How Fast Can A Horse Run And Other Cool Facts?


Horses are impressive animals and are an integral part of the human story. We’ve been riding these magnificent beasts for thousands of years. 

But how fast can they run? And how do they compare to other fast-moving species on the planet? Let’s take a look. 

How fast can a horse run?

While different horse breeds have varying top speeds, the fastest can reach over 55 mph over short intervals. Regular Thoroughbreds can get up to around 44 mph at full pelt. And the average galloping speed is around 27 mph. 

Why can horses run so fast? 

Horses outperform human beings in both speed and jump height, thanks to a series of powerful evolutionary and genetic adaptations. 

For example, horses have surprisingly large hearts compared to the rest of their bodies. This allows them to pump a greater volume of blood to their muscle cells, pound-for-pound than people (and most other animals). T

he Thoroughbred – one of the fastest racehorse breeds – has a specific gene inherited from the famous mare, Pocahontas, that increases the size of the heart, increasing its power further. 

Horses also have excellent vascularization, meaning that they have a highly efficient network of blood vessels sprawling out from the heart across their bodies. The cardiovascular system has large arteries which supply running muscles with freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs, increasing the total amount of energy available. 

Evolution also made horses obligate nose-breathers. Historically, this adaptation allowed them to begin running immediately. They didn’t have to wait until they finished chewing their food to react to threats in their environment. 

Then there are biomechanical adaptations. Researchers have found, for instance, that horses have flexible spring-like legs that take energy from the ground and use it to continue propelling the body of the horse forwards.

They also have the ability to swivel their front legs forward quickly as they run, preparing them for the next stride. Slower animals do not have this capacity to roll the shoulder joint. 

Given their size, the fact that horses can run so fast seems like a miracle. But through a combination of selective breeding and evolutionary pressure, it’s now a reality.

Humans took a species that already had exceptional running capabilities and added to them. Horses are the fastest large animals on the planet, beating out much smaller rivals, such as dogs, servals, and ostriches in a straight-line race.

Fastest horse breeds

There are many fast horse breeds, but some stand out much more than others. 

Thoroughbred

The Thoroughbred is perhaps the most famous of all the fast horse breeds. Some examples can maintain average speeds of around 38 mph for a full ten furlongs.

Interestingly, though, Thoroughbreds didn’t achieve their extreme speeds via purely natural methods. It took breeders in England and a variety of other countries more than three hundred years to perfect the breed. Only now can it compete in a variety of disciplines such as barrel racing, dressage, and jumping. 

American Quarter Horse

The American Quarter Horse is probably the fastest in the world – at least over short distances. Breeders have clocked these magnificent beasts at an estimated 55 mph, which is a full 10 mph faster than a Thoroughbred’s top speed.  

Interestingly, American Quarter Horses are surprisingly stocky. But this muscular power is what allows them to achieve such incredible speeds. Originally, farmers used the American Quarter Horse for rounding up and sorting cattle. Now, you can find them on the competitive scene as well.  

Standardbred

Standardbreds aren’t necessarily the fastest in a straight line. But when it comes to harness racing, they often come out on top. Their lineage arises from the Morgan and Canadian Pacer, with some Thoroughbred genes added later. 

The Standardbred looks similar to the Thoroughbred too. However, it has more muscularity in the shoulders and hindquarters, allowing it to maintain high speeds when towing. This feature makes it an inherently practical horse. 

Factors that affect a horse’s speed

Multiple environmental factors affect a horse’s speed. Polish researchers, for instance, considered the fixed effects of age, sex, trainer, competition (the number of horses competing), running distance, and surface conditions. From their findings, they concluded that: 

  • Three-year-old horses were faster than two-year-old horses but not as fast as four-year-olds
  • Males were faster than females
  • Horse speed decreased as race distance increased
  • Heavier horses were slower than their lighter rivals
  • Speed increased by a small amount for each additional horse in the race
  • Horses ran about 2.5 mph faster on fast-assessed tracks than slow ones

The fastest horse on record 

Officially, the fastest horse on record is Secretariat, the winner of the 1973 Kentucky Derby. He managed to run the course in 1:59 dead, becoming the only horse to ever dip under the two-minute mark.

Secretariat also set the world record for the one-and-a-half-mile dash, completing it in just 2:24. To date, no horse has beaten Secretariat’s times, due to his outstanding conformation, long stride length, and unusually large heart. 

How long can a horse run?

A fit and healthy horse can sustain galloping speeds for around two and a half miles before becoming fatigued. At a slower trot, horses can cover a distance of around twenty to thirty miles a day. 

Why can horses run so far?

Horses’ running ability comes from their unique physiology. Their legs have no muscles in the bottom half. Instead, they move them using ligaments and tendons connected to muscle fibers higher up the leg. This structure allows them to generate considerable bounding forces that let them glide their enormous weight over the ground with less energy expenditure. 

Horses also have the ability to perform a 4-beat gait. While galloping, there are points where all four legs leave the ground, allowing them to glide for part of their stride. When their hooves hit the ground, they do so sequentially, with each impact propelling the animal forward to the next flight phase. 

Which factors determine how long a horse can run?

While the average horse can run for around two and a half miles before fatiguing, not all animals are the same. Just as with pure speed, various factors affect galloping distance. 

Galloping speed, for instance, makes a difference. Horses can maintain an all-out gallop for around two miles before they become winded and need to rest. However, switching to a short-stride 4-beat gait (but still galloping), allows them to run for perhaps another mile or so.

The weight of the horse also determines the running distance. The lower the muscle-to-weight ratio, the shorter the distance it can cover before becoming fatigued. For instance, horses running from predators in the wild can travel further than those with jockeys on their backs. 

Lastly, breed (which we discuss in the next section), also plays a role. Some varieties are better adapted for endurance than others, having longer strides, better vascularization, and enhanced physiology. 

Which horse breeds are best for endurance?

Let’s take a quick look at some of the best horse breeds for endurance. 

  • Arabians: Arabians are among the oldest horse breeds and have a unique ability to conserve their energy – probably because they worked in desert conditions. This gives them a high level of endurance. 
  • Mustang Horse: Mustangs are feral horses, descended from escaped horses bred in human captivity. The need to survive in harsh natural environments in the Western United States increased their endurance over time. 
  • Andalusian Horse: Also known as Pure Spanish horses, these magnificent beasts have a high range of motion which gives them both stamina and speed. 
  • Rocky Mountain Horse: Rocky Mount horses first emerged in eastern Kentucky and became famous for their four-beat gait – something comfortable to ride. 
  • Morgan Horse: The Morgan horse was once a staple of the military. It has since become a competition breed, thanks to its high endurance. 
  • Hanoverian Horse: These horses have large, sloping shoulders and exceptional conformation of the haunches. These features make them robust, elegant, and athletic. 
  • Tennessee Walker: Tennessee walking horses are famous for being smooth-gaited, something which makes them a popular trail horse, both willing and comfortable to mount. 
  • American Miniature Horse: American Miniature horses are no bigger than a large dog. Their lineage descends from Dutch and English mining horses, making them strong and hardy in challenging environments. 

What is the longest distance you should ride a horse?

How long you should ride a horse depends on the speed you travel. Horses should not gallop for more than about two miles. Longer than that and become winded and fatigue sets in. 

At slower paces, most healthy horses bred for riding should be able to go about twenty miles a day at a walk or a trot. Most horses can canter somewhere between one and five miles, so long as the pace isn’t too high. 

Breeders and people who work with horses recommend you avoid pushing the animal too hard for an extended period, particularly if the animal hasn’t built up their fitness. Too much distance can lead to lethargy, fatigue, and dehydration.

Here is a just for fun list of the animals horses may be quicker or slower than.

Cheetah

Although a horse has more stamina and endurance than a cheetah, a cheetah may in fact win in a race. The cheetah is one of the fastest land mammals. Thus, there is no surprise that they are faster than a horse. But over a long distance the horse would actually win!

Zebra

Similar in size and weight, there is a close competition between a horse and a zebra. However, more breeds of horses will be able to outrun a zebra at a quicker speed. The average speeds of a zebra are 40 mph, while the average speed of a horse can top 50 mph.

Camel

Although camels seem like calm and slow mammals, they can pick up speed if they really want to. They are not designed for racing or running, but they can. The average speed of a camel is around 20 mph, while a horse can reach almost double that during a gallop.

Lion

Lions are fast animals. They run to catch their prey and love to play around. The average lion can reach speeds of 45 mph, while a horse averages at 50 mph. 

Wolf

Wolves are a naturally small mammal and are often quick. But, in a race, a horse may in fact win. Similar to a lion, they run to hunt prey and play. Their average speed is around 47 mph, whilst a horse can run at 50 mph. In some cases, horses can run faster up to 55mph, which again exceeds the top speed of a wolf. 

Cars

Ever heard of horsepower? Well, that in fact comes from the origin of horses and their sheer speed. A horse may be able to accelerate much faster than the average car. Yet, some cars can top incredibly high speeds, such as 200 mph. No horse can run that fast.

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