Form and Function: Speed

Secretariat Horse Photo_bvcLast week we talked about why the Giant Fantasy Horse(tm) is not the best idea for your questing Fellowship or your knight errant. This week we’ll look at another aspect of equine form and function: Speed.

You won’t always be writing about quests and errantries, after all. Sometimes you’ll want to add excitement, and in a horse culture, one of the simplest ways to do this is to have a horse race. All sorts of tension and conflict can revolve around such an event, and the actual horse side of it can be fairly minimal.  After all, in our world, there are horse-race aficionados who know very little about the riding or care of horses, but can quote you chapter and verse on race stats and bloodlines. Think of it as baseball statistics with very large, very inarticulate players who run but don’t bat or field.

But suppose you want to mix it up a bit. Have a Black Stallion sort of setup, where a stranger comes in with a different type of horse and challenges all comers. For that, you’ll need to know why the Black Stallion would never have done Thoroughbred races in this world, aside from the fact that he was not a Jockey-Club-registered animal but an Arabian of unknown pedigree. (That would have barred him right there. The JC is extremely strict about who gets to run in its races–only horses of one breed, which is not the Arabian, need apply.) Still, it’s your world and you get to make the rules, so why wouldn’t you want to run an Arabian against Thoroughbreds?

To answer this question, you have to know that there are three general types of running horses: sprinters, milers, and long-distance runners. They’re comparable to human sprinters, middle-distance runners, and marathoners, and there are physical differences between them, beginning with the type and quality of muscle that each one has.

A classic sprinter is the American Quarter  Horse–so called because he is lightning-fast at the quarter mile. He looks like this:

peppysanbadger_bvcHe is heavily muscled, substantially built, with a long, sloped hip and rather upright hindlegs. He is built to spring off that big hip and runlikemad for a short distance. Endurance at speed is not his forte. He’ll poop out after his quarter-mile (though a good ranch horse can cruise on at a much slower speed for most of the day).

The horse that passes him after that first quarter-mile looks like this:

secretariat_bvcThis is one of the great Thoroughbreds of all time, the mighty Secretariat, as a mature horse. The image at the start of this post is the baby champion in action. What we see on television are the equivalent of fourteen-year-old gymnasts in the Olympics. When they grow up, they look a lot like Quarter Horses (who are their close relatives)–but they tend to be longer-legged, less massive, and somewhat shorter though still substantial in the hip. The Quarter Horse will beat them in the first quarter, but come the mile, the QH will be far behind and the Thoroughbred will be coming into his own.

But even the Thoroughbred will poop out after a mile or two, and another horse will leave him in the dust. That is the Arabian, the marathon runner of the horse world, and this is a classic example:

Morafic_bvcThis horse, *Morafic, raced in Egypt before he came to the United States. He’s much more lightly built than the other two. He is in fact their relative–some of their ancestors, who were very important to the incorporation of speed into their genes, were his ancestors as well.  He is built to run over long distances, to gain and keep condition rapidly and maintain it for a long time on short commons. He most probably won’t outrun the QH in the first quarter, and the TB, assisted by much longer legs and stride, will pass him easily in the mile, but after two miles he’ll still be skimming along, and Secretariat will be ready for his post-race cooldown and mash.

That’s why the Black Stallion probably wouldn’t have succeeded on a real racetrack against Thoroughbreds. If the races had been several miles long, yes, but at the mile or mile and a half, the advantage would rest with the Thoroughbred. (In Arabian races, which have a much lower profile and much less money  involved, he would of course be among his own–though the lack of papers would get him into trouble again. Papers are big in horse racing.)

What this does for the writer writing a race is offer several options for type of race and type of horse. For a fast, exciting sprint, go with the Quarter Horse type. For a longer, Derby-like race, the Thoroughbred is the thing. If you’re writing more of a Hidalgo-style monster marathon, Arabian is it, baby.

Which by the way is why the film is completely implausible. In the story the horse was a Spanish Mustang–another long-distance type with legendary endurance. The handsome overo Paint (basically a spotted Quarter Horse by breeding and type) in the film is classic sprinter build. It’s very unlikely that he would be able to keep up with the marathoners, and he probably would not be able to compete with them for stamina, either. You can wear out a sprinter by running him around and around. You run an Arabian for any length of time, you don’t wear him out. You end up with a very fit horse.

In short, speed comes in several sizes and shapes, and your race can mix it up rather nicely if you apply a basic knowledge of which form fits which function. You can by the way have your horse pulled in off another purpose: the Quarter Horse type off a ranch, the Thoroughbred from fox hunting or jumping or serving as a fine riding horse, or the Arabian from being the elegant lady’s mount or even a light harness horse. They are all, in themselves, naturally versatile, but when you pare away the rest of what the horse can do and focus on pure speed, each has different assets to offer to the mix.

Finally, a coda: the harness (trotting or pacing) horse. He looks like this:

speedy1_bvcHe has a very, very, very fast trot–bred and tested to a specific time standard and trained not to break into a canter or gallop while racing. He may be built like pretty much anything out there including an Arabian, a Morgan, or a Thoroughbred as long as he can make the time, but he will tend to be rangy and lean in the sides, and to have a very free shoulder and a lot of reach in the trot. He would be particularly popular in a nineteenth-century rural American setting, where trotting races were huge and contests could bring in horses from miles around. That extended a trot is extremely hard to sit, but since a trotter (or pacer) will be driven instead of ridden, that won’t be an issue. He may even, if he is exceptional, be able to trot faster than the local running racer can gallop, which would make for even more variety and excitement in your fictional race.




Form and Function: Speed — 10 Comments

  1. Was just wondering if they raced under saddle in those nineteenth-century rural American harness races?

    (Enjoying this series by the way._

  2. In “The Music Man,” the traveling salesman sings of how horse racing (“When they actually SIT DOWN on the horse!”) and its seedy rep compared with decent upright American trotting races.


  3. I am amused. I recognized Secretariat right off. He has such a unique body/shoulder. The only horse…er, TB, that is… I have ever seen come close to his body type is Charismatic, who was a descendant of his…

    …and, despite this brief foray into bloodlines and horse racing geekitude, I actually *can* ride a bit! 😉 Just not at the level some of my characters will end up riding. Hence the research. Which leads in to my question: All three of these are traditionally ‘hot blooded’ breeds, yes? I’ve been around all of them, and there are individual differences, of course, but for those that might not know– the temperaments are pretty bold, for these breeds, right? As long as they’re raised properly?

    (I, for the record, never met a ‘shy’ Arab. 😀 They were such fun, always coming up and sniffing and wanting attention, petting, and treats. Great fun.)

    Thank you for another excellent column!

  4. Kara: Quarter Horses are not known as hotbloods. They’re generally supposed to be mellow and cooperative–good all-purpose ranch vehicles who just happen to be able to burn up the quarter-mile track.

    TBs are hotbloods for sure, and Arabs are the original article.

    Monissa/GK: I would hate to ride a trotter in a race. Yikes. BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE bouncebouncebouncebouncebounce…

    I have ridden Standardbreds. They were very, very boingy. And fast. Oh yeah. They actually make good riding horses; they’re smart, sensible, and willing. It can be hard to get a canter out of one because it’s trained out of them for racing, but it can be done.

  5. I’ve been enjoying this series too, but oh damn! Now I want an Arabian horse in the worst way! Such beauties!

    I have an idea for a story which involves a pinto or an appaloosa – which are they more like?


  6. Having done what I should have from the beginning I’ve now consulted Wikiepedia on Appaloosas and Pintos. Hmm. What I wanted is a breed that associated with North America very strongly. I know they all come from somewhere else, but these two do seem to have strong NA associations. Do you have any other suggestions for horse breeds or types (since those are colors more than breeds) associated strongly with North America far back in our history?

    MKK (it’s a fantasy story set in NA where I’d like to use NA associated breed/type)

  7. A Pinto is any horse with large patches of white and a solid color. It can come from anywhere. There are pictures of them in ancient Chinese art.

    The Paint is a modern American breed. In essence it’s a Quarter Horse with too much white, but it’s become its own breed. It has a lot of QH blood and has the characteristic build and personality.

    The Appaloosa originates in Europe and Asia but is a characteristically American breed–the Palouse horse of the Nez Perce. If Chief Joseph’s march had not happened and the Nez Perce had stayed in their ancestral lands, they might still be breeding those distinctively spotted horses.

    The modern Appaloosa has a LOT of Quarter Horse blood, and there’s controversy about that between the show people, who want a QH with spots (and the spots have become optional), and the old-style Appaloosa people, who want a very different type. The Nez Perce themselves have been crossing their stock on the Akhal Teke, a lean and racy animal from central Asia, which is noted for its gorgeous gold-washed coat. I do not know the rationale for that. It definitely takes that subset of the breed away from the spotted QH.

    The Quarter Horse is “America’s Horse.” It’s the all-purpose vehicle, the ranch horse, the cowboy’s best friend.

    The Morgan descends from Justin Morgan’s horse in 18th-century Vermont. He’s a very distinctive animal, highly intelligent, and famously versatile. He was a trotting racer, a plow horse, a fine harness horse, and a riding horse–all in the same animal.

    The Mustang is the feral horse of the West, tough and hardy and interesting to train.

    The Indian pony is often a pinto and resembles the Mustang for type and sturdiness.

    At the other end of the spectrum there’s the American Saddlebred, the elegant horse of the plantations. Leslie Howard rides one in Gone With the Wind. The Tennessee Walking Horse is a relative, bred for its smooth lateral gaits including the running walk. Some Saddlebreds are gaited as well, but their variations on gaitedness are different. And to add to the fun, there are “Appaloosa Shufflers” and the gaited Morgan. Basically for a good riding horse, people bred away from the bouncy trot and toward a smooth but rapid gait. Various regions bred their own: the Missouri Foxtrotter, the Rocky Mountain horse (which is often a pinto), and the Spotted Saddle Horse. The extreme version of the glassy-smooth speedster is the South American gaited horse, the Paso Fino and the Peruvian Paso.

    There are draft types, too: the Cleveland Bay, for example.

    Lots of choices there.

  8. Thanks for replying. I know they raced them like that in Australia (that’s where I came across it) but when I went looking on Google to see what they did in the US (curiousity mostly, but you never know when it might be useful) there was too much junk to wade through that I couldn’t find anything.