Ask anyone what they think about when you say the word “horsepower”, and, you’ll likely get a few different answers!
For some, the image of Ford Mustangs squealing their tires and zooming off into the distance is the first thing that comes to mind. For others, it’s the image of regular ole four-legged literal Mustangs galloping majestically.
Regardless, everyone agrees that two words which are synonymous with the term “horsepower” are: speed, and power. But when we talk about speed, how fast are we talking? How fast can a horse run, exactly?
How Fast Can a Horse Run?
Just as with humans, each horse has a different top speed that depends on a variety of factors.
For starters, a horse’s top speed is partially determined by whether or not it is a racing horse. Racing horses are those whose breeds are sought after for their speed, agility, and endurance. Most racehorses are able to reach top speeds that easily surpass those of average horses or work horses, with some being able to run up to 55 miles per hour.
But that’s not to say that the average horse isn’t still… very fast indeed!. For example, your average horse will likely be able to reach top running speeds between 25 miles per hour and 35 miles per hour. If that doesn’t seem that fast or impressive to you, just think about how fast 30 miles per hour feels in your vehicle. Now consider how much technology goes into propelling you down the road at that speed. Then — marvel at the fact that a horse can achieve the same thing with just their four legs!
What Factors Affect How Fast a Horse Can Run?
Besides their training, there are a number of different factors that play a significant role in boosting or lowering a horse’s potential top speed.
Stride Rate, Stride Length, and Stride Angle
A horse’s speed can be thought of as a function of its stride length and stride rate. Before we go any further, we should review that a horse’s stride length is the distance between where its hoof hits the ground to where that same hoof next lands. Knowing this, we can intuit that a horse’s stride rate would measure the number of strides they complete in a set interval of time.
The average racehorse’s stride rate is between 130 and 140 strides per minute, while some of the fastest horses have stride rates of over 160 strides per minute. Additionally, the average stride length of a racehorse tends to be 20 feet or more. To put that into perspective, this means the average racehorse’s stride is as long as an average giraffe is tall!
We must remember that neither a horse’s stride rate nor its length exist in a vacuum when discussing their effects on speed. Rather, they are interdependent on one another and both play a pivotal role in determining a horse’s top speed. Generally speaking, one can increase the maximum speed of a horse by either increasing its stride rate or its stride length.
A horse’s stride angle is just as important in determining its top speed as its stride rate or length. The stride angle is the distance between the horse’s front and back hoof and is measured at the push-off point of the rear hoof. Typically, a horse with larger stride angles will have longer strides and lower stride rates. This becomes increasingly important in determining a horse’s likelihood of success in a race as the length of that race increases. Conversely, horses with lower stride angels, shorter stride lengths, and larger stride rates will likely find more success in shorter races that rely more heavily on sprinting.
Their Cardiovascular System
Horses have weirdly large, active hearts. No, seriously. The heart of a racehorse can circulate up to 75 gallons of blood each minute. And that’s a good thing, too. Their large, active hearts efficiently deliver much-needed oxygen to them when they’re huffing and puffing during strenuous exercise. By being able to transport tons of oxygen throughout their body continuously, horses can accelerate without having to worry about overworking themselves or gassing themselves too quickly.
But you probably won’t ever see a horse “huffing and puffing” as described above, since horses are obligate nasal breathers. This is because a horse’s epiglottis forms an air tight seal above its soft palate when it’s not swallowing. In order for a horse to breathe, air must flow through their nasal passages, down the upper respiratory tract, and into the lungs.
As a result of only having one way to initiate breathing, a horse’s lungs and nasal passages can be put under an immense amount of stress during physical activity. In fact, Poiseuille’s Law states that any incremental decrease to the radius of a tube increases resistance to flow by sixteen-fold.
That means that even the slightest narrowing of a horse’s airway can cause a horse to have an exponentially tougher time catching their breath. As you can imagine, such a phenomenon would slow them down considerably – especially during something as high-intensity as a race.\
Their Muscle Fiber Composition
Like other animals, horses have different types of muscle fibers that assist them with completing different types of movement. We can generally sort these into two categories: Type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers and Type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Slow-twitch muscle fibers contract slowly and are able to hold this contracted position for long periods of time without the onset of fatigue. On the other hand, fast-twitch muscle fibers contract very quickly and will cause muscle fatigue if held in a contracted position for too long. Type 2B fast-twitch fibers have the fastest contractile speed and are best suited for short bursts of high intensity motion. Type 2A fast-twitch fibers, however, are something of an intermediate type. These fast-twitch fibers are able to contract at a steady pace and able to hold a contracted position for an intermediary length between what a Type 1 and Type 2B fiber would allow.
While all horses have each of these types of muscle fibers, each breed has a distinct muscle fiber composition that makes it particularly suited for certain types of activity. All things being equal, a horse with more fast-twitch muscle fibers may be better suited for short bursts of sprinting, and thus may have a large stride rate and potentially, a very fast top speed. Horses with more slow-twitch fibers, on the other hand, may excel in competitions that rely on long-distance endurance at lower speeds, and thus may have lower top speeds.
A horse’s jockey can have a profound effect on the top speed that it can reach. A jockey’s posture can reduce or increase the burden placed on the horse back, and that can lead to a proportional increase or decrease in the top speed that it can reach. Many jockeys employ a crouched posture that allows them to move relative to the horse and thus minimize unnecessary movements that may cause drag.
The weight of a jockey and their tack also significantly affects a horse’s speed. Simply put, an increase in the jockey’s total weight leads to a decrease in the horse’s top speed. Sounds like common sense! Larger riders don’t just cause horses to come in second or third place, though. In some unfortunate cases, larger riders may cause musculoskeletal discomfort or even temporary lameness in horses who are unable to adequately support their weight.
The Surface They’re Running On
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s still worth discussing. A poorly maintained track (or even just a recently rained-on one) can effectively neuter much of the training, preparation, and optimization of stride that you might do to increase your horse’s speed.
This is because poorly maintained and wet tracks give way under your horse’s weight, in some cases even causing them to sink into the ground a bit with each step. As a result, each stride ends up taking more time and energy to complete, thus lowering the upper limit of your horse’s potential top speed.
What Can I Do to Make My Horse Run Faster?
It may seem like a horse’s top speed is almost entirely dependent on factors that are beyond your control as an owner. But this isn’t really the case. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to ensure your horse’s performance is always in peak condition.
Keep Them Conditioned
It makes sense, but you’d be surprised how many athletes there are who skip practice yet stare longingly at their stagnant times. Simply put, your horse needs to run often if you want them to run fast. But that doesn’t mean you should push your horse to their limit day in and day out. That’s a recipe for disaster (and injury). Instead, work with your trainer to determine the ideal amount and types of training for your horse and then stick with this plan. When it comes to increasing your horse’s speed, persistent conditioning is key.
Check Their Breathing
We discussed above how even the slightest interference in your horse’s breathing can drastically, negatively affect their performance. With this in mind, make sure your horse’s airway is completely unobstructed before having them engage in athletic activities. Any breathing problems that persist should be immediately investigated by a professional veterinarian.
Give Them Quality Feed and Care
When it comes to training horses for speed, the old saying “What goes in must come out” comes to mind. If you only put the cheapest hay available into your horse, well… don’t expect them to usurp Seabiscuit any time soon. Instead, make sure that your horse’s diet is rich in quality fats, carbohydrates, and protein to ensure they’re getting all of their essential nutrients.
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that any underlying conditions that may be bothering or irritating your horse are taken care of quickly. Certain conditions like white-line disease and horse hoof abscesses can cause all sorts of havoc on your equine friend and greatly inhibit their ability to run fast (if at all) and remain comfortable.
Luckily, there’s an over-the-counter solution that offers instant, no-odor, no-sting relief for a variety of horse-related ailments: Banixx! Just apply Banixx to the affected area and your equine partner will be galloping in delight in no time. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about the dangers of any pesky additives – Banixx is a potent steroid-free, anti-biotic free, and biodegradable antifungal and antibacterial agent.
Visit our horse page to learn more about how to keep your hooved buddy happy and healthy.