Breed Profile: Thoroughbred

The Thoroughbred is one of the world’s most popular breeds of horse. This breed has served most notably as race horses, but many horses go on to successful careers in other disciplines once their time at the track is over. Woodland has several Thoroughbreds of its own, such as Chester, Tucker, Rossi, and Baron. Did I name a favorite of yours? Well here’s (almost) the whole story of the Thoroughbred.

The Basics

Modern Thoroughbreds average about 16 hands (64 inches) from their withers to their hooves. They tend to have high withers, a deep chest, and powerful shoulders and hindquarters that allow them to reach top speeds of over 40 miles per hour. Horses that are registered with the Jockey Club of America get a number tattooed on their upper lip to help identify them. All registered Thoroughbreds have an official birthday of January 1, regardless of the day they were actually born, which helps unify age requirements.

Thoroughbreds come in many colors, though solid black, bay, chestnut and grey are most common. Since Thoroughbreds are bred to race they can be high strung and may require an advanced rider, especially during their transition from track to riding stable. This is not true of all Thoroughbreds, as anyone who has ever ridden docile Chester can tell you, and many are quiet, reliable mounts.

The History

The Thoroughbred breed began with three foundation sires: The Godolphin Arabian, The Byerly Turk, and the Darley Arabian.

godolphinarabuse byerly_turkdarleyarab

These three stallions were brought to England from the Middle East in the 17th century and crossed with sturdier English stock to create a horse that would exhibit both speed and strength. (King of The Wind, by Marguerite Henry tells a fictional biography of the Godolphin Arabian. It was one of my absolute favorite books growing up.)

These new Thoroughbreds changed the face of racing in England. What had previously been a commoner’s pastime, run by average horses on modest tracks wherever riders could gather, became a popular sport frequented by the upper class and supported by royal figures like King George I.

Racing in America can be traced back to 1665, when races were hosted in what is now a part of Long Island, but Governor Samuel Ogle is credited with hosting the first organized thoroughbred race in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1745. Racing grew in popularity across the states and today America holds more races and breeds more thoroughbreds than any other country.

The Thoroughbred Today

Kentucky is the modern epicenter of Thoroughbred racing, but there are tracks in nearly every state. Perhaps the most famous events in racing are the three legs of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. These three races are designed to be an ultimate test of a horse’s ability so they vary in length and location.

  •  Kentucky Derby – 1 ¼ mile run at Churchill Down in Louisville, Kentucky.
  •  Preakness Stakes – 1 316 mile run at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.
  •  Belmont Stakes – 1 ½ mile run at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

Winning all three races is one of the greatest athletic achievements possible. Only 12 horses have claimed the title since the races were instituted. Affirmed secured the crown in 1978 and no other horse could overcome the challenge until 2015, when American Pharoah made history and joined other famous names like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and War Admiral.

American Pharaoh, 2015 Triple Crown winner.

Outside of racing, Thoroughbreds can be found in almost every discipline from Hunters to Barrel racing. They’ve become especially popular with Eventers in recent years.

Eventing is a subset of English riding where horses and riders compete in three phases over three days: Dressage, Cross Country, and Show Jumping. Eventing has roots in cavalry training and military expositions, where officers went through the trails to prove their horse’s stamina and soundness. Eventers need horses that are extremely athletic, brave, and have good instincts because Events are highly challenging and the Cross Country portion requires galloping over uneven terrain and jumping large, solid obstacles. European Warmbloods have dominated the ranks for many years, but the Thoroughbred is making a comeback with American riders. 

Colleen Rutledge, an international level Eventer, told that her 16 year old Off The Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) Shiraz is, “The only horse I’d want to sit on if I had to jump a course and didn’t get to see where I was going first. He’s calculatingly intelligent and has the heart of a lion and gives me the confidence to jump the big jumps.” Other top riders speak highly of Thoroughbreds’ natural stamina, strength, and willingness to work.

Rolex 3-Day Event Cross Country
Colleen Rutledge and Shiraz going cross country at Rolex.

Have you ever loved a thoroughbred before? Is there something about Woodland’s resident race horses that just makes you smile? Let us know in the comments below or on facebook

Until next week, happy riding!

Featured image by Taylor Crass Photography. Other images from,,, and

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