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Running fast is a survival adaptation that can save the horse from being eaten in the wild.
As the ancestors of horses slowly transitioned from living in forests to grasslands, they became more exposed to predators and had to run faster to escape them.
Most horses can travel in four different gaits, the fastest of which is gallop. Gallop is a four-beat gait with a moment of suspension, which is when all of the horse’s legs are off the ground.
While all horse breeds are able to gallop, some are considerably faster than others.
The Quarter horse is the fastest horse breed over a short distance (¼ mile), while the Thoroughbred is the fastest over a medium distance (2-3 miles).
Another fast horse breed is the Arabian, which also has excellent endurance, making it the fastest breed over a long distance.
How Fast Can a Horse Run?
The average top speed of a horse is 25 to 30 mph (40 to 48 km/h). However, fast horse breeds such as the Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred can run up to 44 mph (70 km/h).
The average racehorse can maintain speeds of 40 to 44 mph (64 to 70 km/h) for a short period. The top speed of most riding horses is no more than 20 to 30 mph (32 – 48.5 km/h) when carrying a rider.
While these numbers are far behind the speed of the fastest animals on Earth, they are still impressive considering how large horses are.
It takes an incredible amount of muscle power to lift such a heavy body off the ground and carry it at high speeds, which is why horses are such amazing athletes.
What is the Fastest Horse Ever?
According to official records, the fastest horse ever is a racing Quarter horse called A Long Goodbye. In 2005, this horse galloped at 55 mph (88.5 km/h), which is the highest speed ever recorded in horses.
Quarter horses are known as the sprinters of the racing world and are traditionally raced over a quarter-mile distance.
Their strong, muscular hindquarters propel their bodies forward with enormous power, which is how they outrun any other breed over a short distance.
The Fastest Horses in History
The fastest horse ever is a Quarter Horse called A Long Goodbye who was recorded running at 55 mph (70.76 km/h). However, the Guinness World Records recognizes Winning Brew as the fastest racehorse of all time who ran at a speed 43.97 mph (70.76 km/h) on the Penn National Race Course in 2008.
Meanwhile, the fastest average speed in a mile-and-a-half long race was achieved by the three-year-old Thoroughbred Hawkster. The racehorse performed his record-breaking run at Santa Anita Park in 1989, finishing the race with an average speed of 37.82 mph (60.86 km/h).
To mention a few other breeds, the fastest Paint horse ever is the famous Got Country Grip, who ran 350 yards (320 m) in 17.23 seconds at Fair Meadows Race Track in Oklahoma. This equates to a speed of 40 mph (64 km/h).
Standardbred pacers are also known for running at high speeds on harness racing events.
In 1993, a Standardbred named Cambest set the current world record for a pacing racehorse at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. He paced his one-mile test in 1 minute 46.20 seconds, running at 33.84 mph (54.46 km/h).
In endurance racing, the fastest finish of a 100-mile race was achieved by the 11-year-old Arabian Jayhal Shazal in 2010. The gray gelding completed the race in just 5 hours 45 minutes, averaging 17 mph overall and 22 mph in the final loop.
For some context, here is a video of a Thoroughbred running at 38 mph:
Related: 10 Best Racehorses of All Time (Ranked)
Fastest Horse Breeds in the World
The fastest horse breeds in the world are the Quarter horse, Thoroughbred, Arabian, Standardbred, and Paint Horse. In general, horse breeds with Thoroughbred or Arabian blood are faster than the average.
As we mentioned earlier in this article, Quarter horses can gallop the fastest out of all horse breeds. This is due to their powerful and muscular hindquarters that give them a higher than average stride rate.
Stride rate is the number of strides taken per minute and is an important factor in how fast a horse can run.
The stride rate of most Thoroughbred racehorses is around 130 to 140 strides per minute. As a result, they cannot run as fast as Quarter horses, but they can maintain their speed for much longer.
To learn more about each fast breed, read our guide on the fastest horse breeds.
Average Speed of Horse Gaits
Below, we will take a look at how fast the different horse gaits are on average. Please note that all of these speeds were estimated with a rider on.
We can only assume that horses can run faster without a rider, however, it would be hard to motivate a free horse to run as fast as it can. Hence why this hasn’t been measured yet.
Basic Horse Gaits
The walk is the slowest horse gait and covers around two meters per second. In walk, the horse moves in a four-beat pattern with two to three feet on the ground and no moment of suspension.
The trot is a medium-speed gait of around 4 m/s. Trot is a two-beat gait where the diagonal leg pairs move together and there is a short moment of suspension.
Moving up the scale is canter, a three-beat gait with a longer moment of suspension than trot. Canter can be the same speed as trot or slightly faster, ranging from 4-8 m/s.
The fastest of all gaits is gallop, in which the horse can travel up to 14 m/s on average. Unlike canter, gallop is a four-beat gait with a pronounced moment of suspension.
Special Horse Gaits
Other than the four basic gaits, certain horse breeds like the Icelandic horse can perform additional special gaits.
One of these is the pace, a two-beat gait where the parallel leg pairs move together. Like trot, it has a moment of suspension, although it’s a slightly faster gait at 5 m/s.
Tölt is another special gait that gives the rider a very smooth sensation in the saddle. Despite having the same footfall pattern as the walk, tölt is almost as fast as gallop and can reach 9 m/s.
The table below summarizes the most common horse gaits and their average speed:
|Walk||4.3 mph (6.9 km/h)|
|Trot||8 mph (12.9 km/h)|
|Pace||10 mph (16 km/h)|
|Canter||10 to 17 mph (16 – 27.3 km/h)|
|Tölt||20 mph (32 km/h)|
|Gallop||25 to 30 mph (40.2 – 48.3 km/h)|
Horses Are One of The Fastest Land Mammals on Earth
A cheetah might be able to run at 75 mph (120 km/h), and their feather-light bodies weigh no more than 65 to 110 pounds (30 to 50 kg). In contrast, an average racehorse weighs ten times more than a cheetah (1150 pounds or 520 kg).
Relative to their body size, horses are among the fastest mammals on Earth. They have many unique survival adaptations that allow them to outrun most animals their size.
The Horse’s Legs Are Built for Running
One such adaptation is their long legs which gives them a greater stride length. Stride length and stride rate are two of the main factors that determine how fast an animal can run.
Moreover, the lower legs of horses have very little muscle tissue and are mostly made up of tendons, ligaments, and bones. This not only makes their legs lightweight and easy to move around, but also very efficient when it comes to running.
When the horse’s foot touches the ground, these tendons get loaded with elastic energy, which is then released as the horse pushes off the ground. The lower leg then springs back up with no effort required from the horse, and the cycle starts again.
Related: 12 Interesting Horse Skeleton Facts
Horses Have Very Large Hearts
Considering the superior athletes they are, it’s not surprising that horses have oversized hearts. The larger this organ is, the more oxygen can be carried to muscles, and the faster the anima can move on the ground.
The average horse’s heart weighs around 1% of its body weight. This means a 1,000-pound (450 kg) horse would have a heart weighing around 10 pounds (4.5 kg). However, heart size increases with training, which is why racehorses have bigger than average hearts.
Fitness also increases the amount of blood in the horse’s body, which helps maintain adequate muscle function during exercise. It also prevents the horse from overheating while running.
Related: 15 Interesting Horse Anatomy Facts
The Horse’s Spleen Stores Red Blood Cells
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a compound that transports oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and other organs.
In most animals, red blood cells are found in the blood, but horses also store them in their spleen.
When running at high speeds, the horse’s speed will release additional red blood cells into the bloodstream to help supply muscles with oxygen. This unique adaptation enables the horse to keep using its muscles for longer and delays the onset of fatigue.
Other factors that affect a horse’s speed are their breed, health, age, temperament, nutrition, fitness, and the weight of the rider.
Related: 8 Best Endurance Horse Breeds
The Factor Limiting Running Speed in Horses
Unlike the heart and muscles, the horse’s respiratory system cannot be improved with training. This is one of the reasons why it is considered a weakness in the horse’s athletic ability.
Moreover, since horses have very long heads and necks, they draw a lot of air into the upper respiratory tract that will never reach the lungs. This is called anatomical dead space and makes horses less efficient in breathing during exercise.
It also doesn’t help that horses are only able to breathe through their nose.
With all that being said, their lungs do have a very large surface area of about ten tennis courts in size where gas exchange happens.
In contrast, the same are in humans is only the size of one-third of a tennis court.