• HEIGHT: 15–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Speed, endurance, heart
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Racing, polo, foxhunting, jumping, eventing, and showing

Horse racing probably began very shortly after horses were first domesticated. By the time humans began to keep written records, racing was an organized sport in all major civilizations from central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were events in the Olympics in Greece in 638 BCE. By 200 CE, the Romans had imported well-bred racing animals, usually of Oriental stock, into England.

The origins of modern racing lie in the twelfth century, when English knights returning from the Crusades brought back swift desert-bred horses. Over the next four hundred years, a great many Oriental horses, particularly stallions, were imported into England and crossed on English horses to produce animals that had both speed and endurance. From the sixteenth century on, the mares used in these crosses came to be known as the English Taproot mares.

For the most part, the imported Oriental stallions are reported as having been Arabs, and sometimes that was true, but quite often the word Arab was used to designate any horse that came from an Islamic country. The general designation of Arab denoted both people and horses from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean regions, including what are now Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco. Furthermore, the true Arab people have always been very reluctant to sell their good horses, especially the mares, so unless proved otherwise, the word Arab must be considered to be a somewhat generic term in relation to the history of the horses in England.

King Stephen, who ruled England from 1135 to 1154, imported both mares and stallions into his royal stables, horses that were always referred to as “hot blooded” or “imported.” Records show large numbers of Spanish Jennets, Andalusians, and Barbs from what is now Morocco, and Turks from Turkey and Syria. To improve Britain’s horses, the king granted the commoners breeding access to the royal stallions, and consequently England became a rich breeding ground of imported, hot-blooded horses.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the royalty of England, France, and Italy began to import horses for the primary purpose of improving the speed and stamina of their racing stock. The British royal family became involved in racing when Charles II began attending the races at Newmarket in 1660. He was the first royal to offer large purses for the winners. He also laid out preliminary rules for racing, marked courses, and settled disputes among participants. Charles II sent Sir Christopher Wyvil, his official Master of the Horse, in search of mares for his breeding program. It is thought that Wyvil went as far as India, as well as to Arabia, Persia (Iran), and Andalusia, to collect magnificent mares, which came to be known as the Royal Mares.

There were other horses racing in England at the time, particularly the Galloway Ponies from Scotland. These little, fairly stocky horses raced well. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, more breeders of all types of racehorses were seriously concentrating on improving their animals. Wanting to add size, agility, and endurance, they imported stallions from Andalusia, Turkey, Arabia, and the Barbary Coast (Morocco). More than one hundred stallions were imported from Turkey and Arabia between 1690 and 1730.

Thoroughbreds have been celebrated for centuries for their beauty, speed, endurance, refinement, and heart.

Foundation Sires

Three of the imported stallions became known as the foundation sires of the modern Thoroughbred, although others were also influential. The three foundation stallions were the Godolphin Arabian, the Byerly Turk, and the Darley Arabian. Their lines remain active to the present day. The pedigree of every modern Thoroughbred can trace back to one of these stallions.

The Byerly Turk was foaled about 1679 and was imported into England in 1689. Many historians believe that he was actually a “Turk” or Turkmene horse, an ancient racing breed now known as the Akhal-Teke. There is uncertainty regarding how this horse came to be in the hands of Captain Byerly. What is known for certain is that Byerly Turk stood at stud in County Durham and later in Yorkshire. He did not breed many of the best mares, but he did produce a horse named Jigg, who is in the pedigree of several important stallions including Tetrach, who was never defeated in a race. The Byerly Turk’s great-grandson Tartar sired Herod, one of the most important stallions in Thoroughbred history.

The first breeding programs focused on developing speed and heart for racing.

The Darley Arabian was foaled about 1700. When he came to England in 1704 from a famous horse market in what is now Syria, he was certified to have come from the best Arabian racing stock. He stood at stud at Yorkshire. One of the mares he bred, Betty Leedes, was from the famous Leedes Arabian line. This cross produced Flying Childers, the first great racing horse in England. It also produced Bartlett’s Childers, who did not race because he was a bleeder, but he was the grandsire of Marske, who produced one of the greatest horses of all times, Eclipse.

The Godolphin Arabian seems to actually have been a Barb from Morocco. He arrived at the stud of Lord Godolphin about 1730. When bred to Roxana he produced Cade, who founded the famous Matchem line.

Thoroughbreds in North America

The first exportations of English “Bred” or racing horses to the United States occurred between 1730 and 1770, by which time short or quarter-path racing was well established in Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island. The owners of the fine imported English racehorses were rather surprised to find that the small American short-racing horses could beat them from the start. The races weren’t long enough for the English horses to get up to speed. The only one of the early imports to have had much influence on American racing at the time was Janus, who arrived in Virginia in 1752. He was noted for his power, strength, and compactness of form, and he became important in pedigrees of short-racing horses.

Short-racing gradually gave way to longer races, but distance racing did not become widely popular until the nineteenth century, when many racetracks were built. By 1850, the fashion of four-mile heats reached its peak. The Thoroughbreds were specialists at the longer distances, and their popularity increased while that of the short-racing horses diminished. Interestingly, the first American Studbook of the Thoroughbred Horse openly included “Short Horses” as foundation animals. The preface to Patrick Nisbett Edgar’s Studbook in 1832 listed many horses with abbreviations such as C.A.Q.R.H.—Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse. Later studbooks written by others seem to have dropped such notations.

The famous gray Thoroughbred Messenger was imported in 1788. In his career he won eight races and lost six; in two races the opponent forfeited the purse rather than run against him. Messenger sired many great running horses among his six hundred offspring.

Following the fashion in Europe, American Thoroughbred racing became the sport of the very rich, but by the early twentieth century it was also the sport of scoundrels. A number of tracks were closed because of corruption. More reputable American breeders and trainers then set their sights on England, but England refused them admission by passing the Jersey Act, which legally closed the British studbook to American horses unless their pedigree could be traced without flaw, on both sides, to horses already in the English Book. Horses that did not meet the requirement were sneeringly deemed “half-breds” by the British, who were soon embarrassed to find that some of these “half-bred” horses were winning major races outside of England, beating English full-breds, and becoming great breeding stallions. It became clear that the Jersey Act was not helping English racing, because the Americans could import the great English horses and bloodlines, but the English could not import the American ones, including Equipoise, War Admiral, and Seabiscuit. The Jersey Act was rescinded in 1949.

Breed Characteristics

Thoroughbred racing remains tremendously popular and is the major force behind the production of 36,000 Thoroughbred foals each year. Because of their beauty, speed, and staying power, Thoroughbreds also compete in a great many other sports. No other breed has ever had the combination of speed, endurance, and heart found in Thoroughbreds. Today they are used almost exclusively in high-goal polo and in upper levels of three-day eventing. Thoroughbreds also excel as both field and show hunters, jumpers, and occasionally upper-level dressage horses. They have been crossed successfully on almost every breed imaginable to add speed, refinement, and heart.


Thoroughbreds average between 15 and 17 hands and weigh 1,000 to 1,250 pounds. In general, the Thoroughbred’s head is relatively small and elegant, with a straight profile, well-proportioned, active ears, and large and lively eyes. The nostrils are flared. The neck is usually very long, often straight but sometimes arched. The chest is high and wide, especially in horses bred for sprint racing, although it tends to be deeper in horses bred for distance. The shoulders are very well sloped and muscular.

The withers are prominent, and the back is usually long. The loins are well attached to the croup, which may be quite sloping. The tail set is high. The legs are long and have large, clean joints and muscular forearms. The cannon bones are usually slim. The pasterns are long and sloped. The hooves are relatively small. The skin is thin and the hair coat is very fine.


Thoroughbreds may be bay, black, chestnut, or gray. Roans occur but are not common. Very rarely palominos occur, but because the color is a dilution of chestnut, they are registered as chestnuts. White markings are common on the face and lower legs. Although is not widely known, a very few purebred Thoroughbreds are pintos. The Jockey Club does accept these animals for registration.

A Thoroughbred is built for speed, with a long neck, wide chest, prominent withers, well-sloped shoulders, and long, sloping pasterns.


According to the Jockey Club (founded in 1894):

• The Jockey Club assumed responsibility for the American Stud Book in 1896.

• The cumulative number of Thoroughbreds registered in the American Stud Book is more than 1.8 million.

• About 36,000 new foals are registered each year.

• In 2002, about 30 percent of the expected foal crop, almost all of it in Kentucky, was lost to mare reproductive loss syndrome, but numbers have since rebounded.

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