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Speed Demon: What Running a Horse Really Means

bay horse galloping in field
Written by Natalie Gasper

A Rookie Guide to Galloping Horses

There’s nothing quite like watching a horse gallop, except maybe riding it. Let’s dive into what running a horse means, and a few tips on how to ride a horse at this pace.

A gallop is a horse’s fastest gait. During the gallop, all four feet come off the ground at once. Many events, including racing and showjumping, feature the gallop. The fastest horse on record was clocked at just shy of 44 mph.

Fun fact: even when running, horses can’t breathe through their mouths.

The Gallop Defined

A gallop is the fastest gait of a horse (or any four-legged animal), distinguished by all four feet being off the ground simultaneously during each stride. If someone refers to a horse as running, they are most likely referring to a gallop.

Personal Story Time: I once had a friend who came out to ride for the first time. She claimed the horse “ran away with her” although he was only doing a medium trot, at best. So, the term “running a horse” could certainly have different meanings depending on the individual and their experiences!

The Running Horse

There are several different ways to refer to a horse’s fastest gait.

  • Running
  • Gallop
  • Hand Gallop

Events that Feature the Gallop

The gallop is exciting, so it’s no wonder that many events include it!

  • Racing
  • Contesting Events
  • Reining
  • Working Cow Events
  • Showjumping
  • Cross Country
  • Equestrian Driving

Horse Running Facts

Check out these running fun facts:

  • Horses are unable to breathe through their mouths
  • Thoroughbreds can cover up to 20 ft per stride. To visualize, this would be equivalent to four park benches side-by-side!
  • All four feet are in the air at a gallop, meaning for a brief second, the horse isn’t touching the ground

Top Speed at the Gallop

A horse’s top speed at the gallop is 40 mph, with the fastest Thoroughbred on record clocking in at 43.97 mph.

Fastest Breed of Horse

The claim of ‘fastest breed’ depends on the distance, but some of the fastest breeds are Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Standardbreds.

gray horse gallops in a field

Gray horse galloping. Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What’s it called when your horse runs?

Galloping. It’s the fastest gait a horse has.

Q: How do you gallop on a horse for beginners?

First, shorten your stirrups a bit. Then, push up out of the saddle, gently gripping with your lower legs at the girth. Do your best to stay centered above your horse and don’t lean on his neck.

Q: What’s it called when you run a horse in a circle?

The word for this is lunging (if the horse is attached to a lunge line) or liberty work (if the horse isn’t on a lunge line).

Q: What’s the difference between a gallop and a run?

The number of legs you have! Those with two legs run, and those with four legs gallop (more technically, it has to do with hip movements and the asymmetrical 1-2-3-4 beat of the gallop).

Q: How long can a horse run with a rider?

An in-shape horse can gallop up to two miles at a time with a rider. An endurance horse can cover up to 100 miles a day!

Q: How fast can a horse run with a rider?

About 20-30 mph.

Q: How long can a horse run without stopping?

At a gallop, a fit horse can go about two miles before needing a break.

Q: How fast can a horse run without a rider?

About 37-44 mph.

Parting Thoughts

The galloping horse is a real treat to watch (and breathtaking to ride!).

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About the author


Natalie Gasper

Nancy loves retraining off the track Thoroughbreds and working with her dogs!