How Fast Can a Horse Run?

Jelena Woehr
By Jelena Woehr. Reviewed by Courtnee Morton, DVM on Mar. 20, 2024
Grey horse galloping

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From legendary racehorses like Secretariat to herds of Mustangs galloping across the plains of the American West, horses are known around the world for their speed and endurance. Have you ever wondered exactly how fast can a horse run?

How Anatomy Affects Horse Speed

Horses come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with some far more optimized for speed than others. A horse of average size and build can run at a top speed of about 30 miles per hour for a short time. Selectively bred and conditioned racehorses can run even faster, with some sprinting racehorses reaching speeds over 40 miles per hour.

Horses are prey animals that evolved to live primarily in grasslands, since they eat hay and forage. A grassland herbivore’s best strategy for survival is to outrun predators such as wolves and big cats. So over time, wild horses developed greater running speed, which was passed down to their domesticated descendants.

Horse speed is determined by two primary factors: stride rate and stride length. A horse’s lower legs have a single toe ending in a hoof. Longer limb length allows for longer stride length.

When running at their fastest gait—the gallop—horses have, at most, two hooves in contact with the ground at a time. Each stride involves two “suspension phases,” where no limbs are in contact with the ground. The phases of a horse’s galloping stride are:

  • Hind legs throw the horse’s weight forward

  • Abdominal muscles contract to allow for a moment of suspension

  • Front legs absorb the horse’s weight as they land

Fastest Horse Breeds

Recent research tracing the ancient equine genome shows that, over time, humans have increasingly selected for speed when breeding horses. These efforts contributed to the development of three horse breeds known for their speed.

Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred racehorses can run almost 44 miles per hour over a short distance, and average 38 miles per hour over typical race distances.

Thoroughbred races are measured in furlongs. One furlong is 201.2 meters. The “classic distance” for Thoroughbred racing is eight furlongs (one mile), while the famed Kentucky Derby is 10 furlongs (1.25 miles).

American Quarter Horse

American Quarter Horses were originally bred for their speed in quarter-mile races, though most modern Quarter Horses are bred for other sports. Racing Quarter Horses can very briefly run as fast as 55 miles per hour. Quarter Horses bred for racing typically possess two copies of the “speed gene,” known as myostatin (MSTN), which is associated with faster sprinting speeds.

Arabian

Arabian horses were traditionally owned by nomads who traveled long distances in desert climates. The horses were selected for their ability to run at moderate speed for many miles.

Today, Arabian horses dominate the sport of endurance riding, where race lengths range from 25 to 100 miles. Endurance rides take place on natural trails, not racetracks. Endurance horses typically travel at the trot and/or or canter for many hours, rather than at the fast but tiring gallop. However, Arabian racehorses galloping on the racetrack can reach peak speeds of about 33 miles per hour.

What Is the Top Speed for a Horse?

A Thoroughbred filly named Winning Brew currently holds the Guinness Book World Record for highest race speed recorded over two furlongs. Winning Brew ran two furlongs in 20.57 seconds, breaking the previous record of 20.68 seconds, set in 2005 by an American Quarter horse, A Long Goodbye.

How Fast Can a Horse Run with a Rider?

You might assume horses can run faster without riders. However, some research suggests that, by moving their own bodies in rhythm with their horses’ stride, highly skilled jockeys actually help propel their horses forward.

Sprinting racehorses with jockeys have been clocked running as fast as 43–55 miles per hour for very brief periods, but top galloping speeds of 25–35 miles per hour are more typical in home environments with riders who are not jockeys.

How Far Can a Horse Run and for How Long?

Horses can run at absolute top speed for only a few seconds at a time. However, at moderate speeds, elite endurance horses can travel up to 100 miles or more in 24 hours.

On a flat course with no natural obstacles, the world record at the 100-mile distance is held by an Arabian gelding named Jayhal Shazal, who ran 100 miles in five hours, 45 minutes, and 44 seconds.

Left to their own devices, horses rarely run for very long. When escaping a predator, wild horses stop running as soon as it is safe to do so. Horses running for play usually alternate running with other forms of roughhousing, such as playful nipping.

When running at their fastest gait—the gallop—horses have, at most, two hooves in contact with the ground at a time.

Under pressure from humans, horses may run to the point of exhaustion. As prey animals, horses evolved to continue running in response to certain stimuli, even when they feel tired. In nature this is self-limiting, because a predator will either catch the horse or eventually be left behind. In captivity, with the stimulus being a rider’s cues, it is possible for a rider to continue urging their horse to run even after they have used too much energy to safely continue.      

Thus, organizations that sanction horse races of any kind must implement strict rules to protect horses. For example, the American Endurance Ride Conference prohibits cash prizes for endurance riding, to discourage riders from pushing their horses too hard.

Horse Running FAQs

How fast can a racing horse run?

The world record for a racing horse running a quarter mile is just under 44 miles per hour. Thoroughbred racehorses average about 38 miles per hour overall while racing.

How fast can a Quarter Horse run?

One Quarter Horse briefly reached a peak speed of 55 miles per hour while completing a quarter-mile race.

How long can a horse run at full speed?

Horses can run at full speed for only a few seconds at a time.

References

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Sandes D. Evolution driving improvements in racehorse speed, study shows. News. Published June 2, 2023. Accessed February 11, 2024. https://news.exeter.ac.uk/faculty-of-environment-science-and-economy/evolution-driving-improvements-in-racehorse-speed-study-shows/

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World-record holder aims to validate status in Challenge. ESPN.com. Published November 5, 2005. Accessed February 11, 2024. https://www.espn.com/sports/horse/columns/story?id=2214965

Bloodhorse.com. Published 2024. Accessed February 11, 2024. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/141928/mandurah-sets-world-record-for-mile-on-turf

Equibase.com. Published 2023. https://www.equibase.com/content/northamericanrecords.cfm

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References


Jelena Woehr

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Jelena Woehr


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