I’m sure we’ve all got a romantic picture in our minds of horses galloping, with the wind in their manes and tail, freely across open fields but while this may just be a figment of our imaginations horses are still very fast animals. But with over 300 different breeds around the world today they can’t all be as fast as each other so which is the best?
What are the fastest horse breeds in the world? In terms of top speeds the Quarter Horse, which can reach speeds of 55mph, is the fastest but this is over a short distance. Thoroughbreds can average 37mph over a two and a half-mile race but for distances over 20 miles, the Arabian is the fastest with an average speed of 10mph for a 100 mile race.
Why does a horse’s speed matter?
When we first began riding horses it was purely as a method of hunting bigger (and probably tastier) prey which meant we needed horses that were equally as fast as, if not faster than, the prey we were hunting. This, understandable, desire to eat meant that we favored horses that were fast and, over time, began breeding from those horses, creating the multitude of different breeds we have today. While we no longer need to use horses to hunt their speed is still used in many disciplines, especially all forms of racing.
The 8 fastest breeds
For many hundreds of years, we’ve been purposefully breeding horses, selecting the best horses for particular traits and characteristics with speed being just one of them. While the horse is inherently a fast animal there are some breeds that are much faster than others.
|Breed of horse||Top speed of the breed||Type of racing|
|Quarter Horse||55mph||Barrel, Endurance, Flat|
|Thoroughbred||48.63mph||Endurance, Flat, Steeplechase|
|Standardbred||46mph||Harness, Saddle Trot|
|Appaloosa||43mph||Barrel, Endurance, Flat|
|Arabian||40mph||Barrel, Endurance, Flat|
|French Trotter||40mph||Harness, Saddle Trot|
|Shetland Pony||30mph||Flat, Steeplechase|
Height: Most Quarter Horses stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) although on rare occasions they have been known to reach 17hh (68 inches).
Color: All colors are allowed but sorrel is by far the most common and popular color.
Character: Quarter Horses are highly intelligent horses that are capable of thinking for themselves. They also have gentle natures.
Country of Origin: USA
Top Speed: They can reach speeds of around 55mph (88.5 km/h).
While the Quarter Horse is probably most famous for its natural cow sense it was originally bred, during the seventeenth century, by English pioneers for its speed. Not only did these settlers bring their horses with them but they also brought their love of racing. In an attempt to make their horses even faster they bred them with Thoroughbreds along with Spanish and Oriental breeds. This resulted in a horse that, over a quarter of a mile, couldn’t be beaten.
Today most racetracks are longer than a quarter of a mile which has meant the Thoroughbred has overtaken the Quarter Horse (pardon the pun) in terms of racing popularity but over a short distance, there’s nothing that can outrun the Quarter Horse.
What type of racing is the Quarter Horse used for?
The Quarter Horse’s speed and agility make it ideally suited to barrel racing while its stamina makes it popular for endurance racing. The Quarter Horse is also regularly used for flat racing, typically over a quarter of a mile.
Want to know more about the Quarter Horse? Check out the American Quarter Horse Association.
Height: Most Thoroughbreds stand between 15.2hh (61 inches) and 17hh (68 inches).
Color: Only solid colors are allowed although bay, brown, and chestnut are the most common.
Character: Thoroughbreds are intelligent horses that are known for their spirited natures.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Top Speed: The fastest ever Thoroughbred, Battaash, reached an impressive 48.63mph (78.26 km/h) [source], but the world record is held by Winning Brew who clocked up an astonishing 43.97mph (70.76 km/h) [source]. The average speed of the thoroughbred though is 37mph (59.54 km/h).
Said to be the king of all racehorses, the world-famous Thoroughbred really is the ultimate horse when it comes to speed, but when you consider it was purposefully bred for racing it’s easy to see why. Originally bred during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, all Thoroughbreds are descended from just one of three stallions of Arabian and Akhal-Teke ancestry.
What might surprise you is that, despite various attempts, nobody has been able to create a faster breed or even to improve the Thoroughbred which is why the breed has remained largely untouched for nearly two hundred years.
What type of racing is the Thoroughbred used for?
The Thoroughbred is an incredibly fast horse which makes it extremely popular for flat, steeplechase, and endurance racing.
Want to know more about the Thoroughbred? Check out the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
Height: Most Standardbreds stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches), although they can be anything from 14hh (56 inches) to 17hh (68 inches) is allowed.
Color: Brown, black, bay, and chestnut are the most common colors but anything is allowed.
Character: Standardbreds are willing horses that are famous for their gentle natures and eagerness to learn.
Country of Origin: USA
Top Speed: During a trotting race Standardbreds average 35mph (56.32 km/h) but at times they exceed 46mph (74 km/h).
The Thoroughbred played a very big role in the development of the Standardbred which is one of the reasons why the breed is so fast, both as a trotter and as a pacer. In fact, all Standardbreds can trace their lineage back to just one horse, Hambleton 10, who was the great-grandson of the world-famous Messenger. Other breeds, such as the now-extinct Narragansett Pacer, Canadian Pacer, and Norfolk Trotter were also used in the Standardbred’s development which is why they’re born with the ability to trot or pace.
When you consider that no horse is allowed to race until he’s covered a mile in less than two minutes and twenty seconds (the ‘standard’ that gives the breed its name) it’s easy to see why the Standardbred has evolved into such a fast horse.
What type of racing is the Standardbred used for?
Standardbreds can be both trotters and pacers which means they’re ideal for both harness racing and saddle trot races.
Want to know more about the Standardbred? Check out the United States Trotting Association.
Height: Typically Appaloosas can be anything between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Most Appaloosas are spotted but they can also be solid-colored, as long as they have other characteristics such as mottled skin, striped hooves, and a white sclera around their eyes.
Character: Appaloosas are extremely loyal and friendly horses, they’re also highly intelligent and versatile.
Country of Origin: USA
Top Speed: The Appaloosa can reach speeds of up to 43mph (69 km/h).
The Appaloosa may be better known for its spotted coat pattern rather than for its speed but you shouldn’t underestimate just how fast they are. Originally bred by the Nez Percé Indians, the Appaloosa was highly valued as a fast warhorse that not only had plenty of speed but was also extremely agile.
After the now-infamous Nez Percé War, the Indians weren’t allowed to keep their horses so most of them were either shot by the US army or let loose. This meant that the breed was almost extinct until one breeder, Claude Thompson, who remembered seeing these horses as a child decided he wanted to see herds of spotted horses roam freely again. He began buying as many Appaloosas as he could and bred them to Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Quarter Horses in an attempt to increase their numbers. Not only was he successful in saving the breed he also was instrumental in making it breed even faster.
What type of racing is the Appaloosa used for?
The Appaloosa is built for speed and endurance which is why it’s a regular participant in endurance and flat races, it’s also very agile and as such excels at barrel racing too.
Want to know more about the Appaloosa? Check out my recent article on the Appaloosa.
Height: Arabians can reach 16hh (64 inches) but the average height is 14.3hh (57 inches).
Color: Black, brown, bay, chestnut, and grey are the most common although any solid color is allowed.
Character: Arabians are gentle horses that can easily be handled by children. They do have a fiery reputation but this is mostly unfounded with most horses having a calm nature.
Country of Origin: Arabian Peninsula
Top Speed: While they can reach speeds of up to 40mph (65 km/h) their average speed is 34mph (55 km/h).
Often said to be the ultimate horse the Arabian, which has been bred by the nomadic Bedouins for thousands of years, is an extremely fast horse that is loved for much more than just its pure speed.
Having evolved in the harsh desert conditions of the Arabian Peninsula, the breed has thinner skin than most other horses which means it can keep cool in the extremist of temperatures. While this might not seem important it means that the Arabian has a phenomenal amount of endurance.
What type of racing is the Arabian used for?
The Arabian is built for endurance and stamina which is why it’s a popular choice for endurance racing but its sheer speed means it can also be found in flat races while its agility makes it a good choice for barrel racing.
Want to know more about the Arabian? Check out the Arabian Horse Association.
Height: Most horses stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) although anything from 14hh (56 inches) to 16hh (64 inches) is allowed.
Color: Any solid color is allowed but some also have a metallic appearance to their coat which is caused by the lack of color at the core of each strand of hair.
Character: Akhal-Teke are extremely intelligent horses and while they do have gentle natures they can also be protective towards their owners which often makes them difficult to handle by other people.
Country of Origin: Turkmenistan
Top Speed: Like its close relatives, the Arabian and Thoroughbred, the Akhal-Teke is built for speed and can reach an incredible 40mph (65 km/h).
Like the Arabian, the Akhal-Teke began life alongside nomadic tribesmen (in this case the Teke tribe) which has helped it evolve into a tough horse that has plenty of speed and endurance. This endurance was put to the test in 1935 when a group of tribesmen rode from Ashkhabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, to Moscow, a distance of some 2,600 miles (4184 km). Covering around 31 miles a day they arrived at their destination 84 days later.
While it was believed for many years that the founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed were Arabians, recent studies have found that Byerley Turk was in fact a purebred Akhal-Teke while Darley Arabian was from a strain of Arabians that are known to have a lot of Akhal-Teke blood.
What type of racing is the Akhal-Teke used for?
Not only is the Akhal-Teke super fast which makes it great for flat racing, but it also has an abundance of stamina which is why it excels in endurance racing.
Want to know more about the Akhal-Teke? Check out the Akhal-Teke Association of America.
Height: Generally French Trotters stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Bay and brown are by far the most common but any solid color is allowed.
Character: The French Trotter has a gentle and kind nature that makes it easy to handle by everybody, from children and inexperienced riders to adults and pro riders.
Country of Origin: France
Top Speed: The French Trotter can easily reach speeds of 40mph (64 km/h).
The French Trotter was developed with the sole purpose of creating a fast trotting horse that could not only be raced in harness but also under saddle. This was done by crossing native French breeds with Thoroughbreds and the extinct Norfolk Trotter and later by using Standardbreds too.
Like the Standardbred, horses can’t race until they’ve proved their fast enough to cover a kilometer in less than one minute and sixteen seconds (for horses aged six and over). Horses that can’t do this aren’t allowed to stand at stud either which helps to ensure the breed’s speed and racing pedigree.
What type of racing is the French Trotter used for?
Like the Standardbred, the French Trotter is a popular harness racing and saddle trot horse.
Want to know more about the French Trotter? Check out Le Trot.
Height: The maximum height for Shetland Ponies is 10.2hh (41 inches) although most stand at around 9hh (36 inches).
Color: Black and brown are the most common colors although everything except spotted is allowed.
Character: Shetland Ponies are highly intelligent and brave little ponies, they have an unfounded reputation for being stubborn, but rather than that they know when something is a waste of their time and just won’t do it.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Top Speed: The Shetland Pony may have little legs but despite this, they regularly reach speeds of around 30mph (48 km/h).
The Shetland Pony was never bred for speed but that doesn’t mean it’s not fast, especially when you take their height into account. Okay so they’re never going to win a head-to-head race with breeds such as the Quarter Horse or the Thoroughbred but the Shetland Pony is still an extremely quick little pony.
While the US Pony Racing, LLC has a specific Shetland Pony Racing division, in the UK, they even have their own race series, the Shetland Pony Grand National which organizes races for 8 to 14 year olds every year. You can find out more about that here.
What type of racing is the Shetland Pony used for?
Their diminutive height might give the impression they’re not going to be suitable for racing but the Shetland Pony is a super-fast pony that is often raced in flat and steeplechase races.
Want to know more about the Shetland Pony? Check out the American Shetland Pony Club.
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I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉