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How Fast Can a Horse Run?

From the saddle, sometimes it can seems like a horse is moving so fast it is practically flying. Its a thrill like nothing else. But have you ever wondered just how fast a horse can run?

At top speed, a Quarter Horse can run up to 55 MPH. Most horse breeds gallop between 25-30 MPH.

What makes the horse one of the world’s fastest animals as well as being beautiful? And why are some horses faster than others? Let’s look at some of the things that influence a horse’s speed. 

Why Can Horses Run So Fast? 

Horses are prey animals, and speed is their top defense mechanism. That makes it a given that keeping their speed in top form is a priority in nature. 

But beyond this, horses have been bred for speed throughout the last couple of hundred years. Racehorse breeders are selective of the stock whose genetics they capitalize on, much like the process of natural selection.

By breeding their fastest horses to the fastest horse they can find, genetics eventually weed out the slower genes. 

But that isn’t to say that other traits aren’t important. No matter how physically capable a horse might be, a horse that is unwilling or uninterested in running will never run as fast as a horse that loves to run. It isn’t all about the horse’s frame and muscle.

Even Seabiscuit needed some motivation to get him running at top speed, for example. He liked to look his competition in the eye before giving them a good view of his behind on the track. 

Watch this amazing video of thoroughbred racehorse galloping at top speed:

There is some debate over whether horses have reached their top speed and will never get any faster, but researchers have found evidence to be inconclusive.

Short distance speeds (sprints) seem to be continuing to get faster, but long-distance speeds seem to have plateaued, as evidenced by the long-standing records set by Secretariat in the 1970s. Even recent Triple Crown winners are proving to be finishing the races below Secretariat’s speed.

But sprint times have increased at least 11%, so maybe it is just the long distances that are not important anymore. And it could be all in the horses that we are breeding now, as well. 

Still, horses are definitely fast, and watching them run is amazing. Whether they get any faster or not, their speed and skill is absolutely breathtaking. Riding on their backs or watching from the ground, these beautiful and amazing animals will always be a joy to run. 

Fastest Horse Breeds

As we mentioned in our fastest horse breeds article, two horse breeds are generally recognized as being the fastest in the world:  Quarter Horses for short distances, and Thoroughbreds for long distances.

While a Thoroughbred can maintain high speed with greater endurance in a long race, the top speed a Thoroughbred can only reach a top speed of around 45 MPH in short distance runs. A Quarter Horse can reach around 50 MPH in a short race, but doesn’t have the stamina to maintain high speeds for as great a distance as the Thoroughbred. 

It is interesting to note that legendary Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby at an average speed of 38 MPH. 

Fastest Horse Racing Records: 

Winning Brew, a Thoroughbred, holds the record for the fastest race finish, completing two furlongs in just 20:57, with a speed of 43.97 MPH out of the gate. It wouldn’t be much fun to be unseated from a horse moving that fast! 

Factors That Affect a Horse’s Speed

Racehorses must carry a rider on their back, slowing them down a little, and to be fair, racing professionals weigh and regulate the amount of weight that each horse must carry.

While the owners want to be sure the weight the horse carries is minimal, the racing associations don’t want any of them to have an unfair advantage by carrying too little weight, either. 

The frame, or conformation of a horse also affects how much speed a horse can reach. Despite the fact that racehorses are usually leggy Thoroughbreds, it depends more on the type of muscle fibers that a horse is made up of than how long a horse’s legs are. The stride angle also plays a key role. 

horses racing and galloping at top speed

The reason the stride angle and muscle fibre type are important comes down to the physics of the matter. A horse’s run speed depends on how quickly the horse is able to stretch out and recoil his frame. A longer stretch and faster recoil time results in a greater speed. 

So what does a good stride consist of? The average stride of racehorse is around 20 feet. The great Man O’War, however, had a stride of 28 feet, almost half again that number.

Stride rate averages somewhere between 130 – 140 strides per minutes. Stride angle is not so easy to determine, but it is a well-known fact that the amazing Secretariat had an unbelievable 110° stride angle. 

Some other factors that have proven to be keys to speed include good airflow through the respiratory system, a strong heart, excellent muscle tone, and a solid frame.

Surprisingly, the fastest horses are the most average in build, with an average height and average muscle proportioning. The famous Seabiscuit was only 15 hh and Northern Dancer was also small but powerful. 

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