Horses are amazing animals. If you’ve ever seen a horse race in person, it’s a sight to behold. A dozen majestic horses barreling down a race track, jockeys expertly crouched in an aerodynamic position. One or a few horses pull ahead of the pack going at speeds more typical of cars than anything else. Once you catch your breath, the thought crosses your mind: “What is the fastest horse breed?”
The crowd is on its feet, shouting with fists raised in the air. One horse crosses the finish line a hair ahead of the rest, and simultaneous shouts and groans erupt from the spectators. There’s no doubt that horses are fast, but which one is the fastest? You’ll be surprised at the answer because (spoiler alert) it might not be one of the horses you typically find at a race track!
What is the Fastest Horse Breed?
If you’re talking about pure top speed, the American Quarter Horse has no equal. The Quarter Horse was first developed in the United States over 200 years ago and excelled not only at racing but on ranches in the American West.
This horse breed gets its name from the usual distance they were raced — a quarter of a mile. These races were originally popularized in the Carolinas and Virginia and usually occurred in the streets of villages.
They were also one of the horses that helped define the American Frontier in the 1800s. This breed was indispensable on the ranch because its elegant, compact frame was perfect for herding, calf roping, and reining. In short, the Quarter Horse turned many farmers into bonafide cowboys.
American Quarter Horse History
The history of the Quarter Horse began in the early 1600s when English colonists crossed Spanish horses from the Chickasaw tribes (which were originally obtained from Spanish conquistadors a hundred years prior) with their English horse stock.
In the mid-1700s, people bred these English and Chickasaw mixes with a stallion named Janus. This Thoroughbred horse was the grandson of The Godolphin Arabian, one of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed.
The resulting horse had a compact build that was both strong and powerful. Over time, breeders crossed this horse with the Mustangs of the west, and the modern-day American Quarter Horse was born.
What is the Fastest Horse Speed?
The American Quarter Horse holds the top speed record at an astonishing 55 miles per hour! For some perspective, that’s the recommended speed limit for many highways in the US, but this isn’t a car…it’s a horse!
Quarter Horses possess an explosive burst of speed and powerful compact strides that accelerate quickly, so although they can’t keep the speed up for long distances, no other horse can touch them at short distances. They’re essentially the sprinters of the horse racing world.
The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) sanctions official Quarter Horse races that range from 220 yards to 870 yards, the most famous being The All-American Futurity.
Which is the Second Fastest Horse in the World?
The second fastest horse breed in the world is the Thoroughbred. These majestic beasts compete in the most popular horse races today, most notably the Triple Crown.
Even if you don’t know a lot about horses, you’ve heard of the Triple Crown — a series of three Thoroughbred races that includes the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. When people think of horse racing, they typically think of Thoroughbred races.
Thoroughbred races are usually close to a mile long (6 furlongs), and this breed excels at this distance. They have long legs and a lean muscular body, which is perfect for building up speed and maintaining it until they cross the finish line. The top speed of a Thoroughbred is a whopping 43.97 miles per hour.
How Many Breeds of Horses Are Considered Fast?
When considering traditionally fast horse breeds, there are only three in the running: the American Quarter Horse, the Thoroughbred, and the Arabian Horse. They each have their pros, cons, and specialties regarding speed, which we will go over now.
American Quarter Horse
As mentioned above, the Quarter Horse is the clear winner in terms of speed. No other breed can come close to the 55 miles per hour that this breed is capable of.
Quarter Horses are smaller and take shorter strides than other racehorses, but this gives them unmatched acceleration and agility. They dominate shorter races and competitive barrel racing. Their stocky build and athletic bodywork make this breed the fastest in the world.
Thoroughbreds are the iconic racing horse. You’ve probably even heard of them — Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Eclipse, Man O’War — these famous racehorses were all Thoroughbreds. The Kentucky Derby of the famed Triple Crown is the most popular horse race in the world, and riders can only race it with three-year-old Thoroughbreds.
Also, their speed isn’t anything for people to scoff at; a Thoroughbred has been clocked almost 44 miles per hour, and the average Kentucky Derby winner runs around 37 miles per hour. Thoroughbreds have longer legs and a lean, muscular body, which makes them ideal for longer races.
Arabian horses were originally bred for war in the Arabian Peninsula. They had to be fast and strong to navigate the chaos of battle. Not only that, they had to be hardy and dependable to survive the harsh desert and hot climate. As a result, Arabians are not only fast horses but also exceptional endurance horses.
Arabian stock contributed to both Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, so the speed is there. Arabians can run up to 40 miles per hour, which is commendable, but ultimately not quite as fast as Quarter Horses or Thoroughbreds.
However, where this breed excels is endurance races. Endurance races can vary from 50 miles to 100 miles (sometimes even over 100 miles!). Arabians are the most common breed used in these races because they can keep a strong, steady pace for hours on end.
Comparing the Breeds
In 2006, a study was done on Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians to analyze differences in acceleration, average speed, and racing tendencies in the beginning, middle, and end of races.
The study found that Quarter Horses averaged higher speeds than the other two breeds. Also, in short races of 336 meters or less, Quarter Horses consistently gained speed in each segment of the race. In longer races of 1006 meters, Thoroughbreds and Arabians were fastest in the middle segment of the race and slowed down in the last segment of the race.
These results confirmed that Quarter Horses are fast sprinters, while Thoroughbreds and Arabians fare better at longer distances.
Other Notable Fast Horse Breeds
Although not quite as fast as the breeds mentioned above, there are other fast horses out there. Many of these breeds have some Quarter Horse or Arabian in their pedigree.
Other horse breeds known for their speed include:
Who Was the Fastest Horse in History?
The horse that holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest horse in history is a Thoroughbred named Winning Brew. Although Quarter Horses have been known to run up to 55 miles per hour, the fastest officially recorded speed of a horse was achieved by Winning Brew at 43.97 miles per hour.
This record-breaking speed was achieved at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pennsylvania, on May 14, 2008. Winning Brew, a two-year-old filly (a term for a female horse under four years old), was trained by Francis Vitale, and she ran a quarter-mile in 20.57 seconds. For comparison, the previous record was 37.82 miles per hour, which was 22.8 seconds for a quarter-mile.
Unfortunately, Winning Brew didn’t end up winning any major horse races; apparently, having a high top speed doesn’t always amount to success on the racecourse.
Final Thoughts – Fastest Horse Breed
After hundreds of years of selective breeding, the modern racehorse is an impressive beast. Three breeds have emerged as the cream of the crop and are all equally impressive in their own ways.
Whether you favor the impressive top speed of an American Quarter Horse, the overall performance and classic heritage of a Thoroughbred, or the unyielding endurance of an Arabian, all three of these racehorse breeds are fast, strong, and exhilarating to watch.