10 Best Horse Breeds for Racing
With its origins going back to classical antiquity, horse racing has endured as a competitive equestrian sport over the millennia.
Besides being used for agricultural purposes, travel and other such endeavors, horses have also been used in sporting events and in various types of races.
Below, I’m going to cover the best horse breeds for racing, bearing in mind that there is more than one type of horse racing.
What are the Traits of a Good Racing Horse?
There isn’t one singular trait that makes a racing horse good. Instead, there are a number of traits that taken together make up a successful racing horse.
Here are the most important traits of a racing horse:
No doubt, speed is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the qualities a racehorse should have.
Racehorses can reach top speeds of 40-55 mph. While speed is crucial for a racehorse, it’s not the only thing that matters.
Stamina is another important aspect, especially when it comes to endurance races.
The second important trait of a racehorse is endurance – the ability of a horse to keep running without breaks, all the while managing its energy reserves. It also covers the ability of a horse to recover quickly.
Stamina and endurance are all the more important in endurance races where horses are expected to cover a large distance over consecutive days.
– Intelligence & Trainability
It’s important for a racehorse to be intelligent and trainable. Luckily, most horses are highly intelligent and are willing to learn and execute commands.
Horses are generally jumpy and get spooked easily. A racehorse, however, should be calm, balanced and level-headed.
In races with multiple horses that are running at their top speeds, any sudden jumps or unusual behaviors can cause accidents.
Therefore, it’s important for racehorses to stay focused and overcome any flight instinct they may have.
– Athleticism & Agility
Some horse races involve jumping over obstacles, so horses need a good level of athleticism and agility to manage those obstacles. Even when speed alone is what matters in a race, agility is an important trait for a horse.
Another trait that should not be overlooked is the health of a horse. Racehorses go through a lot of straining that will cause joint pain and damage over time, so it’s important to allow race horses to recover and keep them in good health. Racehorses also retire early for this very reason.
What Types of Horse Races Are There?
I mentioned how there are different types of horse races, some of the most popular ones are the following:
– Flat Racing
The Kentucky Derby is the most popular flat racing event. This type of race is the most popular one in horse racing and takes place on a flat surface, without any obstacles or hurdles.
The goal of the game is the same – to determine which horse is the fastest from a pool of competing horses.
– Jump Racing
Unlike flat racing, jump racing involves completing a race that also involves jumping over obstacles like fences or ditches. The horse that completes the race the fastest and without stumbling over or skipping obstacles will be crowned as the winner of the jump race.
– Quarter Horse Racing
Speed is the name of the game in this type of horse racing. Horses compete on short, up to a quarter mile tracks that feature no obstacles. This type of horse race is one of the most entertaining ones because horses competing at the race run at extreme speeds.
– Harness Racing
Unlike the previous races, harness racing is not about speed, but about maintaining a certain pace throughout the race without breaking stride.
It also involves pulling the rider seated in a two-wheeled sulky (think of a modernized version of the chariot).
This type of race proves that traits like trainability, intelligence and willingness are also important in a horse.
– Stakes Racing
Only proven horses and top jockeys can participate in stakes racing. The Kentucky Derby is stakes racing. And the stakes are high with seriously large prizes on the line.
– Endurance Racing
Although speed is still a crucial element of endurance racing – after all the first horse to cross the finish line is crowned as the winner, stamina is just as important.
Horses need to compete in day-long races or races that stretch over the course of multiple days, covering distances of over 150 miles.
Which Horse Breeds are Best for Racing?
To get you up to speed with the best horse breeds for racing, here are my top 10 picks:
1. Quarter Horse
As one of the most popular horse breeds in North America, the Quarter Horse is a common presence in horse races due to its speed, intelligence and stamina.
The top speed the quarter horse can reach is around 55 mph, making it one of the fastest horse breeds around.
One of the things that I like most about the breed when it comes to their racing prowess is their capability to conserve energy. This is why the Quarter Horse is not only a suitable racing horse but also an excellent endurance race-horse.
Besides their speed and stamina, their intelligence and ability to manage their energy levels, Quarter Horses are also a brave and confident breed.
This is a trait that’s in demand for racehorses as they can’t afford to be distracted, scared or get spooked on the racetrack.
Any such incident would likely result in an accident or injury, so racehorses must be calm and balanced.
Quarter Horses are also athletic and can perform wonderfully in races where they need to jump over fences and other obstacles.
All these qualities prove what the breeders of the Quarter Horse have always known – that this is an all-round horse suitable for a variety of racing styles including flat, endurance and barrel.
The Arabian horse is probably one of the best endurance racehorses in existence. Their stamina is unparalleled, which isn’t accidental – they were bred specifically for this trait.
With its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabian horses were bred by nomadic Bedouins, who sought to breed a horse that has stamina, energy, and an ability to survive on little water. They also have thin skin preventing them from overheating too much.
One of the complaints with the Arabian horse is their spunky personalities, which makes them an unfit choice for beginner riders.
An experienced rider can divert that energy towards more useful goals and help the Arabian horse shine in what they do best – endurance racing.
Beyond these traits, it’s impossible not to mention that the Arabian is an intelligent and extremely loyal horse that loves the company of people.
Compact in size, they’re also suitable for competing in flat races. Their top speeds range between 34 mph – 40 mph.
Depending on the type of racing you’re looking to compete in, the Arabian is versatile enough and fast enough to compete in a variety of races.
That said, their strong personalities can sometimes shine through, especially if you don’t have much experience with horses.
Suitable for a variety of horse racing styles, the Thoroughbred is an iconic breed known for speed, endurance and agility.
It’s not a wonder that they excel in any type of horse racing seeing how they’ve been bred solely for this purpose.
That said, they come with a caveat, namely that they’re a bit spirited and not suitable to be handled by less experienced riders.
Originally from England, thoroughbreds were instrumental in the development of other breeds such as the Quarter Horse, Standardbred, Anglo-Arabian and various others.
They’re often used in cross-breeding with other breeds to either create new breeds or introduce specific traits into existing breeds.
It is said of the Thoroughbred that they perform with maximum exertion, which is why they’re better suited for distance running and sprinting.
Unfortunately, like many other racehorses, Thoroughbreds have a high rate of injury including fractures but also other orthopedic injuries.
When raising a Thoroughbred for racing, it’s important to be mindful of the implications racing has on their health.
Retired Thoroughbreds make excellent equine companions or riding horses, which is a testament to their friendly nature.
With speeds over 43 mph, Appaloosas are excellent endurance and flat-racers, but will compete with skill and aptitude in other disciplines as well.
One reason behind their versatility is that they have Arabians, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds in their bloodlines, all of which offer this breed a certain complexity to compete in various races.
Originally bred by the Nez Percé Indians, they were looking to accentuate certain traits in the Appaloosa such as endurance, speed and a good temperament.
These horses are also hardy and adaptable, but also stubborn at times, so I don’t recommend them as a first horse for beginner riders.
Beyond the traits that make the Appaloosa a great racing horse, there are other traits such as their spotted coats and loyalty.
You can rely on the Appaloosa when it comes to strength and speed. They’re also highly trainable horses due to their intelligence.
Appaloosas are most common in endurance races and trail riding, but they’re also skilled flat-racers as well.
As far as health issues are concerned, the Appaloosa breed is genetically predisposed to various eyesight-related illnesses such as the Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) and a form of night blindness, called congenital stationary night blindness (CSNB).
An icon of harness racing, the Standardbred is also an accomplished show horse and they compete with skill even in jump races.
Standardbreds were purposefully created as a harness-racing breed and their personality traits do make them a perfect match for this type of racing.
This breed is friendly, gentle, and they’re among the easiest horses to train. Their willingness to engage with their trainer or rider is near-unparalleled, which explains why they’re so easy to train.
They’re considered a gaited breed. And while similar to Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds have a heavier build, boasting more muscles and longer bodies. Thoroughbreds are slimmer, more athletic, and taller compared to Standardbreds.
Besides being used in harness racing, Standardbreds are also used for pleasure riding and in horse shows.
All the personality traits of the Standardbred that I mentioned point to the fact that this is an exemplary horse for beginner riders and experienced ones alike.
Today’s descendants of the Standardbred horse breed can be traced back to Hambletonian, the great-grandson of Messenger, an English Thoroughbred imported into the US in 1788.
With such a bloodline, it’s only natural that there are similarities between the two breeds.
6. Andalusian Horse
A fast-paced breed that can run 55 mph over a quarter-mile distance, the Andalusian horse is an extremely docile and trainable horse.
Due to their calm demeanor, you’ll often see Andalusian horses in riding schools. The breed is originally from the Iberian Peninsula and it’s also called the Pure Spanish Horse.
The Andalusian has been specifically selected for traits like athleticism and stamina. Its physical features denote a muscular, elegant horse with a thick mane and tail.
Because of their elegance and impressive physical features, the Andalusian horse is often featured in fantasy epics and historical movies.
Throughout history, the Andalusian horse was used for riding, driving, and classical dressage. They were even used by both the Spanish and Portuguese military and were expected to cover long distances and carry weights.
They were also used as stock horses and in this role they worked with Iberian bulls, known for their aggressive temperament. Andalusian horses, therefore, are brave and courageous horses.
While Andalusians are extremely versatile, they’re predominantly used in jump races and several types of horse show events.
If you’re looking for a well-mannered, elegant horse that exudes stamina and strength, the Andalusian may be the right pick for you.
7. French Trotter
Originally from France, the French Trotter is a fast horse that’s predominantly used in harness and saddle trot races. It can run at a speed of 40 mph.
Founded on the Old Norman breed, with time Thoroughbred, American Standardbred, Norfolk Roadster, Hackney and hunter-type bloodlines were also included.
They’re considered a gaited horse because of their diagonal two-beat trot, which affords them a speed that can compete with the speed of a galloping Thoroughbred.
Because of their endurance and build, French Trotters tend to have longer racing careers compared to other breeds.
In terms of personality, the French Trotter is famous for its docile and trainable personality. Due to these very traits, they’re easy to handle both by adults and children.
Apart from their prolific careers in harness and saddle trot races, the French Trotter is also an accomplished jump racer, hunting horse, riding horse, and it’s also being used in skijoring races, where the driver is pulled on skis behind the horse.
As you can already tell, this is another versatile breed that can compete in various horse racing events. A testament to their strength, athleticism and endurance.
8. Orlov Trotter
Suited best for harness and saddle trot races, the Orlov Trotter is the most famous Russian horse breed, developed by Count Orlov in the 1770s.
Accustomed to the harsh climate of Russia, the Orlov Trotter is known for its strength and endurance.
Its bloodline includes various European mares and Arabian stallions. Due to their Arabian origins, most Orlov Trotters are gray at maturity.
Orlov trotters are both more robust and taller than Standardbreds. Because of their robust and tall build, the Orlov Trotter is also used by the Russian mounted police.
It’s no doubt that the Orlov Trotter is the crown jewel of Russian horse breeding, although today their population may be in danger due to the low number of mares available as well as the preference of Russians for other breeds.
That said, the Orlov Trotter is unparalleled in its strong drive, hardiness, and endurance.
It’s also a healthy breed with no known health concerns.
They’re also willing horses, whose gentle nature and quick learning capabilities situate them among the best racehorses.
If you’re looking for a horse specifically bred for saddle trot and harness racing, the Orlov Trotter is an impeccable choice both in terms of physical strength and personality traits.
9. Shetland Pony
If you have a teenager eager to compete in horse racing, the Shetland Pony may be an excellent way to introduce 16-year-olds and younger to horse racing.
The Shetland pony is smaller than a horse, standing somewhere between 36-41 inches. Don’t get fooled by the size, however, these ponies are speedy – they can reach a speed of 30 mph.
Although ponies are often said to be stubborn and have a mind of their own, the Shetland pony is highly intelligent and willing to learn. They’re easily trained and eager learners.
They’re suitable for flat racing and jump racing within their respective categories. Clearly, you can’t expect a pony to compete with a Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse.
Besides their career as a racing pony, Shetlands are also kept as pets and they make terrific pets if you know how to manage their needs and expectations.
Muscular, strong, but also friendly and gentle, the Morgan is a suitable choice for endurance races, but also English and Western style races.
They’re easy to train because of their quick wit but also openness to form bonds with their trainers or owners.
Beyond their great personality and willingness to listen to their riders, the Morgan is also a strong horse that can pull more weight than you’d think.
When not racing or kept for pleasure riding, the Morgan is also an excellent stock horse because of its calm personality and courage.
And another testament to their bravery and courage is the fact that they were used as cavalry mounts by both sides in the American Civil War.
They’re also an excellent choice for driving competitions such as combined driving and carriage driving.
Besides all these accomplishments of the Morgan, it’s also important to mention the role of this breed in the creation of several other breeds such as the American Saddlebred.
It’s no question that the Morgan is an extremely versatile horse, well-suited for a variety of horse racing styles and events, all the while being a great choice for an equine companion as well.
Other Horse Breeds Suitable for Racing
The horse breeds I discussed in detail are just some of the many horse breeds suitable for racing. Others include:
- Paso Fino
- Paint Horse
- American Miniature Horse
- Friesian Horse
As you can see the list is long since most horses can compete in a style of horse racing or other. If you’re curious about the best racing horse breeds based on speed alone, check out the next section of this article.
Which are the Fastest Horse Breeds?
Based on speed alone, the fastest horse breeds are as follows:
- American Quarter
- Paint Horse
These horses can reach speeds between 30-55 mph, making them the fastest horse breeds around and the ones most commonly seen in racing events where horses compete based on speed alone.
When it comes to endurance races, however, Arabian horses dominate these races. The fact that the Arabian is a notable mention both in flat races and endurance races is only a testament to their excellence and versatility.
Although all the horses I discussed in this article are suitable for racing, not all are suitable for all types of horse races.
Some are accomplished harness racehorses (Standardbred), others are exemplary flat racers (Quarter Horses), while some have the build for endurance races (Arabian).
Of course, there are exceptions too, with certain breeds such as the Quarter Horse being a suitable choice for a variety of horse race types.
When you’re looking to pick a horse for racing, make sure you take into account their suitability for the type of racing you’re looking to compete in.
Likewise, don’t ignore the personality traits of horses either because they can be just as important as their physical traits.