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 racehorse.

The temperament of Thoroughbred Horses

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, 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 feet. The horse is large, powerful, and muscular, yet elegant and graceful. Correct conformation is key to the success of performance horses.

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.

Picture of a young thoroughbred horse in training.

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 an 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 two year old thoroughbred in training

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 were 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.

horse on the Irish plain

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.

Below is a YouTube video that describes the characteristics of Thoroughbred horses.

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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