Horses come in all shapes and sizes, and different breeds have different qualities – but one of the most important of these, and one of the most prized, is the quality of speed. It is unsurprising, then, that many breeds have been developed with speed as a primary objective.
However, the speed of a horse doesn’t just mean the raw top speed it can attain, and the pace of a horse can be measured in several different ways, including over short distances, longer distances and when pulling a carriage.
This means that while some horses may be fast sprinters, others have exceptional stamina, making them the kings over longer distances.
With all this in mind – and in no particular order – here’s our list of the 13 fastest horse breeds in a range of different categories.
13 Fastest Horse Breeds in the World
One of the oldest horse breeds in the world, the Akhal-Teke originated in what is modern-day Turkmenistan. They are descended from the Turkoman Horse, a now-extinct breed from the same area, and are bred for stamina. This means they are capable of covering vast distances in the shortest possible time.
Akhal-Tekes stand at around 14.2-16 hands (147-163cm, 58-64in) and have a distinctive metallic coat, for which they have become known as the “Golden Horse”.
They are possessed of a fiery temperament, which makes them difficult to manage for inexperienced owners or riders, but they are also able to form a strong bond with somebody they know well. For this reason, they have long been prized as horses for war as well as for long-distance racing. Nowadays, they also perform well in events like dressage, showjumping and eventing.
There are now thought to be only around 6,000 of these horses left in the world, mostly in Turkmenistan.
Another of the world’s most ancient horses, the Arabian was developed in the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula for raiding and war. It was particularly prized by Bedouin tribesmen, who often took their horses inside their tents to keep them safe.
For this reason, character traits like cooperativeness, willingness to please and the ability to form close bonds with humans were bred into Arabian Horses, and they are also intelligent and friendly. At the same time, they are high-spirited and alert animals, traits that were required in combat, so they are not suitable animals for inexperienced horse owners.
Although they have a top speed of around 40mph (64kmph), they are no match for breeds like Thoroughbreds or American Quarter Horses over shorter distances. However, they come into their own in tests of stamina and are among the fastest breeds in longer races.
Arabian Horses have a particularly striking look and are easy to recognize. They have a distinctive head shape and a high tail carriage, making them one of the most handsome breeds in the world.
The Thoroughbred is a type of horse that dominates many modern horseracing events. It was developed in England in the 17th and 18th centuries when Arabian, Turkoman and Barb stallions were bred with local mares.
The most famous of these stallions were the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian, and all modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to these three horses.
Thoroughbreds are a hotblooded breed with a tall, slim build and a fiery, lively temperament. They excel over races of around a mile in length and can hold their speed over distances of around 6-10 furlongs (0.75-1.25 miles 1.2-2km).
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes a Thoroughbred named Winning Brew as the fastest horse of all time, with a top speed of 43.97mph. However, other breeds have been clocked at higher speeds over shorter distances.
Sometimes people confuse the name Thoroughbred with the term “purebred”. Thoroughbred refers only to this breed of horse while “purebred” refers to any horse with a pure bloodline.
The Andalusian is also known as the Pure Spanish Horse or the PRE, from the Spanish pura raza española, and is an ancient breed that was developed on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a handsome horse with a long flowing mane and a long tail, and it has a reputation as being an intelligent yet docile breed.
Andalusians are known for their agility and their elegance of movement as well as their stamina and speed, traits which saw them valued in the past as horses for war. Although they are no longer required for this purpose, it is thought the breed has changed little since the 15th century.
They are an extremely versatile horse, and in terms of modern competition, they excel in longer-distance races as well dressage and show jumping.
5. American Quarter Horse
When racing over short distances, there’s one breed of horse that beats all others, and that’s the American Quarter Horse. Named for its pace over the quarter mile, this horse has been clocked at speeds of up to an incredible 55mph. So while it can’t beat breeds like the Thoroughbred over longer distances, when it comes to the fastest horse in absolute terms, this one takes the prize.
In fact, American Quarters owe much of their prowess to a certain amount of Thoroughbred blood in their line. During the Colonial period, English Thoroughbreds were brought over to the North American colonies to breed with local horses, and the result was a compact, fast and agile horse that was ideal for working with cattle.
This breed remains popular and is known for its willingness to work and its calm demeanor. Its impressive acceleration and unrivalled top speed also make it an ideal mount for western riding events such as barrel racing.
6. American Paint Horse
The American Paint Horse has its fair share of blood from both the Thoroughbred and the American Quarter Horse lines, so it’s no wonder that this is another horse that’s capable of reaching high speeds.
Essentially, this type of horse emerged when colored or patterned horses were excluded from the American Quarter Horse register, but some owners who liked the attractive look of colorful horses continued to breed them.
Nowadays, these horses are mainly used in western riding disciplines due to their low center of gravity and their powerful hindquarters that give them the capacity for fast acceleration and high speeds over short distances.
The American Paint Horse is now one of the most popular breeds in the US.
Another of the most popular horses in the US and another that has a certain amount of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse blood in it is the Appaloosa. It was originally developed by the Native American Nez Perce Tribe and was bred to excel as a horse for hunting.
The Appaloosa has a distinctive patterned coat, but it is also appreciated for its speed, strength and endurance. Nowadays, it is commonly found in western riding disciplines, and its stamina makes it a good choice for long-distance trail riding.
This horse is an interesting addition to our list since it isn’t considered a top competitor when flat out. While it’s still no slouch at the gallop, where this horse comes into its own is at the trot – because when trotting, this is possibly the fastest breed there is. At the trot, this horse has been clocked at speeds of up to 30mph!
For this reason, Standardbreds are one of the most common horses to find in events like harness racing, although thanks to their friendly nature, their versatility and their willingness to learn, they are also popular in many other events.
These same qualities also make them a good choice for beginners, and they are often used for pleasure riding by all levels of rider. Standardbreds are descended from Thoroughbreds, and all Standardbreds can trace their lineage back to a horse named Hambletonian 10, also known as Rysdyk’s Hambletonian.
Although often thought of as a wild horse, Mustangs are descended from the domesticated horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish, making them technically “feral”.
Since they now run wild and breed freely, it’s hard to characterize Mustangs since there is some considerable variation, but animals belonging to some herds still retain many of the characteristics of the original Spanish horses.
Since then, breeds like Thoroughbreds and American Quarter Horses have also contributed to Mustang blood, giving them the attributes most commonly associated with those types of horses, including impressive speed.
Tame Mustangs can be adopted, and generally speaking, they are versatile horses with friendly, calm temperaments. However, some have wilder personalities and so can be a challenge for inexperienced owners to keep.
Mustangs make good trail horses and can also be used for dressage or racing.
10. Black Forest
While this horse probably won’t win any races over the flat, it is a relatively small yet muscular light draft horse that is capable of pulling heavy carriages at high speeds.
As the name suggests, it originated in the Black Forest region of Germany where it is known as the Schwarzwälder Kaltblut.
It has a very distinctive look since, to be registered, it must display a chestnut color with a flaxen mane and tail.
Nowadays, this horse is rare – the breed is now considered to be endangered.
11. Friesian Horse
Another draft horse that won’t win many prizes in a flat-out race but that excels in harness is the Friesian Horse. It belongs to an old breed that has been around for centuries, and the ancestors of this horse were used in war to carry knights in armor into battle.
Although considered a draft horse, Friesians are agile, graceful and quick animals. They are also docile and friendly, making them ideal for employment as workhorses.
As well as being used to pull carriages and carts, Friesians also do well in events such as dressage. They are also commonly ridden for pleasure.
12. Selle français
The Selle français has an interesting history in that it was created in a specific year, 1958, through a conscious decision to merge the stud books of several other breeds, thus creating a “unified” sport horse. This was done at a time when horses were falling out of use as working animals as they were replaced by machines, meaning they were increasingly kept for sport only.
As the name suggests, this horse is a French breed, and it is bred extensively throughout the country. It is an athletic horse with a lively temperament that excels particularly in show jumping, but it also does well in other disciplines such as dressage and eventing.
Although these horses are no match for something like a Thoroughbred or an American Quarter Horse over a flat course, they are still more than capable of putting on a good turn of speed, and as such, they earn a place in our list.
13. Mongolian Horse
An example of a horse that performs well under certain specific conditions is the Mongolian Horse. In Mongolia, horse riding is deeply ingrained in the local culture, and there are more of these horses in the country than there are people.
They are bred to be hardy animals, and they live a semi-wild lifestyle, foraging for their own food and remaining outside year-round in a country where summer highs can reach above 86°F (30°C) and winter lows can drop to -40°F (-40°C).
Horses bred in different parts of the country are thought to have different characteristics, with those from the Khentii and Sükhbaatar steppe provinces considered the fastest.
Mongolian Horses have incredible stamina and can maintain a gallop for 10km (6.25 miles). These semi-wild horses are used for the Mongolian Derby, which, at around 1,000km (625 miles) in length, is the longest horse race in the world.
Horses for courses
If you are looking for the fastest horse in absolute terms, the American Quarter Horse is the clear winner, although over a slightly longer distance, the Thoroughbred can outpace it.
However, the expression “horses for courses” is well-known for a reason, and if you want to choose the “fastest horse”, you need to be more specific about what you mean – because as you can see, there are many breeds that have a claim to this title depending on the conditions.