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How Far Can a Horse Travel? Horse Running Endurance Explained

How Far Can a Horse Travel? Horse Running Endurance Explained

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One of the reasons why humans domesticated horses was their ability to cover long distances within a relatively short time span.

While this is not a necessity today, horses still impress us with their remarkable endurance on many occasions.

Wild horses, for example, often travel many miles a day in search of food and water. They do this mostly in walk and trot as these are the most efficient gaits, cantering only in the event of danger.

Certain horse breeds like the Arabian and Mustang are famous for their stamina and can also cover impressive distances in a day. However, rigorous training and sufficient breaks are necessary to achieve such feats.

How Far Can a Horse Travel in a Day?

Horses can travel on average 30 to 50 miles a day if they are in good condition. However, top endurance horses can travel up to 100 miles in a day with a rider on their back. Factors that determine how far a horse can travel include terrain, weather conditions, fitness, health, and the horse’s breed.

Horses can only run at full speed for 2 to 3 miles before slowing down because of muscle fatigue. However, they can maintain a slower run called a trot for several hours without needing a break.

Beautiful bay horse cantering
kyslynskahal / Shutterstock.com

Most horses can generally trot 20 to 40 miles a day at an average speed of 8 mph without a problem. That being said, they will need regular breaks in between running sessions to complete that distance.

In walk, on the other hand, they can travel for up to 8 hours without a break. Since horses average around 4.3 mph in this gait, they could cover 30 to 35 miles daily.

Naturally, horses can travel further without a rider on. However, with adequate conditioning, good nutrition, and regular healthcare, ridden horses will outperform their wild relatives any day.

Horses can also cover impressive distances pulling a carriage.

Depending on fitness, terrain, weather, and the weight of the load, a horse-drawn carriage can travel up to 30 miles a day.

The Pony Express

A shining example from history that highlights the remarkable speed and endurance of horses is the Pony Express. This legendary mail service operated for 18 months along a 1,900-mile (3,100 km) route between Missouri and California.

Four cowboys riding a horse
Four cowboys riding a horse

Pony Express horses were ridden or driven at an average speed of 15-25 mph for 15 miles at a time before passing their duties onto a rested horse. This way, riders could deliver mail between the east and west coast of the United States in just 10 days.

Horse breeds most often used for the Pony Express included the Thoroughbred, Morgan, and Mustang.

Although the service stopped in October 1861 due to the arrival of the telegraph, it is remembered to this day as an outstanding example of what horses are capable of.

Horses Were Born to Run

Horses are one of the fastest land mammals on Earth relative to their body size. Throughout evolution, they developed many unique abilities that make them stand out as athletes in the animal world.

Small palomino pony running in a field
Rita_Kochmarjova / Shutterstock.com

One of the reasons why horses are such efficient runners is the structure of their legs. As it happens, horses have little to no muscle tissue in their lower legs, which makes them very light and easy to swing forward.

Moreover, horses have very large hearts that can further increase in size with fitness. This allows adequate oxygenation of the muscles and prevents the early onset of fatigue during exercise.

Horses also possess a unique mechanism similar to blood doping that enables them to run fast over long distances. According to physiology and biomechanics professor Peter Weyand, the spleen of horses stores red blood cells that get released in large quantities when they start to exercise.

As a result, their blood can carry more oxygen to muscles, enhancing their function.

Endurance Horses versus Sprinters

You may have noticed that horses bred for speed and stamina are very lean. Some good examples are the Thoroughbred and Arabian horse which have bodies similar to greyhounds.

This characteristic “runner-look” is the result of more slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibers being present in these breeds compared to others. Slow-twitch fibers work on an aerobic basis and support endurance activities by being resistant to fatigue.

Small herd of horses running in a big grassy field
anjajuli / Shutterstock.com

In contrast, horses bred for sprinting like the Quarter horse have more fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers. These are anaerobic in nature and provide sudden bursts of energy, but are also quick to fatigue.

How Horses Compare to Other Endurance Animals

While horses are one of the top endurance animals on Earth, their stamina is rivaled by many other species.

Wolves, for example, often cover 20 to 30 miles a day searching for prey. However, they can travel over 100 miles in a day when food is scarce.

Sleigh dogs have similarly impressive endurance. During the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, teams of 12 sleigh dogs cover over 1,000 miles in just 15 days! To achieve this, the dogs often travel at an average speed of 15 mph for six hours straight.

Camels are also among the marathon runners of the animal kingdom. Despite their desert environment, they can maintain an average speed of 25 mph for over 20 miles. However, they tend to travel at a slow walk, covering up to 30 miles a day.

When it comes to running a marathon, the pronghorn antelopes are the ones to beat. These incredible athletes can run at 30 mph for an entire hour and have a top speed of 60 mph.

According to Popular Mechanics, the pronghorn antelope would complete a marathon in just 45 minutes.

Black Friesian horse running in a grassy paddock
Rita_Kochmarjova / Shutterstock.com

Last but not least, let’s not forget about our own species. Humans are remarkably good at long-distance running when compared to other land mammals. Our superb cooling system and upright posture enable us to run over 20 miles without a break, provided we have sufficient training.

What is the fastest a horse traveled 100 miles?

The fastest a horse traveled 100 miles to date is 5 hours and 45 minutes. The record was set at the Tevis Cup by Yousuf Ahmad Al Belushi, riding an 11-year-old Arabian gelding named Jahal Shazal.

The Tevis Cup runs from Utah to California and is considered one of the toughest endurance races in the world. Belushi and his horse completed the 100-mile race with an average speed of 17 mph, a truly astounding feat.

While a hundred miles is the maximum length of an endurance race today, horses used to travel thousands of miles in one journey.

In 1911, for example, traveled 3,200 miles from San Francisco to New York on horseback. She was the first woman in history to ride across Nort America alone, completing the journey in 178 days.

Best Endurance Horse Breeds

While all horses possess remarkable stamina, some breeds stand out when it comes to long-distance riding.

These breeds either developed via natural selection or rigorous selective breeding focused on improving the breed with every generation.

Arabian

Arabian horse with a desert background
Olga_i / Shutterstock.com

The Arabian is often regarded as the best endurance horse breed there is. This ancient breed developed in the vast Arabian desert, where it adapted to extreme temperatures and scarce water supplies.

Arabians dominate the endurance discipline today due to their superior speed and stamina. They are intelligent, versatile horses with the potential to succeed in various disciplines.

Mustang

Small herd of wild Mustang horses
Rob Palmer Photography / Shutterstock.com

As a result of natural selection, Mustangs developed resistance and stamina that’s unrivaled by most horse breeds. They are born survivors and will travel up to 100 miles a day if need be.

Mustangs are famous for their remarkably hard hooves that enable them to travel over challenging terrain. While many of these horses still roam free, tens of thousands live in captivity, either in holding facilities or private homes.

Akhal-Teke

Beautiful Akhal-Teke horse standing in a field
Lioneska / Shutterstock.com

The Akhal-Teke is a rare horse breed from Turkmenistan with a history that dates back thousands of years. A distant relative of the Arabian and Thoroughbred, this unique breed is blessed with excellent endurance and a glowing coat.

Icelandic Horse

Two Icelandic horses grazing
Karel Cerny / Shutterstock.com

As with the Mustang, natural selection also played a role in developing the remarkable endurance of this ancient breed.

Another reason why Icelandic horses make superb long-distance mounts is their special gaits, the pace, and the tölt.

At pace, these horses can travel at around 10 mph for extended periods of time. Whereas, tölt has a typical speed of 20 mph.

Both gaits are extremely comfortable to ride and give a smooth feeling to the rider.

Mongolian Horse

Three Mongolian horses trotting in the wilderness
linegold / Shutterstock.com

Originating from the Mongolian steppe, this horse breed is one of the toughest on the planet. Mongolian horses live out all year round and can withstand temperatures from -40 to +40°C (-40 to 104°F).

These horses travel with their nomadic owners to this day and have outstanding stamina. The famous 1,000-km (621-mile) Mongol Derby is ridden on semi-wild native horses that cover 40 km (24.8 miles) at a time.