Horses have dazzled humans with their grace, power, stamina, agility, endurance, and beauty for thousands of years. However, one equine trait is prized above all others: speed. While many horses are kept as pets, used for transport or allowed to simply roam wild, the most famous horses are used for sport and entertainment.
There are more than 300 different horse breeds flourishing around the world, but only a handful are quick enough to be considered for popular sports like horse racing, polo, and harness racing. These are the five quickest horse breeds:
English breeders created the thoroughbred by combining the bloodlines of the quickest Barb, Turkoman, and Arabian horses they could find. The Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb are therefore found in the pedigree of every single thoroughbred horse in the world. It is a magnificent combination, allowing thoroughbreds to excel in all manner of horse racing events.
The breed was exported into North America in 1730 and then into continental Europe, Australia, South America, South Africa and Japan during the 19th century. They now dominate the horse racing scene across the globe. If you check out the exciting prices on the world’s most famous races, you will see that they are all thoroughbreds.
Some are better suited to sprinting for a mile or less, while others flourish in middle-distance races like the Derby at Epsom, the Kentucky Derby, the Cox Plate, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Others display a tremendous blend of speed and stamina, allowing them to compete in the world’s greatest races for stayers, such as the Melbourne Cup, the Ascot Gold Cup, and the St. Leger Stakes.
Thoroughbreds are considered hot-blooded horses, renowned for their agility, tenacity, and, above all, speed. They are mainly used for racing – including flat racing and steeplechasing – but they are also used for show jumping, dressage, and eventing, along with polo and hunting.
American Quarter Horse
The American Quarter Horse was bred during the colonial era for the specific purpose of sprinting just a quarter of a mile at high speeds. This breed would stand no chance against a thoroughbred in a longer race, but over a short distance, it is the world’s fastest horse.
The Quarter Horse was raced on the eastern seaboard of the United States, on far shorter tracks than the classic racecourses found in England. Many of them were simply straight stretches of road or flat pieces of lands.
A Quarter Horse is shorter and stockier than a thoroughbred. They have been clocked at 55mph (88.5km/h), so they are unrivalled when it comes to short bursts of pace. From a racing perspective, Quarter Horses were overshadowed by thoroughbreds by the early 19th century, but they were reinvented as stock horses.
Today they are used for rodeo events like barrel racing, calf roping and team roping, along with cutting and reining. It remains the largest breed in the United States and it is still defined by a small head, short, powerful body, barrel chest and extremely powerful legs.
They do not perform well when it comes to cattle work, but they are used in trail riding, mounted police units and as pets. They are also sometimes used for show jumping, dressage and hunting. Bookmakers in Australia have explored offering betting on Quarter Horse racing to offset greyhound losses.
The Arabian is the world’s greatest horse when it comes to thriving over epic distances. They were forced to survive in arid, desert conditions for thousands of years, and they have developed a unique ability to conserve energy.
It is one of the world’s oldest horse breeds. There is archaeological evidence of horses that resemble modern Arabians dating back some 4,500 years. The Arabian horse has long been prized by the Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula. They are renowned for their distinctive head shape, high tail carriage, even temperament, willingness to please, intelligence, and friendly nature.
Arabian horses today are found all over the world, while their influence is notable in thoroughbreds, American Quarter Horses, and many other breeds. They feature horse racing, dressage, cutting, reining, show jumping, eventing and trail riding, but they are best at endurance riding. Despite their magnificent stamina, they are also very quick and have been recorded to run at a maximum speed of 40mph (65km/h).
This American horse breed is best known for its ability to thrive within harness racing. It can trace its bloodlines to 18th century England, but the standardbred was developed in North America.
They are more muscular and longer bodied than thoroughbreds, and they have a calmer demeanor, which makes them perfect for the sort of agility required for harness racing. Standardbreds can either trot or pace, and they are well equipped for quick changes of speed.
They are not as quick as American Quarter Horses or thoroughbreds, but the finest standardbreds have been known to hit impressive top speeds. In a harness race against the clock, the standardbred racehorse Lee Axworthy trotted a mile in just a minute and 58 seconds, for an average speed of just over 30 miles per hour, which is extremely impressive for a horse lumbered with a harness.
Standardbreds are flourishing across Australia and other countries as harness racing continue to enjoy enduring popularity.
This American horse breed is known for its spotted coat, mottled skin, striped hooves, and the white sclera on its eyes. It is used extensively for both Western and English riding, and you will regularly see appaloosas at barrel racing, roping, cutting, and reining events. They also pop up in fox hunts and show jumping events in the UK.
Many Appaloosas are bred for short-distance racing. An Appaloosa holds the all-breed record over 4.5 furlongs (910m), set in 1989. They have been clocked at more than 40mph on American circuits.
Western movies often feature Appaloosas. Famous examples include Cojo Rojo, ridden by Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa, and Zip Cochise, the mount of John Wayne in El Dorado. Matt Damon also rode an Appaloosa called Cowboy in True Grit.