How Fast Does a Racehorse Run?

Horses have survived on this planet because of their ability to run and communicate.
Learn how fast does a racehorse run here.

There's nothing quite like watching a racehorse run. Every muscle seems perfectly attuned to push the horse at impossible speeds toward their single goal: the finish line.

Do you ever watch a race and find yourself wondering, "How fast does a racehorse run?" You're not alone!

Here's what you need to know to answer that question. 

Anatomy of a Running Horse

The first thing you have to understand is that racehorses (and horses in general, from plodding trail ponies to multi-million dollar world-class racehorses) are as unique as human runners.

Just as there's a universe of difference between Usain Bolt and the neighborhood granny jogger, there's a huge disparity between the average racehorse and the fastest horses in the world. 

The best place to start is to look at the mechanics. Much like Olympic athletes, some horses are naturally built to be better runners, even though all horses are evolutionarily designed to survive by running. 

What Helps a Horse Run?

The racehorses you see thundering down the track are fast due to the perfect combination of nature and nurture. Or rather, biology, training, diet, and handling.

Every horse is built to run, and all horses are built with the same basic components. However, some horses, like Clydesdales, are built to pull heavy loads, while some, like Hanoverians, are perfect for dressage, and some, like Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, are built for speed.

The anatomy of movement is split between the horse's skeleton and muscles.

The skeleton supports the muscles, and muscle groups work to move the skeleton. The better the muscles are at coiling and uncoiling to create power, the faster a horse can run.

Surprisingly, in most cases, the average horse with good athleticism is usually the fastest. Taller horses aren't necessarily faster (higher center of gravity), nor are stocky horses (greater muscle mass means greater effort). A horse of average height with average (yet athletic) proportions is a fast horse.

There are exceptions, of course--take Seabiscuit, who was a decidedly small horse at just 15 hands) or the legendary Secretariat, nicknamed Big Red because he was a giant of a horse (so big, in fact, that his early trainers first thought of him as a big clown rather than the towering powerhouse he proved to be).

What Determines a Horse's Speed?

A horse's speed is determined by a few key factors:

  • Stride, including stride length and stride rate
  • Training
  • Fitness and diet

Thoroughbreds are typically thought of as fastest because they tend to have long legs. When racing (against non-Thoroughbreds, anyway) this can actually be a disadvantage.

True, their stride is longer, but fast horses need to be able to move their legs forward and back quickly, which is harder for a horse with longer legs.


A stride is a distance a horse can cover in a single leap, measured in the distance between where a horse sets down their front foot and where they set down that same foot again.

The average stride length for a Thoroughbred is 20 feet at a full gallop, though some horses have longer strides--the legendary racehorse Man O'War had a stride length of 28 feet.

The stride rate, or turnover ratio, is the number of strides a racehorse can make in a given time. The faster the turnover rate, the faster the horse. Most racehorses average 130 to 140 strides per minute. The longer the horse's stride, the more efficient their stride rate has to be in order to be an efficient runner.


However, even the horse with the longest stride and most efficient stride rate won't win races unless they have the training to back it up.

Racehorses are like the Olympic gymnasts of the horse world. They need to be light and highly athletic to maintain their speed, which requires extremely regimented training--far more intensive than average equine conditioning.

Technically, so long as a horse is healthy, they can continue training and racing for many years. Most flat racehorses start racing at the age of two and retire by the time they're four or five and are usually considered in their prime at age four (for context, horses aren't considered adults until the age of four).

Retiring a healthy horse after just two years of racing is a physical and financial cost-benefit analysis for owners and trainers. A horse might have several good racing years left, but they will slow down as they age, and the longer and harder they train, the higher their risk of injury.

Past a certain point, it's more valuable for the owner to retire a racehorse in their prime when they can demand the most money to use the horse for breeding. As such, when we talk about the fastest horses in the world, we're usually talking about horses between two and four years old.

Fitness and Diet

Runners are often told that you can't outrun a bad diet, and this is also true of racehorses.

While all horses eat the same basic things, racehorses have a diet that is specifically tailored to provide them the fuel they need to run as fast as possible without putting on excess weight that might slow them down.

Everything a horse is given, from hay to carrots to Innovet CBD pellets, is carefully calculated as part of their training regimen. This is why a school pony is far slower than a professional racehorse.

What's in a Name (or Breed?)

As noted earlier, some breeds are built for speed more than others. As such, certain breeds are more common on racetracks. The five fastest horse breeds are: 

  1. Thoroughbreds
  2. American Quarter Horses
  3. Arabians
  4. Standardbreds
  5. Appaloosas

Each breed is best at different types of racing events, which is why you won't typically see a racing gate with a mix of Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Appaloosas (you'd know the difference--Arabians are smaller and more delicate than Thoroughbreds, and Appaloosas have unmistakeable spotted coats).

Arabians, for example, aren't the fastest horse in a flat-out race but they have far greater endurance for long-distance runs. Appaloosas, on the other hand, were originally bred for hunting and have the durability, endurance, and strength required for such a task.


Most of the time, when people refer to racehorses, they're referring to Thoroughbreds. Which makes sense--many of the most famous racehorses in history were Thoroughbreds (or contributors to what became the Thoroughbred breed).

Thoroughbreds are known as quick and agile with a temperament to match (at minimum, Thoroughbreds are energetic--at worse, they're high-strung). They're tall, lean, and powerful animals with competitive personalities, gaining most of their power from strong shoulders and hindquarters. 

American Quarter Horses

Thoroughbreds are best-known in the racing world, which is slightly ironic considering that American Quarter Horses are actually faster.

Direct race times can be misleading, but when timed from a standing start, Quarter Horses gain speed through each race segment, while Thoroughbreds reach their highest speeds in the middle of the race and gradually lose speed in the latter half of the race.

Quarter horses are also uniquely adaptable, best known for using their powerful haunches in sharp turns, which makes them quite popular in Western events such as barrel racing and herding.

Speed Lessons from the Greatest Horses in History

There are some horses whose names and records have been immortalized. Horses today are still trying to beat their records, whether it's time, speed, or the number of successes. 

Some of the most famous racehorses in history include:

  • Eclipse
  • Secretariat
  • Man O' War
  • Seabiscuit
  • Winning Brew
  • Black Caviar
  • Seattle Slew

Secretariat and Man O' War are generally considered two of the greatest horses of all time, though Eclipse can be credited with the modern Thoroughbred breed.

Eclipse was an 18th-century horse born on the solar eclipse. His fame is based on an unusually short career of just 17 months. He was retired unusually early not for any physical reason, but because he was so consistently successful that no one bothered betting on any other horse.

The most famous modern horse is Secretariat, and for good reason. He won the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years in 1973, his Preakness time remains unchallenged 40 years later, his Belmont time is still two full seconds better than decades of challengers, and his 1.5-mile time remains a world record.

Fastest Recorded Speed, Fastest Recorded Time

Funnily enough, however, the fastest recorded racehorse speed in history doesn't belong to Secretariat, but to Winning Brew.

Winning Brew was a two-year-old filly who holds the Guinness World Record for fastest recorded speed over two furlongs at 70.76 km/h (43.97 mph), a record set on May 14, 2008, at the Penn National Racecourse in Grantsville, Pennsylvania.

However, Secretariat still holds the record for the fastest recorded time achieved on a dirt track, based on his 1973 Belmont race for the Triple Crown. That race is still viewed as one of the greatest races of all time. 

So...How Fast Does a Racehorse Run?

Of course, not all racehorses are Secretariat or Winning Brew. But make no mistake: they're still fast. 

We'll use the Kentucky Derby as our example. The race is just two minutes long. We'll assume that conditions at Churchill Downs make it a "fast track", meaning that the track is dry and at optimal efficiency.

Under these conditions, the average time is 122 seconds (in fact, every Derby winner has run the race in 125 seconds or less). There are 10 furlongs in the Kentucky Derby (a furlong is one-eighth of a mile) which makes the track about 1.25 miles long.

If the average Kentucky Derby winner runs 1.25 miles in 122 seconds, then the average speed of a Kentucky Derby racehorse clocks in at about 36.89 mph, almost 10 mph slower than Winning Brew.

Keep in mind, however, that racehorses are highly trained athletes. The average horse gallops slower than that, at around 30 mph.

More News and Facts for Racing Fanatics

How fast does a racehorse run? Much faster than a human, and certainly fast enough to get a speeding ticket in a school zone.

Still, the speed number itself isn't quite the joy of racing, is it? The joy of racing is seeing that speed in action.

If you're a racing fanatic, make sure to check out our blog for more great posts.