FAQ Riding

Bred for Speed, Born to Run: Racing Breeds 101

Horse track racing on dirt
Written by Marie A.

Best Horse Breeds for Racing

Did you know that Thoroughbred racing, while popular, isn’t the only type of horse racing?

Like the colors of a rainbow, many horse breeds are celebrated for different racing styles that fit their unique abilities.

Breed Description Typical Events Top Speeds
Thoroughbred A registered Thoroughbred traces its lineage back to three foundation stallions and is registered with the Jockey Club. They’re bred for racing. Flat and steeplechasing 40-45 MPH
Quarter Horse Horses originating in the USA. Sprinting horses bred to excel at quarter-mile distances. Flat racing and contesting events 55 MPH
Standardbred Horses bred to excel at harness racing at either a trot or a pace gait. Harness racing 30 MPH
Arabian A versatile breed that originated in the Arabian Peninsula. Their incredible stamina allows them to excel in long-distance races. Endurance racing 7 MPH
Appaloosa Known for its spotted coat, the breed is a stock breed known mostly for western riding disciplines. Contesting events 40 MPH
Paint This breed combines the Western stock horse with a pinto spotting pattern. Developed from the Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and spotted horses. Contesting events 40 MPH
Miniature Horse Defined by their small height, these horses are popular with children and driving. Children’s racing, barrel racing (driving) 18 to 20 MPH

Types of Racing

From steeplechasing to endurance racing, people have figured out how to do it if there’s a way to race horses. That said, certain breeds have a knack for certain kinds of racing.

#1 Track Racing

Think of the Kentucky Derby. The horses make up the actual race, but spectators are cared for by the racetrack. Types of racing on the track include:

1a – Flat Races on Dirt

These races are based on speed alone, and typically generate faster race times than similar distances on grass, or turf.

  • Typical Distance(s): Between 2 and 12 furlongs
    • A furlong is ⅛ of a mile
  • Average Speeds: 30 to 40 MPH
  • Breeds: Most commonly, Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses
    • Thoroughbreds typically race 5-12 furlongs
    • Quarter horses race 2 furlongs (¼ mile, hence their name)

1b – Flat Races on Turf

Very similar to dirt races, the only difference is the track surface–grass, or synthetic turf. Bigger Thoroughbred tracks in the United States typically have dirt races along the outside of the track and turf races on the inside.

  • Typical Distance(s): Similar to flat racing on dirt
  • Average Speeds: 30 to 40 MPH
  • Breeds: Most commonly, Thoroughbreds
    • Arabians also race on tracks in their breed-specific category
Horse track racing on turf

Track racing on turf. Photo Cred: Canva

1c – Steeplechase

Steeplechasing involves racing over obstacles, typically ditches and hedges.

The name comes from its origins: steeplechasing began in Ireland, where riders would race from town to town using church steeples (the most visible landmark) as starting and ending points.

  • Typical Distance(s): 3,000 meters, or 1.875 miles
  • Average Speeds: 30 to 40 MPH
  • Breeds: Thoroughbreds dominate this sport!
    • Some tracks offer steeplechasing without a breed-specific requirement.

1d – Harness Racing

Horses race at either a trot or a pace (lateral gait) while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart, called a sulky, behind them.

  • Typical Distance(s): ½ mile, ⅝ mile, and 1 mile
  • Average Speeds: Horses can reach speeds of 30 mph!
  • Breeds: Standardbreds
Harness horse racing

Harness racing. Photo Cred: Canva

#2 Endurance Racing

Think of this like running a long-distance race, such as a trail marathon, but for horses.

  • Typical Distance(s): Starts at 25 miles, typical race distances are 50 or 100 miles
  • Average Speeds: 7 mph due to extreme length and terrain
  • Breeds: Any breed can compete, but the sport is dominated by Arabians
Arabian horse galloping

Arabian. Photo Cred: Canva

Want to learn more? Check out this endurance video:

#3 Contesting Events

These kinds of races test speed and agility in an arena while racing the clock. You’ll find contesting events at your local 4-H show all the way up to national, breed shows like the Quarter Horse Congress.

Typical contesting events include barrel racing and pole bending.

  • Typical Distance(s): Very short: These events take place in an arena
    • Barrel racing involves navigating three barrels, spaced 90 feet apart
  • Average Speeds: Horses can reach speeds of 55 mph!
  • Breeds: While 4-H and local shows are open to any breed, obviously breed shows will be specific to that breed
Barrel horse racing

Barrel racing. Photo Cred: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is World Cup Driving? What kind of horses are used for driving races?

World Cup Driving is a sport involving carriage driving. This isn’t for any specific breed, though warmbloods and Morgans are popular. Want a better example than words can give?

Q: What breed is most commonly used for children’s racing?

Typically, Shetland Ponies are used for children’s racing.

Q: Is a Thoroughbred faster than an Arabian?

Though it depends on the distance involved, Thoroughbreds are typically faster, with Quarter Horses in second, and Arabians in third.

Q: What breed of horse is most prevalent in racing events?

Thoroughbreds are usually the most popular for racing events.

Q: What is the best type of horse for racing?

This question wholly depends on what kind of racing you want to do! Make sure the horse is sound, fit, and capable of doing the event you’re aiming for.

Parting Thoughts

Every breed has something they’re good at, just like every rider has something they enjoy. Horses and racing have gone hand-in-hoof since horses were first domesticated.

Racing is a great way to test a horse and rider’s abilities, while having fun in a competitive environment.

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About the author


Marie A.

Though I love all horses, Arabians are my all-time favorite breed! I'm raising an Arabian filly and riding and showing my gelding on the Class A Arabian Circuit. I also enjoy going to horse racing and following the latest industry news.