All about horses and horse racing - a comprehensive guide to horse breeds, characteristics, and fascinating fun facts about Thoroughbreds.

Pick Pony |May 12, 2024, 2:28 p.m.

Horses

The need to run

Running is key to a horse’s innate fight-or-flight response. They are built to evade predators. They can sleep standing up, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Their young (foals) can stand and run almost immediately after birth. They can outrun most land animals. Horses love to run, making them a perfect fit for racing competition.

Types of horse breeds

Not all horses are good at racing, though. Different types of horses have different specializations. In general, horses are divided into three generic categories.

Cold bloods

Cold bloods are more suitable for heavy work. These are, for instance, the strong, draft horses used to pull carts.

Warm bloods

Warm bloods are crossbreeds from Hot and Cold bloods to create a breed that can be used for specialized riding purposes.

Hot bloods

Hot bloods are those spirited beasts that love to run. They possess both speed and endurance. These are our Thoroughbred racehorses.

The lifecycle of a horse

Horses race at various levels as they age. They have a life expectancy of between 25 and 30 years (the world record for the longest-living horse, Sugar Puff, is 56) and are considered juveniles until age 5. They progress through several stages during their racing career.

Foal

A foal is a horse less than one-year-old. Horses typically gestate for about 340 days and produce a single foal (twins are rare). Foals are usually born in the spring.

Weanling

Foals that are still nursing are called sucklings. Foals that have been weaned (typically around 5-7 months) are called weanlings.

Yearling

A yearling is a horse between one and two years old.

Colt

A colt is a male horse under the age of four. This is the age most horses begin training and racing.

Filly

A filly is a female horse under the age of four.

Older than four years

Horses are categorized by sex after four years of age. By this time, they have already been saddled and trained to be ridden (typically between two and four years of age).

Mare

A mare is a female horse older than four years old. They are considered “mature,” although skeletal growth continues until about six years of age.

Stallion

A stallion is a male horse (non-castrated) older than four years old.

Gelding

A gelding is a castrated male horse of any age. Male horses are sometimes castrated to calm them down.

Physical characteristics of horses

Understanding a horse’s physical characteristics helps in the handicapping process.

Size, measurement, and characteristics

A horse’s height is measured from the ground to their withers, where the neck meets the back. The unit of measurement is typically “hands,” which is equal to four inches.

Riding horses usually stand about 15 hands tall and weigh from 840 to 1,201 lbs. Larger horses can be as tall as 17 hands and weigh up to 1,320 lbs.

Horse colors and markings

Horses are often described by their color and markings, such as bay and chestnut. The two basic colors are red and black, with various combinations in between. Common horse colors include the following.

Chestnut

Chestnut is a red coat with no black. They can be further categorized as Liver Chestnut, a very dark red chestnut coat (aka brown), Light Chestnut, a pale chestnut coat, and Flaxen Chestnut, which designates any color of Chestnut with a significantly lighter mane and tail color.

Black

Black is a relatively uncommon horse color. Sometimes, a black horse’s color fades to brown if it spends much time in the sun.

Bay

Bay color is a light reddish-brown to rich chocolate color, often with black points on the mane, tail, lower legs, or tips of the ears. Bay colors are further classified as Dark Bay, a dark brown or dark reddish-brown color; Blood Bay or Red Bay, a bright red chestnut color with black points; and Brown, a color often misconstrued to indicate bay or chestnut colors.

Gray

Gray horses are often born as another color; like people, their hair color lightens as they age. Some will become completely white or speckled white.
Variations of gray horses include Steel Gray/Iron Gray, a gray horse intermingled with black and white hairs; Rose Gray, a gray horse with a reddish or pinkish tint; Dapple Gray, a gray coat with lighter rings of gray hairs (called dapples); and Fleabitten Gray, a fully white-haired horse with red or dark gray flecks.

Dun

Dun is a yellowish or tan coat with “dun factors” or “primitive markings”, a darker-colored mane and tail, and a dorsal stripe along the black. They are further categorized as:

Grulla or Blue Dun: This is a horse with a black base and the dun gene, which creates a coat of mouse-colored gray or silver with black and dark gray primitive markings.

Red Dun: A chestnut base with dun factors.

Bay Dun: The classic dun is yellow or tan in color with black primitive markings.

Buckskin dun: A dun with a coat of pale gold with a black mane, tail, legs, and primitive markings.

Champagne

Champagne is produced by a different dilution gene than the creme gene (see below). It lightens the skin and hair, creating a metallic gold coat with mottle skin and light-colored eyes.

Mushroom

Mushroom dilutes red-based horses to a pale tan color. It is only found in Shetland ponies.

Pearl

Pearl or “bar link factor” is a dilution gene that lightens red coats to an apricot color.

Silver

Silver is caused by a dilution gene that only acts upon the black hair pigments, lightening them to chocolate brown and the mane and tail to silver.

Cream

Cream colors are caused by an incomplete dominant gene and produce a variety of cream color variations.

Cremello: A horse with a chestnut base coat and two cream genes that make the horse a pale cream of light tan color. They are often classified as “white,” which is technically false because they do not carry the white gene. Cremollos often have blue eyes.

Buckskin: A bay horse with one copy of the cream gene that fades the coat color to yellow, cream, or gold while keeping the black points (in the mane, tail, and legs).

Palomino: A chestnut horse with one cream dilution gene that makes the horse golden, yellow, or tan with a flaxen or white mane and tail.

Perlini: A bay base coat with two dilute genes similar in appearance to a cremello. The horse’s eyes are usually blue, but the mane, tail, and other points are not black.

Smoky black: A horse that looks black but has a black base coat and one copy of the creme gene.

Smoky cream: Looks identical to a cremello or perlino. The only way to tell the difference is through DNA testing.

Leopard complex

Horses often have spots, but not always. If the spots are dark on a white body, they are called leopards; if they are white on a dark body, they are called snowflakes.

Pinto

A pinto has large patches of white over another underlying color.

White

True white horses are extremely rare. They are born white and remain white throughout their lifetimes.

Albino horses

What about albino-colored horses? They do not exist. Albinos are created by a genetic mechanism that does not exist in horses.

Anatomy of a horse

To be an expert handicapper, you must be familiar with the anatomy of a thoroughbred horse to glean insights on a horse’s potential performance from their pre-race appearance in the paddock.

Hooves

The inner part of a horse hoof has distal phalanges covered in cartilage, similar to human toes. The exterior hoof is made of keratin, just like a human fingernail. In effect, a horse runs on the same bones as a human running on the tips of their toes.

Teeth and stomach

Horses have teeth made for grazing. They continually erupt and wear down during the horse’s lifetime, creating patterns that can be used to estimate the horse’s age.

Unlike humans, horses can digest cellulose, the major component in grass. However, horses cannot vomit. Digestion problems result in colic, which often leads to death.

Senses

Horses are prey animals and thus must always be aware of their surroundings. Their eyes are lateral-eyed (positioned on the sides of the head), which gives them a near 360-degree range of vision.

Similarly, their hearing is very good. Their ears can rotate 180 degrees, giving them the potential for 360-degree hearing without moving their heads. Interestingly, sound is typically not pleasing to a horse, and even sounds like radios can cause stress.

Horses have a great sense of balance due to a hypersensitive sense of touch.

Skeletal

Unlike people, horses do not have collarbones. The front legs are attached to the spinal column via a shoulder blade.

Horses’ legs differ significantly from people’s, too. The “knee” is made of carpal bones like a human wrist. The “hock” is equivalent to a human’s ankle and heel. The lower leg bones correspond to a human’s foot, while the “fetlock” (like an ankle) is similar to the knuckles of a human hand.

Strangely, a horse has no muscles below the knees and hocks, only tendons and ligaments.

Horse behavior - physical and mental

There are a variety of terms that describe a horse’s movement.

The thoroughbred horse’s gait

The primary physical movement of a horse is its gait, the pattern of leg movement when walking or running. Horses have four natural gaits - walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Ambling gaits are gaits that are learned with specialized training.

Walk

The walk is classified as a “four-beat gait” (think of the beats as the sound of the horse’s hooves hitting the ground). The sequence of the horse’s legs is left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, and right front leg. The horse’s head moves up and down to help it maintain balance.

The sequence of a horse's walk can be described as follows: 

1. The horse starts by lifting its left front leg while the other three feet touch the ground.
2. Next, it lifts its right hind leg while supported by the diagonal pair of the right front and left hind legs.
3. The left front foot touches the ground, and the horse is now supported by all but the right hind leg.
4. The horse lifts its right front leg, which is now supported laterally on both left legs. Shortly afterward, it sets down the right hind leg, leaving only the right front leg lifted.
5. Following this, the horse lifts its left hind leg, which provides diagonal support, and puts down the right front leg for lateral support. 
6. The horse then lifts the left front leg, puts down the left hind leg, and the pattern repeats.

Trot

The trot is a two-beat gait where the horse moves its legs in diagonal pairs. This gait is considered very stable, and the horse doesn’t need major balancing movements with its head and neck. The trot is the working gait of a horse. While horses can only canter and gallop for short periods at a time and require rest and recovery afterward, horses in good condition can maintain a working trot for hours. The trot is the primary way horses travel quickly from one place to another.

Canter

The canter is a controlled three-beat gait that is typically faster than a trot but slower than a gallop. Its average speed is 10–17 mph, depending on the horse's stride length. The rhythm of a canter is like a drumbeat: three beats, a rest, and then another three beats. The faster the horse moves, the longer the suspension time between the beats.

During the canter, one of the horse's hind legs propels the horse forward while the other three legs move for the next sequence. On the next beat, the horse catches itself on one hind and one front leg while the other hind leg is still momentarily on the ground. On the third beat, the horse catches itself on the opposite front leg while the diagonal pair is still in contact with the ground.

The horse's extended foreleg is matched by a slightly more extended hind leg on the same side, known as a lead. In most cases, it is preferred for a horse to lead with its inside legs when in a circle. For example, if a horse starts cantering with the right hind leg, the left front and hind legs will land farther forward, known as being on the "left lead". Lead changes are important to racehorses and are discussed in detail below.

Gallop

The gallop is a horse’s gait similar to the canter but much faster and can cover more ground. The canter has three beats, while the gallop has four beats. The gallop is the fastest gait of the horse, with an average speed of 25 to 30 mph. In the wild, horses use the gallop to escape predators or quickly cover short distances. Horses can usually gallop no more than 0.9 to 2 miles before they need to rest. However, they can sustain a moderately paced gallop for longer distances before they tire and slow down.

The gallop is the gait of the classic racehorse and stays within the boundaries required before a horse must stop to rest. Modern Thoroughbred horse races are usually not longer than 1.5 miles. Arabian horses in some countries are sometimes raced as far as 2.5 miles, but they are bred for the longer distance.

Like a canter, the horse will strike off with its non-leading hind foot, but the second stage of the canter becomes the second and third stages in the gallop because the inside hind foot hits the ground a split second before the outside front foot. Then, both gaits end with the striking off of the leading leg, followed by a moment of suspension when all four feet are off the ground. If you listen or observe carefully, you can tell an extended canter from a gallop by the presence of the fourth beat.

In contrast to the traditional paintings of running horses, which depicted all four legs stretched out in the suspension phase, while the legs are stretched out, at least one foot is still in contact with the ground. When all four feet are off the ground in the suspension phase of the gallop, the legs are bent rather than extended. 

In 1877, Leland Stanford settled an argument about whether racehorses were ever fully airborne by paying photographer Eadweard Muybridge to prove it photographically. The resulting photos, known as "The Horse in Motion," are the first documented example of high-speed photography, and they clearly show the horse airborne.

In the Muybridge sequence stills (see below), images 7 and 8 show the suspension phase, and the second from the last image shows the broken strike sequence of the inside hind and outside forefeet.

Pace

Pace is a type of gait in which the two legs on the same side of the horse move forward together, as opposed to the trot, where the two legs move forward together diagonally opposite each other. Two feet are always off the ground in both the pace and the trot. Although the trot is more commonly used, some horses naturally prefer to pace, especially those bred for harness racing.

Pacers are usually faster than trotters, although horses are raced at both gaits. Among Standardbred horses, pacers are more likely to produce pacers offspring, while trotting sires have a higher proportion of pacers among their offspring than pacing sires do of trotters.

Ambling

The four-beat intermediate gaits have many different names, but they were historically grouped together and called the “amble”. In the United States, horses that can amble are known as “gaited”. The main feature of these ambling gaits is that only one foot bears full weight at a time, so they are often called “singlefoot”.

All ambling gaits are faster than a walk but usually slower than a canter. They are smoother for a rider than either a trot or a pace, and most can be sustained for relatively long periods, making them particularly desirable for trail riding and other tasks where a rider must spend long periods of time in the saddle.

The major ambling gaits include:

The fox trot is a four-beat diagonal gait in which the front foot of the diagonal pair lands before the hind.

Many South American horse breeds have a range of smooth intermediate lateral ambling gaits. The Paso Fino's speed variations are called (from slowest to fastest) the *paso fino*, *paso corto*, and *paso largo*. The Peruvian Paso's lateral gaits are known as the *paso llano* and *sobreandando*. The lateral gait of the Mangalarga Marchador is called the *marcha picada*.

The rack or racking is a lateral gait most commonly associated with the five-gaited American Saddlebred. In the rack, the speed is increased to be approximately that of the pace, but it is a four-beat gait with equal intervals between each beat.

The running walk is a four-beat lateral gait with footfalls in the same sequence as the regular walk but characterized by greater speed and smoothness. It is a distinctive natural gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse.

The slow gait is a general term for various lateral gaits that follow the same general lateral footfall pattern but have different rhythms and collections of movements. Terms for various slow gaits include the stepping pace and singlefoot.

Lead changes

"Lead" in quadruped animals such as horses, refers to the set of legs, left or right, which advance more when cantering, galloping, or leaping. The legs on the leading side land ahead of the other pair. If the left legs lead, it's called the "left lead". This is particularly relevant in horse riding.

A "lead change" occurs when a horse switches from one lead to another while cantering or galloping. There are two types of lead change: simple and flying. Identifying the correct and incorrect lead is straightforward. A horse on the correct lead extends its inside front and hind legs further than the outside ones.

Why change leads?

When a horse is cantering, it is better balanced when it is on the correct lead, which means the lead that corresponds to the direction of travel. If a horse is on the wrong lead, it may be unbalanced and have a harder time making turns.

Lead changes are essential in many riding disciplines. In horse racing, the leading leg may tire when a horse is galloping, causing the horse to slow down. The horse can usually “find another gear” or maintain its pace by changing the lead. Since horses race counterclockwise in North America, a racehorse is typically trained to lead with the left leg while rounding the turn for balance but switch to the right lead on the straightaways between the turns to rest the left leg.

Temperament

Horses are social animals accustomed to the company of other horses in their herd. However, they can be removed from the herd and trained to accept humans as companions. But if they are isolated from humans and other horses, they will develop various mental issues (aka “stable vices”).

Whether learned or innate, horses’ behavior or temperament can also impact their racing performance. Horses may be categorized by “temperament.”

Hot-bloods

Hot-bloods include Thoroughbred horses used for racing. They are more spirited, bold, and full of energy. They learn quickly and are bred for agility and speed. They are thin-skinned, slim, and long-legged.

Cold-bloods

Cold-bloods are quieter and calmer than hot-bloods. They are muscular, heavy horses bred for strength. They tend to be calm and patient, qualities needed for pulling a plow or heavy carriage.

Warm-bloods

Warmblood breeds are riding horses with greater size and milder temperaments, almost a combination of the most desirable characteristics of hot-bloods and cold-bloods (hence their name).

Horse breeds

Hundreds of different breeds of horses

Purebred horses are recognized by a breed registry and have distinct traits such as size, color, and temperament.

Riding horses (equestrianism)

Horses are used in hundreds of different competitive activities that involve riding the horse, including harness racing, distance racing, steeplechasing, showjumping, barrel racing, cutting cows, steer wrestling, calf roping, bronc riding, and of course, Thoroughbred horse racing.

Thoroughbred horse racing

The General Stud Book for Thoroughbreds, created in 1791, is one of the oldest horse registries. Through this book, the foundation bloodstock for the breed can be traced.

The Thoroughbred breed was developed in England between the 17th and 18th centuries. All modern Thoroughbred horses can trace their lineage to three stallions imported from the Middle East into England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These stallions are known as the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian. Although other imported stallions also contributed to the breed, they were less influential. These stallions included the Alcock’s Arabian, D’Arcy’s White Turk, Leedes Arabian, and Curwen’s Bay Barb. The Brownlow Turk is also credited with introducing the gray coat color into the Thoroughbred breed, among other characteristics.

The mares used as foundation breeding stock came from various breeds, some of which, such as the Irish Hobby, had developed in northern Europe before the 13th century. Other mares were of oriental breeding, including Barb, Turk, and other bloodlines. However, most researchers conclude that the number of Eastern mares imported into England during the 100 years after 1660 was small. 

The 19th-century researcher Bruce Lowe identified 50 mare "families" in the Thoroughbred breed, later augmented by other researchers to 74. However, the haplotypes reveal that they traced to only 15 unique foundation mares, suggesting a common ancestor for many foundation mares previously thought unrelated (possibly due to recording errors).

The first Thoroughbred horse in the American Colonies was Bulle Rock, imported in 1730. Maryland and Virginia were the centers of Colonial Thoroughbred breeding, along with South Carolina and New York. During the American Revolution, importations of horses from England practically stopped but were restarted after the signing of a peace treaty. Two important stallions were imported during the Revolution: Messenger in 1788 and Diomed before that. Messenger left little impact on the American Thoroughbred but is considered a foundation sire of the Standardbred breed. Diomed, who won the Derby Stakes in 1780, significantly impacted American Thoroughbred breeding, mainly through his son Sir Archy. John F. Wall, a racing historian, said that Sir Archy was the "first outstanding stallion we can claim as native American." He retired from the racetrack because of a lack of opponents.

The different types of thoroughbred horse races

The English Classic races had been established by the end of the 18th century. These are the St. Leger Stakes, founded in 1776, The Oaks in 1779, and The Derby in 1780. Later, the 2,000 Guineas Stakes and the 1,000 Guineas Stakes were founded in 1809 and 1814. The 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks are restricted to fillies, but the others are open to racehorses of either sex aged three years. The distances of these races, ranging from one mile (1.6 km) to 1.75 miles (2.82 km), led to a change in breeding practices, as breeders concentrated on producing horses that could race at a younger age than in the past and that had more speed. In the early 18th century, the emphasis had been on longer races, up to 4 miles (6.4 km), that were run in multiple heats. 

A handicap race is where runners carry varying weights based on their past performances. All horses theoretically have a competitive chance in a correctly handicapped race. Some examples are the Melbourne Cup, the Grand National, the Cambridgeshire Handicap, and others.

Higher-class races with bigger prizes are known by different terms in different countries—graded stakes races in the United States and Canada, conditions races in England and France, and group races in Australia and New Zealand. They often involve competitors of the same gender, age, and class. Weight-for-age races adjust weights according to age, while set-weight races have all horses carry the same weight. Conditions races have horses carry weights set by conditions, like winning a certain number of races or races of a certain value. The Breeders' Cup races, the Dubai World Cup, and the 2,000 Guineas Stakes are examples of stakes/conditions races.

A maiden race involves runners who have never won a race. These races can include horses of many different age groups. Horses all carry similar weights, and there are no handicapped penalties.

An allowance race offers a higher purse than a maiden race. These races usually involve conditions like "non-winner of three lifetimes.” They are typically for a horse that has broken its maiden but isn't ready for stakes company.

A claiming race involves horses all for sale for roughly the same price (the "claiming price") up until shortly before the race. This is to even the race. If a better-than-class horse is entered, it might be lost for the claiming price, which is likely less than the horse is worth. A horse may be claimed if someone thinks it has not been trained to its fullest potential under another trainer. If a horse is purchased, a track official tags it after the race, and it goes to its new owner.

A selling race, or seller, puts the winner up for auction immediately after the race. An optional claiming race is a hybrid of allowance and claiming race developed to increase field sizes. A horse who doesn't fit the conditions can still "run for the tag", meaning it can be run if also offered for sale.

A Sweepstakes (now usually abbreviated to "Stakes") is a race where the winning owner wins, or "sweeps" the entry fees paid by the owners of all the other horses entered.