What Makes A Good Racehorse?

There is no exact formula for producing the ultimate thoroughbred but there are a number of different attributes and traits that can tell us what makes a good racehorse. In this article we aim to outline some of those characteristics (as well as some less desirable ones) and after you have read it, hopefully you’ll have a much clearer picture as to what goes into making a top class equine athlete.

Physical Attributes

The first area we’ll look at are the physical attributes that are required to succeed as a racehorse. Trainers can only work with the raw material they are given and if a horse is unable to withstand the physical stresses that they will undergo on a near daily basis in training, they have no hope of making it to the racetrack to compete at any level.

These are some of the physical traits that determine what level of ability a horse will have.

  • Conformation
  • Bone strength
  • Lung capacity
  • Size of heart
  • Stride length & frequency

Conformation

No, this is not the third sacrament of the Catholic church. What conformation means in equestrian terms is basically how a horse is put together physically.

This is one of the easier attributes for those with a trained eye to assess. When buying a foal, yearling or horse of any age, the first thing a prospective buyer will do is check out the conformation of the horse. They’ll be looking to see how well-proportioned the horse is, how does it walk and trot, are the legs and knees straight and so on.

Attraction

Now, it must be said that there are horses that don’t have perfect conformation that make it to a very high level in racing. One of the most famous examples is a horse called Attraction. She had very crooked forelegs. So crooked, in fact, her breeder knew that it would be impossible to sell her.

Instead, he decided to put her into training with Mark Johnston and it proved to be a good decision. Due to her crooked legs, her action when galloping was all over the place. One racing journalist described it as being like ‘a demented haymaker wielding a scythe.’

2004 1000 Guineas win

However, she went on to be a superstar, winning the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot at two, both the Newmarket and Irish 1000 Guineas at three and in the end, she won no less than seven Group 1s. If you needed any evidence that what goes into making a good racehorse isn’t an exact science, Attraction is the perfect example.

Bone Strength

Due to the physical stresses that a horse undergoes when galloping, bone strength is vital. When a horse is running at full speed the force each hoof exerts as it hits the ground is up to 5000 lbs per square inch. There is a direct correlation between conformation, bone density and how well a horse is able to move and travel.

The cannon bone, which is the bone directly below a horse’s knee, and the pastern bones just above a horse’s hoof, are two of the most important bones in determining whether a horse is fit to train and race, or not. If there are any weaknesses in these areas, horses will often trot up lame after doing fast pieces of work.

If a horse does have low bone density, there are ways to improve it. Exercise encourages bone growth, while ensuring that a horse has the right balance of Vitamins A & D, zinc manganese and copper in their diet can also bring about the strengthening of cannon and pastern bones.

It is also important that foals have the opportunity to run around freely as much as possible in their first year. It has been proven that this improves bone density by up to 36% when compared to foals that spend most of their first year confined to a stable.

Lung Capacity

Just like with humans, the lung capacity of a horse is crucial in determining how good it will be as a racehorse. In cycling, for example, riders undergo a VO2 Max test to see how much oxygen their lungs are capable of delivering to their muscles and vital organs when under maximum physical effort.

The exact same theory applies to racehorses, but on a much larger scale. The average human lung capacity is around 6 litres, for racehorses it is 55 litres. Horses tend to take a full breath per stride and they can take 125/130 strides per minute when galloping at full tilt.

That’s a lot of air and that’s why buyers are always keen to find ‘clean winded’ horses. Even minor wind issues can impact massively on a racehorse’s performance and seriously limit their potential.

Size Of Heart

Another factor that has a direct impact on a racehorse’s performance is the size of its heart. The heart is the engine room and it distributes oxygen contained in red blood cells throughout a horse’s body. When the horse is giving maximum effort, it is clearly an advantage to have as big a heart as possible. In elite racehorses, the heart can pump around 300 litres of blood per minute when exercising.

Racehorses’ hearts usually weigh somewhere between 10lbs and 12lbs on average. However, there are examples of horses with much bigger hearts, including one of the most famous ever. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in the USA in 1973 and after he died, he was found to have a heart weighing an incredible 22lbs, twice the size of an average racehorse. No wonder he was so good!

Stride Length & Frequency

Stride length and frequency can also be a good indicator of a horse’s ability. The average stride length for racehorses is around 24.4 feet per stride. If a horse has a longer stride, it means they can cover more ground. However, stride frequency is also a major contributor to a horse’s ability.

The more frequent a horse’s stride, the more energy it uses. For sprinters, having a rapid stride frequency is a plus, whereas over longer distances it is better if a horse has a slower stride pattern.

Generally speaking, though of course there will always be the odd exception, a stride frequency of around 2.50 is ideal for races over sprint trips. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a stride frequency of 2.00 is the optimum for stayers over longer distances.

Frankel – Equine Perfection?

Widely viewed as one of the best racehorses ever sighted on the track, Frankel was a true freak of nature. He used his exceptional stride length to win races in the most spectacular fashion and clearly, he had the optimum balance between stride length and frequency for races over 7 furlongs to 10 furlongs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQajCQ1_BSA (2000 Guineas win)

However, he was arguably at his scintillating best in races over a mile, such as when he annihilated a quality field in the 2000 Guineas in 2011.

As we mentioned earlier, the average stride length for a thoroughbred is around 23-24 ft. Frankel’s maximum stride length was 27.3 ft. He was gaining up to three feet per stride on most horses, so it’s hardly surprising that he was able to dominate and win all fourteen of his starts.

Mental Traits

It is all well and good being a supreme physical specimen but if a horse does not have the right mentality and temperament, it will struggle to go to the very top of the sport. This is why it is so important to teach and train them how to do things right from as early an age as possible.

Just like with humans, horses can have very different personalities. Some are laid back and chilled out, some are inquisitive and some can be hot tempered and hard to handle. It isn’t a set rule, but sprinters can often fit into the latter bracket, whereas stayers are usually (but not always) more laid back and relaxed.

Attitude

Racehorses need to possess a willing attitude towards training and work. It can be the case that some horses absolutely hate doing work at home but then suddenly come alive at the track. However, a racehorse should ideally enjoy most aspects of being trained.

The best trainers know how to keep their horses interested in their homework. Some horses enjoy having the same daily, weekly and monthly routines whereas others prefer to have more ‘interesting’ training schedules.

For example, a surprise trip to the beach for a walk in the sea or an occasional visit to an equine pool for a swim can sweeten up certain horses. The old saying that ‘variety is the spice of life’ holds true for some racehorses too!

Will To Win

If a horse hasn’t got an inherent will to win, they will not succeed at the racetrack. What is the ‘will to win? Well, it can’t really be quantified and there is no scientific test to determine whether a racehorse has this particular trait but one thing is for sure, if they don’t have it, they won’t be winning any races.

The best judges as to whether a horse is trying its very best to win are the jockeys. They are the ones that ask the horse to do certain things in a race and they can tell very quickly if they are sitting on a willing partner, or not.

Sometimes, physical issues causing discomfort can stop a horse from giving its absolute all on the racetrack. Other times, their concentration can let them down and that is where equipment like blinkers, hoods and cheekpieces can help. However, on some occasions horses simply dislike racing and when that is the case, the sooner an owner finds out, the better.

Temperament Issues

The temperament of a racehorse can make or break it. As we mentioned earlier, different horses behave in different ways due to their mental attributes but make no mistake, bad behaviours can be learned. Some of the vices that can manifest in racehorses include:

IssueIndication
Box WalkingUnable to stand still in stable
Cribbing/WindsuckingBites stable door and uses neck muscles
WeavingShifts weight from one leg to another in stable

Box Walking

At racehorse sales you will often hear a horse described by the auctioneer as a ‘box walker’. What this means is that the horse gets restless when it is in its stable and instead of relaxing, as you would like a racehorse to do, they instead walk around their box and don’t stand still. This expends energy and that can have an adverse effect on their training and racing performances.

What causes a horse to become a box walker? Usually, it is because they have spent too much time being kept in a stable and they become frustrated that they can’t run around freely, just like they would if they lived in the wild. It is vital to get the balance right and ideally, let them spend as much time roaming freely in a field or paddock as possible.

Cribbing/Windsucking

Crib biting (wind sucking) is another vice that can afflict racehorses. Basically, the horse latches on to the stable door (or other fixed objects) with its top front teeth and then utilises its neck muscles to suck in a sharp breath of air.

Horses are not born with this trait. The general consensus is that horses develop into cribbers or windsuckers by spending the majority of their day in the stable. In the wild, horses can spend up to 17 hours per day roaming and grazing so it is hardly surprising that being confined to a stable for long periods, especially when they are young, can lead to them developing this negative trait.

Weaving

This is a similar vice to box walking. Instead of constantly walking around its stable, the horse continually shifts its weight from one foreleg to the other while simultaneously swinging its neck and head when standing in its box.

Again, this is a vice that happens because the horse has been spending too long locked in their stable. Weaving is viewed by most experts as a sign of significant stress, frustration or boredom in a horse. There is no surefire cure but allowing a horse to spend more time out in a field/paddock with other horses can sometimes alleviate the issue.

What Makes A Good Racehorse – The Verdict

So, hopefully you now have a better idea of what makes a good racehorse. We outlined the key physical characteristics that a good racehorse should have, including conformation, bone strength, lung capacity, heart size and stride length and frequency.

We also highlighted the harder to quantify mental traits that a top racehorse needs, its attitude and will to win. Finally, we looked at some of the negative vices that can afflict a racehorse.

So what’s the verdict? Well, there is no exact formula when it comes to finding or creating the perfect racehorse. Some breeders have spent decades and billions of pounds in pursuit of equine perfection and still, their searches go on. Maybe one day someone will work it out but for now, a lot of mysteries remain.

FAQs

What traits make a good racehorse?

A number of different factors make a good racehorse. Physically, things like stride length & frequency, lung capacity, heart size and conformation are pretty important. Mentally, a horse needs to have a great attitude to work and a will to win.

What makes a good 2 year old race horse?

The same physical and mental traits are required to make a good 2 year old race horse. However, the most important thing with young horses is their maturity. Some horses simply need time to grow and mature and are unable to race at two years old.

Do racehorses have vices?

Yes, unfortunately many racehorses suffer from stable vices, most of which are a product of the horse’s environment. Some of the most common vices include box walking, cribbing and weaving.