Which Horse, What Race?

Racing a horse is a lot more than simply looking at whether the ground is wet or dry. It’s not even simply about how well the horse has been fed, rested or trained before a big race. In fact, the bulk of knowing what makes a particular animal suited to a specific form of racing requires an understanding of the animal’s lineage and breeding.

As with the diversification of humans in their ability to develop certain strengths for particular sports, such as the differences between sprinters and marathon runners, ice skaters or American Footballers, a number of factors can enter into the ability of a horse to rise to the top of a particular discipline.

Factors such as stamina, muscle twitch, weight or aggression can all factor into the animal’s performance. Careful attention to the traits of specific breeds has, over the centuries, led to the deliberate breeding of horses suited to specific tasks. Some of these traits have been developed out of necessity, either for the horses’ natural survival or from the needs of their owners, whether for commercial or recreational purposes.

This article will cover some of the common types of horses and the races they are most suited to the beginning with the breed whose name is most misunderstood the Thoroughbred.


Famous for giving their name to what is perhaps the most popular form of racing, the Thoroughbred has left many a ticket holder gasping for breath with close finishes and unexpected outsider wins. Whilst the name can lead to confusion, insofar as is can be used to refer to other pure-breed horses, the Thoroughbred is a pure-breed horse in its own right.

These horses were developed through selective breeding throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and can all trace their lineage to three stallions imported from the Middle East at this time.

Characterized by long necks and legs with lean bodies, they maintain a classical profile with their temperament begin described as “hot-blooded”. This refers not only to their spirited nature but also to the inherent qualities of speed and agility that are present in their breed.

Traits such as these make Thoroughbred particularly suitable for flat racing, both as sprinters and for long distance races. Although these are their main strengths, they may also be seen competing in barrel racing and steeplechase as well as in many Olympic show events.


The history of the Arabian breed of the horse goes back as far as four thousand years and is one of the oldest recognized purebreds still with us today. Originally these were primarily used in combat and this is apparent in the way they have developed through generations of selective breeding.

Known for their stamina over long distances as well as their speed it is no wonder that this particular line has been used over the centuries to improve certain qualities in other breeds. Whilst they are suited to short distance racing, their particular forte is that of endurance racing where they reign supreme.

Like Thoroughbreds, their superb breeding has contributed to a fine temperament making them reliable and also suitable for many show events.


Arriving on the scene in the eighteenth century, the Standardbred was developed at a time when trotting races were becoming popular. A robust stature, muscular shoulders and hindquarters lend well to harness racing and they have, in effect, evolved alongside the sport.

Their origin can be traced back to a smorgasbord of established breeds including Thoroughbreds, Hackneys, and Canadian Pacers. Formally recognized in 1879 the breed is known for having a much affable nature, being easier to train and possessing an intuitive intelligence making them suitable to harness racing.

Physically longer and more muscular than their Thoroughbred cousins it is perhaps not surprising that this combination of physique and intelligence makes them especially strong and suited to harness racing. All registered Standardbreds should be able to trace their lineage back to one sire known as Hambletonian 10.

American Quarter Horses

These horses take their name from their traditional forte which was the quarter-mile race. Their broad muscular chest belies a powerful and compact torso making them suitable for short sprint races.

Another breed that was developed and established in the mid-nineteenth century, American Quarter horses still see additional Thoroughbred bloodline injected into their strain without being considered “less pure”.

Their particular strength over short distances is best seen in races of distances between 220 to 870 yards and they are commonly referred to as the “world’s fastest athlete”. However, their versatility has seen developments within the breed making some horses more suited as a hunter or rodeo horses. These slightly different statures and core strengths should be noted when sizing them up for competition as over short distances there is not much room for error.


This American breed descended from the early Spanish horses brought to the new world. Through a mixture of voluntary, and later forced, adoption by native communities this horse probably traces its roots back to the Far East.

Known for its leopard patterning the horse has over the last century received injects into its bloodline from nearly all the main pure breed racing horses. Whilst still maintaining a relatively short stature this has encouraged positive traits in its racing ability.

As a result, the Appaloosa has become known for its powerful sprinting ability. Unlike their Quarter Horse relatives, they are more suited to middle distance races, performing best at distances between 350 yards and 0.5 miles.

Their agility and compact stature also make them particularly suited to barrel racing or timed pole racing events. This versatile animal continues to have an open book with regard to breeding lines which has resulted in there being some diversity in some strains with a potential to develop into a jack of all trades.