Horses have been an integral part of society for over 6,000 years—from their use in labor, transportation, and sport. Horse racing as we know it today has been a popular pastime since the 18th century. Before then, the earliest accounts of horse racing date back to 700 BCE. While horse racing may have evolved over the past thousand years, it continues to remain a favorite pastime for many people.
What is the World’s Fastest Horse?
Holding the Guinness World Record, the fastest horse in the world is a horse named Winning Brew. Winning Brew—a thoroughbred—ran a quarter-mile in May 2008 in 20.57 seconds. She reached a speed of 43.97 miles per hour.
What Are the Fastest Horse Breeds?
Today, there are over 200 different breeds of horses. Humans have been breeding and domesticating horses for thousands of years to create the types of horses that can be used to do specific jobs—like field work, pulling carriages, or competing in sports.
Despite there being so many different horse breeds, there are a few that tend to be the fastest out of them all. These are:
- American quarter horse
Thoroughbred horses are best known for horse racing. We can track the bloodlines of modern-day thoroughbred horses back to 17th-century England when three horses were brought to Europe from North Africa and the Near East. All thoroughbred horses are descendants of these three known as Darley Arabian, Godolphin Barb, and Byerley Turk.
Thoroughbred’s maximum speeds are about 45 to 55 miles per hour. This speed has been achieved by breeding the top horses that exhibited great stamina, speed, and strength.
Check out our imperial to metric converter to see what these speeds are in kilometers.
- Show jumping
- Improving other breeds
- Long neck
- High withers
- 1,000-1,200 pounds
- 15-17 hands*
- Bay, black, or chestnut coloring
*Horses are measured in hands. One hand is equivalent to four inches. Horses are measured from the ground to their shoulders—or withers.
American Quarter Horse
The American quarter horse was bred in the United States in the 1600s. This breed was first made from a combination of native horses and an imported horse breed from England—the thoroughbred. While the American quarter horse was used for racing in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were replaced with other breeds like the thoroughbred. Instead, the American quarter horse became the top pick for ranchers expanding westward.
The American quarter horse excels at short-distance sprinting. Some American quarter horses have reached speeds of about 50 miles per hour. This breed is the most popular in the United States and is used in a variety of different ways—most in rodeo and riding.
- Small, short heads
- Strong and muscular
- 950-1,200 pounds
- 14-16 hands
- Sorrel and chestnut (there are 23 recognized colors)
The Arabian horse is native to the Arabian peninsula. It is one of the oldest breeds of domesticated horses dating back over 4,500 years ago. Arabian horses were originally used as war horses by the Bedouin’s—a nomadic group of people residing in the deserts of Arabia. The Bedouin’s took great care in breeding these horses by only mating the horses with the temperaments and qualities they determined as best. Their care for breeding Arabian horses is seen today in modern-day Arabians.
Arabian horses are known for their endurance and user participation in equestrian riding events. The Arabian horse gallop speed average is 40 miles per hour.
- Endurance racing
- Police mounts
- English and Western riding
- Defined head and long neck
- High tail carriage
- 800-1,000 pounds
- 14-15 hands
- Bay, black, or gray coloring
An American horse breed, Standardbred horses can trace their bloodline back to a thoroughbred horse from England named Messenger. Born in 1849, Messenger’s great-grandson—Hambletorian 10—is considered the breed’s foundation sire.
The Standardbred breed closely resembles thoroughbreds but are typically smaller with longer, lower bodies. These horses are best known for harness racing, and they can reach speeds of 30 to 35 miles per hour.
- Harness racing
- Horse shows
- Pleasure riding
- Long shoulders
- Short back
- 900-1,000 pounds
- 15-16 hands
- Bay, brown, or chestnut coloring
The History of Horse Racing
Horse racing dates back to the ancient Olympic games in Greece. Between 700 and 40 BCE, both chariot and horseback racing were events in the Olympics. While equestrian events in the Olympics are different today, horse racing as a sport hasn’t changed much since it first began thousands of years ago.
Horse Racing in Medieval Times
In medieval England, from around 1066 to 1485, horse races were used to sell horses. Riders would race horses to display their speed and agility. This was also the time period of the first recorded horse purse. The horse race was a three-mile course with knights as the riders.
Horse Racing in the 17th Century
During the 17th century, Charles II began multiple horse races throughout England where prizes were awarded. He also created the earliest racing rules in England at this time. The race—known as The King’s Plates—involved six-year-old horses racing on a four-mile course while pulling 168 pounds.
Meanwhile, the first documented horse race in France occurred in 1651. During Louis XIV’s reign, betting on horses became popular among nobles and commoners.
In 1664, the British began organizing horse racing in what is present-day New York City and Long Island. A two-mile track was laid out and silver cups were awarded to the fastest horses twice a year.
Modern Horse Racing
In the late 18th to the late 19th century, modern-day horse racing as we’re familiar with now began. Races, such as The British Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby were all introduced in this less-than-100-year time period.
Horse Speed Compared to Human Speed
Knowing how fast horses are is an intriguing question—but maybe you’re wondering, “how do humans compare to horses?” Usain Bolt is currently the fastest human on Earth. He reached a speed of 27.79 miles per hour in 2009 during a 100-meter race at the IAAF World Championships. That’s 16.18 miles per hour slower than the world’s fastest horse, Winning Brew.
While most people will never reach Bolt’s speed, the average human runs about a nine to 10-minute mile. While there are many factors that contribute to someone’s speed like shoes, age, and elevation, there’s no question that horses are significantly faster than humans. The average human male runs about eight miles per hour, while the average horse runs anywhere from 35 to 45 miles per hour.
Using the percentage calculator, we can see that an average horse is over 4.5 times faster than the average human male. Wondering how fast you are? Put on your running shoes, start a timer, and check out our Average Speed Calculator to see how you compare.
Emily is a freelance writer and teacher. Originally from New York, Emily now lives and works in Europe.