best horse racing breeds

Most Common Horse Breeds Used in Horse Racing

Each one of the hundreds of horse breeds around the world today is known for something special. Some, for their history as working horses. Others, for their unique looks, pure genetic background, temperaments or athletic prowess. This post is all about the most common breeds used in horse racing. 

Horse Racing: A Brief History 

Horse racing has been a popular sport for a long, long time. Though it is impossible to know when the first horse race occurred, it is thought that horse racing as a sport dates back to around 4500BC. In medieval Great Britain, sellers would racehorses against one another in a show of agility and speed to potential buyers. 

From thousands of years ago when it all started up to today in 2021, horse racing has been about much more than simply winning. Racehorses have long served as figures of pride not only to the people making money from their wins but also to entire nations yearning for a symbol of hope. 

This is especially true of racehorses at the peak of their success during the Great Depression. Some legendary racehorses, particularly those who started out as underdogs, became a great source of hope and inspiration then and continue to be so today decades after their deaths. 

Most Common Horse Breeds Used in Horse Racing

The U.K. is also known for its development of the Thoroughbred, one of the most common horse breeds used in horse racing. Let’s begin with a closer look at this very special breed. 


The Thoroughbred is one of the most sought-after, prized horse breeds in the world of racing. This is because it was bred specifically for this purpose. In the late seventeenth century, three stallions were bred to English mares. 

The stallions that sired the first Thoroughbreds were a Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian. The result of this selective breeding was a lean, elegant, majestic horse — the Thoroughbred as we know it today. It is a ‘hot-blooded’ breed, which means it is known for having remarkable energy and stamina. 

Thoroughbred: Appearance

The Thoroughbred is tall, standing at around sixteen hands high on average and can weigh approximately between 1,000 and 1,400 pounds, but this varies as with every horse. A healthy, fit, racing Thoroughbred is more likely to be closer to the 1,000 pounds mark than the 1,400. 

Thoroughbreds come in bay, white, chestnut, grey or black and very rarely, palomino. They sometimes have white markings on their face or legs. They are a muscular breed with a slim build, a long neck, ridged back (high withers) and a narrow head. 

Thoroughbred: Temperament

As a generalization, Thoroughbreds are said to be highly intelligent, full of energy, high-spirited and have a tendency to be somewhat flighty. These qualities contribute greatly to its success on the race track. Of course, this all depends on the individual horse. 

Why Are Thoroughbreds Great for Horse Racing? 

Racehorse owners choose Thoroughbreds largely because of their speed and stamina. They’re also highly athletic and make excellent showjumpers as well as racers. A racing Thoroughbred can reach speeds of up to 70km per hour. 

Additionally, their appearance is likely another reason why Thoroughbreds are such a popular choice on the race track. They simply exude regality, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as the “horse of kings”. 

Thoroughbreds are also one of the most expensive breeds in existence, with some buyers paying into the hundreds of thousands for one. Some of the most famous racing Thoroughbreds in history include Secretariat, Man o’War, Seabiscuit, Phar Lap and War Admiral. Man o’War sired War Admiral and was related to Seabiscuit.  


Another breed you’re likely to see on the race track is the Arabian Horse. Its precise origins are, shall we say, somewhat lost to the sands of time but we do know that it is a very ancient breed with thousands of years of history to its name. As its name pretty much gives away, the breed had its beginnings somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula. 

You can see the Arabian horse in ancient Egyptian artworks dating back thousands of years. It also served frequently in battle and was one of the most highly prized war spoils. The breed ran its first races in ancient times too, with the winning rider given their pick of the loser’s herd. 

Arabian: Appearance 

The first thing you notice about the Arabian is its distinctive beauty. It has a small, dished head, delicate facial features, a short neck, broad chest and a slender build. In terms of coloring, the Arabian can be bay, white, chestnut, black or grey and, like the Thoroughbred, white markings sometimes appear on the face or legs. 

The Arabian is pretty small-average in height, standing at around 15 hands and they weigh around 800 to 1,000 pounds. 

Arabian: Temperament

Arabian horses are generally quiet, smart and people-loving. This breed is especially known for its sensitivity, and as such, is not the most stoic of breeds. The Arabian’s perceptive, intuitive nature means it is more likely to gauge and respond to its owner’s emotions. 

Why are Arabians Great for Horse Racing? 

Like the Thoroughbred, the Arabian seems to have wings on its legs. It has incredible stamina and its endurance is second to none. The Arabian is highly capable of maintaining speeds over a long period of time. 

If we also take into account the Arabian’s body type — its small size and lightweight build — we can see that it is built for speed. That said, it isn’t quite as fast as a Thoroughbred, which holds the Guinness world record for the fastest horse (a female racehorse called Winning Brew). 

American Quarter Horse 

The American Quarter Horse shares bloodlines with the Thoroughbred, so it’s no surprise at all that this breed is an excellent racer. 

American Quarter Horses originate from the horses of Spanish settlers. Imported English mares were bred with these stallions to give birth to the American Quarter Horse as we know it today. The breed’s name comes from the fact that they used to run quarter-mile races on streets in Virginia and Rhode Island. As such, the breed became known for its short-distance sprinting ability. 

American Quarter Horse: Appearance

The American Quarter Horse Association recognizes seventeen American Quarter Horse colors. These include chestnut, palomino, bay, brown and buckskin. White markings can sometimes found on the leg and face, just like with Thoroughbreds and Arabians. 

Some people mistake the American Quarter Horse for the Thoroughbred, which is easy to do as they are quite similar in appearance. The American Quarter Horse is between 14 and 16 hands high and weighs between 950 and 1,200 pounds on average. It is muscular and appears stockier in build than the Thoroughbred, though both breeds have long, slender legs.

American Quarter Horse: Temperament

As well as being a favorite on the race track, American Quarter Horses have become much-loved in the horse community the world over for being excellent riding horses and companions. 

They are often a popular choice for beginner riders thanks to their mellow, trainable natures and amiability.  They are also incredibly smart and eager to please. American Quarter Horses are suitable for all types of riders, regardless of age. 

Why are American Quarter Horses Great for Horse Racing?

The American Quarter Horse is one of the fastest horse breeds in the world. In a racing speeds study, results showed that the American Quarter Horse averaged faster speeds overall, even beating out the Thoroughbred. Like the Thoroughbred, it can reach speeds of up to around 70km per hour. 

As mentioned, the American Quarter Horse is very trainable and intelligent, which makes them the perfect breed for horse sports. 

What Other Racehorse Breeds Are There?  

  • Morgan – You can see this breed largely in harness racing.
  • Standardbred – Like the Morgan, you’ll also often find this breed at harness racing events.
  • Paint Horse – This breed is another excellent racer and show jumper. You’ll see it at a number of horsing events.

Most Common Horse Breeds Used in Horseracing: Sum-Up

  • Horse breeds most commonly used in horse racing are the Thoroughbred, Arabian and the American Quarter Horse. 
  • These breeds are highly athletic and intelligent, which makes them the top choices for race tracks all around the world. 
  • Racehorses can be incredibly expensive. Some owners have even paid hundreds of thousands for one Thoroughbred.
  • A combination of traits including speed, stamina, endurance and intelligence make up an ideal racehorse.
  • Some of history’s most famous racehorses include Seabiscuit, Phar Lap, Secretariat, Man o’War and War Admiral. Horse people and non-horse people alike remember and admire these horses largely because they became beacons of hope to people struggling through the Great Depression. 

Most Common Breeds Used in Horseracing: Final Thoughts

If we have suitably piqued your interest in racehorses, you might want to check out our article all about famous horses in history. There, you’ll find lots of information about some of the racehorses mentioned in this post, like Seabiscuit and War Admiral. 

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this post and, as always, thanks for checking in at Simple Horse Life!