The Fastest of the Horse Breeds

The Thoroughbred

The term 'Thoroughbred' has several different meanings. If someone says of his dog 'It's a thoroughbred' he is saying that it is a purebred saluki or whippet or whatever. In the horse world, it is also used by people to describe a purebred of a breed. However the thoroughbred is also a distinct breed in its own right. Thoroughbreds are most often associated with the horse-racing industry although they are also used in many other equestrian disciplines.

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The breed had its origins in England back in the early 1700s and selective breeding is still going on, resulting in faster and faster times on the race-track.

Between 1660 and 1750, around 200 horses were imported into England from the Orient. Three of these are recognized as being the foundation sires of the thoroughbred world. The three are the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. It seems generally agreed that, of these three, only the Darley Arabian was a true Arab, The Byerley was almost certainly a Turkmene type and the Godolphin a Barb.

The Byerley Turk gets his name from Captain Robert Byerley who captured the stallion from the Turks. The stallion was shipped to England and bred to native mares. One of his most illustrious sons was Herod, who became an important name in the pedigrees of many of the early thoroughbreds.

The Darley Arabian is considered the most important of the three. He was purchased by Thomas Darley in Aleppo, Syria in 1704, shipped to Yorkshire, England and bred to selected racing mares. One of his get was Flying Childers, arguably the first really great race-horse. Eclipse was another to have Darley Arabian blooc. Eclipse was never beaten in a race and 90% of all registered thirst really great race-horse. Eclipse was another to have Darley Arabian blood. Eclipse was never beaten in a race and 90% of all registered thoroughbreds trace back to him.

The Godolphin Arabian was foaled in Yemen before going to Syrian then Tunis. It was gifted to the French king and later was taken to England. The 2nd Earl of Godophin acquired the stallion. One of his progeny was Matchem, a race-horse par excellence. Matchem was also noted for his impeccable temperament, a vast improvement on the highly strung, nervous individuals of the day.

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Today, all thoroughbreds in the General Stud Book, which was established in 1791, trace back to these three foundation sires.

Other oriental horses, especially Arabs, figured in the early development. When crossed with native British horses and ponies, the progeny were larger with a longer stride, more scope and more speed.

The most rapid development in improvement of performance took place during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Initially horse-racing was the pastime of the aristocracy and gentry but its popularity, and the lure of gambling, has seen racing and breeding of the thoroughbred spread to every corner of the globe.

The main period of expansion was probably when the 1800s when the thoroughbred found its way to Australia, Europe, Japan and South America. There are now literally millions of thoroughbreds and they are spread all over the globe.

Thoroughbreds were imported into the United States from the 1730s. The racing industry is huge in America. InKentucky, the Thoroughbred was designated the 'Official State Horse' in 1996. In 2003, Maryland also appointed the Thoroughbred its State Horse.

Thoroughbreds generally need more sensitive, skilled handling. They are highly intelligent, quick and eager to please. They are typically more highly strung and temperamental than most other breeds. Some strains are particularly nervy and highly strung but have been kept on because of their speed. Others are laid back and lovable. In the extremes of horse disciplines such as eventing, hunting and show-jumping, professional riders look for at least some thoroughbred blood to provide courage and speed. Some thoroughbreds are produced purely for disciplines other than racing while some find their way to show-jumping or eventing careers when their racing careers are over. Those that are too small for the race-track find a home on the polo field providing their temperament is not too fiery.

Thoroughbreds average around 16 hands. Although they were once bred not for their looks but purely and simply for their speed, good conformation has an impact on speed and hardiness. Animals with suspect conformation are more likely to 'break down' if their action is faulty or their legs insubstantial.

The overall impression is one of elegance, toughness and quality. The thoroughbred has a streamlined body with long, slender legs and strong, muscular hindquarters. There is good length from the hip to the stifle. The shoulder is big and muscular and the withers tend to be high.

The ribcage is deep and rounded and the chest wide with plenty of room for heart and lungs. The hooves are tough. Some thoroughbreds have suspect feet with poor horn, low heels and flat soles.

The head is straight, lean and elegant with large eyes and finely chiseled ears. The nostrils are open and capable of flaring allowing maximum airflow when racing at speed.

The oriental influence is seen, not only in the refinement and speed of the breed, but also in the fine coat which thickens and lengthens only slightly in the winter. Thoroughbreds need more protection from the elements than 'native' or cross breeds and they usually require supplementary feeding year round.

The thoroughbred has a quality and athleticism that has become the benchmark for a perfect equine.

Once past racing, a thoroughbred can face an uncertain future. He will often need supplementary feeding and rugging through cold weather. He has been trained to gallop at top speed virtually every time he is saddled and to pass all others if he can. To excel at another discipline, he needs re-training and re-educating so although they may be quite cheap to acquire, an ex-racehorse is not the best mount for an inexperienced rider.

Young thoroughbreds are raced at an early age before their bones have fully developed and leg problems and injuries often arise. Some are only suitable as companion animals.

There are now a number of rescue organizations that take in ex-racehorses and try to find good homes for them. These adoption agencies endeavour to match a horse with a new owner. There are strict criteria to be met and often an adoption fee is required.

The thoroughbred has been used to 'improve' many breeds.Breeds such as the Hanoverian, Trakenher, Holsteiner and Irish Draught  have at least some Thoroughbred blood, thus providing speed, courage and beauty. Most warmblood breeds such as the Swiss and Dutch Warmbloods have a large percentage of Thoroughbred blood.