Most people are familiar with the thoroughbred horse due to horse racing. But thoroughbreds are multipurpose horses, and many former racehorses find second careers as riding or driving horses. Thoroughbreds are classified as “hot-blooded” horses, or horses that tend to be spirited, bold, intelligent, and athletic. It’s a demeanor not every equestrian can handle, but it does make for a magnificent horse.
Weight: 1,000 to 1,200 pounds
Height: 15 hands (60 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches)
Body Type: Deep chest; lean, athletic build; long neck; powerful hindquarters
Best For: Owners and riders with some equine experience
Life Expectancy: 25 to 35 years
Thoroughbred History and Origins
Thoroughbreds can trace their origin back to the late 17th century in Great Britain. Horse racing had already existed there for centuries, and people were selectively breeding horses for their racing qualities.
Three stallions were imported to England in the late 1600s and early 1700s: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian (named for their owners, a previously common practice). They became the foundational stallions of the thoroughbred, even though ironically none of them had ever raced. The foundational mares came from multiple breeds, both native and imported.
This selective breeding resulted in a horse with strength, speed, and stamina. The first thoroughbred arrived in the American colonies in 1730, though importation all but stopped during the Revolutionary War. Horse racing gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1800s, and Kentucky and Tennessee became centers for thoroughbred breeding and racing. The thoroughbred also influenced several other horse breeds, including the American quarter horse, standardbred, and Morgan.
The Jockey Club serves as the registry for thoroughbreds in the U.S. and Canada.
Thoroughbreds range in height from around 15 hands (60 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches). Most stand at roughly 16 hands (64 inches) tall. They typically weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds.
Thoroughbred Breeding and Uses
Although they’ve been bred primarily for their racehorse qualities since their origin, thoroughbreds are also seen in many other equine sports, including jumping and dressage. They’re also used as trail horses, general riding horses, and pleasure driving horses. Many former racehorses, also known as off-track thoroughbreds or OTTBs, move on to become riding and driving horses.
Furthermore, thoroughbreds are often used to add refinement and athleticism to other horse breeds. Many sport horses in particular have thoroughbreds in their ancestry.
Colors and Markings
Thoroughbreds come in every solid equine coat color. Most often they are bay, brown, chestnut, black, or gray. Many breed registries don’t recognize coat patterns that include more than one color. But white facial and leg markings, such as blazes or stockings, are allowed, though many thoroughbreds are plain with minor to no markings.
Unique Characteristics of the Thoroughbred
A thoroughbred’s athleticism and refined appearance are its defining characteristics. These horses can reach speeds of around 40 miles per hour. Their hindquarters are particularly muscled, which amplifies thrust as they gallop. And even though they are powerful, muscular horses, they’re able to move with grace and agility.
Diet and Nutrition
Thoroughbreds eat a typical equine diet of quality grass, hay, grains, and some fruits and vegetables. Vitamin and mineral supplementation might be necessary. Many thoroughbreds tend to have a fast metabolism, so they might require more food than other horses their size to maintain a healthy weight.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Thoroughbreds are prone to several health problems, many of which are due to being bred for racing. Because they’re often pushed to physical extremes on the race track, the rate of health complications and accidents—such as life-ending fractures—for thoroughbreds is high.
The breed also is susceptible to exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding in the lungs from intense exercise. Plus, some thoroughbreds have abnormally large hearts, which can contribute to circulatory issues from leaky valves which can lead to congestive heart failure. And some have hooves that are too light and thin-walled for their body size, which can cause soreness and lameness.
In terms of behavior, many thoroughbreds are too spirited and energetic for beginning equestrians. But they are highly intelligent and have a strong work ethic. A confident, experienced handler can often train this horse to excel in various equine sports.
However, former racehorses can be especially difficult to retrain for other purposes, including general riding. These horses have been geared toward racing their whole lives and often spook at loud noises that remind them of starter pistols. In addition, former racehorses typically only have basic behavioral training.
Standard equine grooming practices are suitable for thoroughbreds. Brush them at least a couple times per week, and inspect and clean their hooves daily to look for injuries and prevent infection.
When grooming a thoroughbred, it’s important to be extra gentle because this horse has thinner skin than many other breeds. So a thoroughbred might be more sensitive and annoyed by grooming, especially if you hit any sore spots. Take the process slowly, and reward the horse with treats or praise for good behavior. Also, look for soft grooming tools, such as a brush with natural bristles instead of nylon.
Strong work ethic
Often too spirited for some people to handle
Retraining former racehorses can be challenging
Champion and Celebrity Thoroughbred Horses
There have been many notable thoroughbreds throughout the breed’s history, and not all of them are associated with racing victories. For instance, a stallion named Messenger, born in 1780, is a foundational sire of the American standardbred horse. And in 2006, a colt named The Green Monkey set a record for the highest price ever paid for a thoroughbred at auction: $16 million. He only raced three times, never winning, before injuries caused him to retire.
Then, there are the famous racing thoroughbreds. Man o’ War is still counted as one of the top racehorses of all time. And the notorious record-breaker Secretariat is right up there with him.
Is the Thoroughbred Horse Right for You?
Thoroughbreds have been bred to be athletic and spirited, so they don't always make the best beginner horses. But for intermediate and advanced riders who can channel the breed’s vigor, thoroughbreds are the ultimate ride with a powerful, smooth gait. Due to their energetic nature, they are especially ideal for those who want to compete with their horse in equestrian events.
How to Adopt or Buy a Thoroughbred
Thanks to their popularity, thoroughbreds are fairly easy to find around the world to adopt or buy. Their price varies greatly, largely depending on the horse’s age, pedigree, training, and health. Thoroughbreds from champion bloodlines can easily cost more than $100,000 while thoroughbreds for general riding or retired racehorses often cost between $1,000 and $10,000.
It’s important to visit with a potential horse before committing. Ask the seller about the horse's history, health, temperament, and training. In particular, a former racehorse might lack training or have lingering injuries. So make sure you’ll be able to manage the horse before you opt to bring it home. It is also advisable to have your veterinarian perform a pre-purchase examination before buying or adopting to determine the horse's health and suitability for its desired use.
More Horse Breeds
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Otherwise, you can check out all of our other horse breed profiles.
The equine heart (Part 1): what makes the horse such an amazing athlete? SteinbeckPenEq.
Ony EE. From the heart. Kentucky Equine Research.
Common problems and management of the thoroughbred foot. Canadian Thoroughbred.