How long a horse can run sounds like asking how long is a piece of string. Many equestrians will snort and tell you that their horse can run as far as it takes to get home. But there are some stats on the subject.
A horse can run at a gallop for about 2 miles (3.2 km) without stopping. Some horses can canter up to five miles (8 km) without a break. A horse allowed to trot and walk with breaks can cover up to 32 miles (51 km) in under twelve hours. But it depends on the breed of a horse and its fitness.
How long a horse can run depends on many variables, including its breed, fitness, and how much weight it is carrying. But there are additional factors determining a horse’s stamina, such as the weather, terrain, and if the water had enough water before it sprinted off. But like the fable The Tortoise and the Hare, a horse will go further if it is ridden slower.
Horse Breeds: Speed
Horses come in a variety of breeds, making some more suitable for specific tasks. Some horse breeds are excellent at pulling heavy loads. Others are short, which makes them useful for small children to ride. There are a handful of breeds that have a specific gate that makes them a smooth ride. Then there are horses bred for speed or endurance.
A fast horse might be able to go distances, but not necessarily. A fast horse might not even be good for racing because how long a horse can maintain its speed matters on the racetrack.
10 Fast Horse Breeds
|American Quarter Horse||up to 55 mph (88.5 km/h)|
|Andalusians||up to 50 mph (80.5 km/h)|
|Akhal-Teke||up to 45 mph (72.4 km/h)|
|Thoroughbreds||up to 43 mph (69.2 km/h)|
|Appaloosa||up to 41 mph (66 km/h)|
|Arabians||up to 40 mph (64.4 km/h)|
|Marwari Horse||up to 40 mph (64.4 km/h)|
|American Paint Horse||up to 40 mph (64.4 km/h)|
|French Trotter||up to 40 mph (64.4 km/h)|
|Standardbred||up to 30 mph (48.28)|
|Gypsy Vanner||between 25 to 30 mph (40.2 – 48.28 km/h)|
Why Are Thoroughbreds Used for Racing?
Horse racing takes many forms, but when we think of a racehorse, Thoroughbreds come to mind, which may seem odd, given they are not the fastest horse breed. The American Quarter Horse is the fastest horse breed. However, they can only maintain top speed for a quarter-mile sprint (ah, suddenly, their name makes sense).
Horse racing’s most popular form is conducted on a track of around 2 miles (3.2 km). This is where Thoroughbreds shine. An Arabian will beat a Thoroughbred in an endurance race. A Standardbred will do better than both Arabian and Thoroughbreds when it comes to harness racing. All of which makes the British saying “Horses for courses” apt.
Here is a YouTube video on five reasons Thoroughbreds are built for standard racing:
Horse Breeds: Endurance
Endurance horse breeds can cover long distances. Some of these horses can be fast, like the American Quarter Horse, but they can only maintain that top speed for a short time. The donkey, however, is never going to be considered fast, but it is hardy and can plod on for days with proper care.
Endurance Horse Breeds
|Arabian||These are the most popular breed for endurance racing, known for their stamina. An endurance race isn’t solely about speed, however. The weight of the rider, a horse’s body condition score, and a veterinary evaluation will also factor into the total score. A 50 mile (80.4 km) race is generally over 12 hours, with 24 hours to cover 100 miles (161 km).|
|Mustangs||These horses’ lives depend on their ability to survive the wilds of the United States. Natural selection favors horses with endurance traits. Formally wild mustangs have been tamed and finished in the top ten of endurance races.|
|Anglo-Arabian||These are usually bred by taking an Arabian stallion and mating with a Thoroughbred mare. This produces a horse with more speed than a typical Arabian and more stamina than a Thoroughbred. They are a good choice for a heavier rider, as they are taller than an Arabian purebred.|
|Morgan Horse||Considered a versatile horse, suitable for trail or competitive sport. The dependable horse, recommended for new riders, was once used in farmer fields and during the Civil War.|
|Akhal-Teke||This beautiful breed is rare and is generally faster than an Arabian in shorter distances. But they have been known to beat an Arabian in endurance races.|
|Boerperd||A breed that came out of an ancient southern African Boer horse. These are laid-back horses with five gaits.|
|Criollo||This Latin American breed is known for their low metabolisms. These horses are great for week-long endurance events.|
|Missouri Fox Trotter||Bred in the Ozark Mountains, this gaited breed is said to have Arabian bloodlines. It is a popular choice for trail riding and is known to do well in endurance sports.|
|Quarter Horses||Due to their short sprint ability, this breed is popular with barrel races. But the stocky breed has stamina at lower speeds, making it suitable for the trail and an option for endurance racing.|
|Mules||While technically only half horse, these animals are made to go far. They’ve even raced in the Tevis Cup, one placing 35th in 2018.|
You can saturate yourself in endurance horse information with this free webinar on YouTube:
How Horses are Built for Speed and Endurance
Horses are prey animals, which means they need to be able to outrun predators, which at times has included humans.
Horse’s Breathing, Heart, and Vascularization
Dr. Melissa Mazen believes the main reasons horses are fast due to how they breathe and the size of their heart.
Horses are exclusively nose breathers, so they can’t breathe through their mouths. This means their swallowing never gets in the way of their breathing.
Horses also have large hearts for their comparable size, and as we saw above, Thoroughbreds have especially large hearts. Of course, if the blood weren’t getting enough oxygen to the muscles, the large heart wouldn’t matter much, but their vascularization is considered very good.
You can find Dr. Miellissa Mazen’s video by clicking here.
One Toe or Spring-foot?
Horses’ evolution from having toes to a single hoof has often been explained by speed. But then there are those pesky ostriches with toe toes per foot, capable of covering over 16 feet (5 m) in a single stride at speeds of 45mph (72.4 km/h). That’s faster than many horse breeds.
But scientists have discovered some common traits between the ostrich and horse, and it isn’t just that an ostrich’s second toe resembles a hoof. It has to do with the leg and the pogo-stick action in the tendons. This allows the animals to use less leg muscle to achieve the same speed as other animals.
The pogo-stick action also helps with longevity, along with the large heart. Horses also have huge lungs.
Signs a Horse is Overworked
Going fast and far on a horse might be fun, but at some point, it isn’t going to be good for the horse. Horses can die of dehydration, heart attacks, and exhaustion if they are pushed beyond their endurance without proper rest. This could be due to being chased by a predator, be it an animal or a helicopter.
But even during regular training, a horse can become fatigued. Regular hose fatigued is harder to spot and can be gradual. Signs to watch out for include:
- Drop in performance.
- Isn’t responding to aids as per the norm.
- Acting unmotivated.
- Coordination is reduced.
- Labored and/or increased breathing.
- Shows reduced interest in their fellow horses, even when a new herd member is introduced.
- Unexpected drops in body weight.
- Head tossing and tail wringing that doesn’t have an obvious explanation and is out of character.
Reasons for Unexpected Fatigue in a Horse
- Pollen irritating the horse’s airways. Other sources could be mold spores, dusty bedding, or hay.
- Stress. Has there been a change in the horse’s life? Have you increased the intensity of training too quickly?
- Asking too much from a young horse.
- Not enough variety in intensity in the horse’s training. Just like people are not supposed to lift weights for the same muscle groups each day, a horse needs variety too.
- Does the horse have plenty of foraging between meals?
Humans Vs. Horse: Who Can Run the Furthest
When it comes to sprinting, horses win against humans. It is also nicer to ride a horse the same amount of distance as walking. But who can run further, horses or humans?
Humans can outrun a horse in long distances. It is argued that humans have evolved to outrun any animals on Earth when it comes to distance. A cheetah will run a human being down in a short space, as will other animals such as hippos and polar bears. But when it comes to distance, the fit humans win.
Your average human isn’t going to beat a horse in any kind of foot race. Your average modern human would be hard-pressed to keep running for even a mile. But a well-trained human of the right build can go far. How far? Well, Dean Karnazes, in 2016, ran 350 miles (563.27 km) in 80 hours and 44 minutes without stopping to sleep.
Admittedly, Karnazes has a rare genetic condition that helped him achieve his amazing feat. His body can rid itself of lactic acid much faster than regular people. This trait is also found in the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) people.
But even a top ultra-marathon runner has an edge on horses: sweat. Unlike horses, human sweat is primarily made of water. Human sweat’s purpose is to cool us down and comes from three glands: eccrine, apocrine, and apoeccrine. Horse sweat comes from only apocrine glands and has less water content.
Horses try to keep cool in numerous ways, from their version to panting to the dilatation of the capillaries. Due to the components of their sweat, their gastrointestinal tract and lymphatic system help provide fluids. This takes a lot of energy, all while wearing fur. Human sweat evaporates right off the skin, cooling us faster.
Thus, it is heat that is the key to a human winning a race against horses. On flat terrain in cool temps, a horse may constantly win. But sweat will give humans the long-distance advantage in a race over the course of a day.
10 Horse Speed and Distance Facts
- Within 90 minutes of being born, a foal will begin to walk and try to run. (source)
- A.F. Tschiffely set out to ride 10,000 miles. The trip took him and his trusty Criollo just under three years. Some say he actually only road 7,000 miles; either way, it was long. (source and source).
- Winning Brew is the current record holder for the fastest horse for a distance over two furlongs. The two-year-old filly ran at 43.97 mph (70.76 km/h). (source)
- Hawkster holds the record for fastest 1.5 miles (2.414m). The three-year-old colt ran at 37.82 mph (60.86 km/h). (source)
- The Mongol Derby is currently the longest horse race in the world, clocking in at 621.37 miles (1,000 km). (source)
- The oldest winner of the Mongol Derby is Robert Long at 70-years-old. Local Mongolian hoses are used for the race and are swapped out at checkpoints to ensure the horses are not overworked. Over the eight days of riding, Long swapped horses 28 times. (source)
- The oldest horse to finish The Tevis Cup was PL Murcury at 27-years-old. (source)
- The movie Hidalgo, supposedly based on a 3,000 mile (4,828.032 km) race, “the Ocean of Fire,” is more fiction than fact. (source)
- The longest flat race in Britain is the Queen Alexandra Stakes at 2 miles and six furlongs. (source)
- American mustangs wander an average of 20 miles (32.18 km) a day. (source)
Horses can run fast, but their speed and breaks need to be managed to achieve greater distances. Some of the fastest horses can’t maintain their top speed for very long. But even fast and fit horses should not be run at their top speed for more than a few miles.