Thursday, April 10, 2014


Thoroughbreds are tall, and they run really fast, so the place you are most likely to see them is in a horse race.  But they are also used for a lot of other horsey activities, including polo, steeplechasing, show jumping, combined training, fox hunting, and dressage.  Some people think the word "thoroughbred" means the same as "purebred," but they're wrong about this because the Thoroughbred is an actual breed, and "purebred" just tells you that an animal and its pedigree are officially registered with some group somewhere.

Horse racing got started as long ago as 1174 in England, when aristocrats used to compete with their horses in four-mile races over a flat track.  During the Middle Ages, racing continued at fairs and markets.  King James I of England and the royalty who followed him supported horse racing, and after a while it became popular with the public.  In 1727, the Racing Calendar, a newspaper all about racing, was founded.

Darley Arabian
Three members of the English upper class imported horses from the Middle East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries to be foundation stock.  They wanted to use these horses to make faster race horses.  The three imports were the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704) and the Godolphin Arabian (1729).  All modern Thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to one of these three sires.  Other oriental stallions also helped form the breed, but these three were the most important ones.

English mares that were used as foundation stock came from several breeds, such as the Irish Hobby,  Barbary (from North Africa), and Turk.

By the end of the 18th century, English Classic races were being run.  These were between 1 mile and 1.75 miles, so they were much shorter than the old 4-mile races.  The shorter races meant that breeders started to raise horses for speed instead of for endurance.  Also, these horses began racing at a younger age.

The first Thoroughbred was brought to the American Colonies in 1730 by Samuel Gist, of Hanover County, Virginia.  This horse's name was Bulle Rock.  Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and New York were the colonies where most of the Thoroughbred breeding was done.  After the Revolution ended, and Thoroughbreds could be imported again from England, the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing moved west to Tennessee and Kentucky.

After the Civil War, American racing also changed from the 4-mile type of race (run in heats) to a shorter race that was between 5/8 mile and 1.5 mile.  Just like in England, this meant that younger horses were being raced, and breeders tried to produce horses who could run fast, short races.

Most Thoroughbreds are some shade or brown, gray, or black.  They can have white markings on their heads and feet, but shouldn't have white spots on their bodies.  In the U.S., roan, palomino, and white Thoroughbreds are also recognized.  Usually, a Thoroughbred stands between 15.2 and 17.0 hands (62" to 68") at the withers.

A good-quality Thoroughbred has a well-chiseled head on a long neck, high withers, a deep chest, short back, deep hindquarters, a lean body, and long legs.  These horses are bred for agility and speed, which means they are usually quite spirited and bold.

Because they are bred to run fast, and they are asked to do this at a young age, Thoroughbreds have lots of accidents and other health problems.  One-tenth of all Thoroughbreds end up with fractures or other orthopedic issues.  For every 1,000 horses starting in a race in the U.S., 1.5 will likely end up with some kind of breakdown that will mean they can't race again.  This averages out to 2 horses per day.

Some people think that inbreeding is to blame for this.  Selective breeding has given the horses more muscle mass so that they can run faster, but their bone structure can't always support their speed.  Other things that increase the accident rate include track surfaces, horseshoes with toe grabs, the use of certain legal medications, and high-intensity racing schedules.

Other Thoroughbred health issues include a majority that suffer bleeding from the lungs during high exertion, 10% with low fertility, and 5% with abnormally small hearts.  Also, Thoroughbreds tend to have small hooves relative to their body mass.  The hoof walls and soles are thin, which is a big reason these horses easily end up with sore feet.

Wikipedia, photo:  Anthony92931
Animal rights groups have a lot of bad things to say about the horse-racing industry.  This is especially true when a horse has to be put to sleep because of a broken leg or other such injury that wouldn't be fatal in a dog or human.  The racing industry defends itself by saying that if there were no horse racing, there would be much less money available for medical and biomechanical research on horses.  They also point out that progress is being made in treating injured horses who would have been put down before.  And there are now ways to figure out which horses are most at-risk for injury and to keep them off the track.

Okay, so that's my report on Thoroughbred horses.  Oh, but I think I forgot to mention that the Thoroughbred is the State Horse of Kentucky.  And also that the Kentucky Derby is always run the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Your writing is charming and witty Piper, thanks. I enjoy reading you.

  3. You might want to change the first photo you have on this page as the horse is not a thoroughbred, it is much to stocky and rounded to be a thoroughbred. Also referring to when you were talking about broken legs, a broken leg in any horse (not just race horses) is fatal because horses are such big animals that any pressure on the leg wile it is healing would bake it again, also horses can not lye down for extended periods of time as it twists and hurts their insides, so the kindest thing to do for any horse with a broken leg is to put them to sleep.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have changed the first picture to be a "real" thoroughbred! Also thanks for the explanation of why horses cannot heal from broken legs. I knew they couldn't, but didn't really understand why not.