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What Are The Different Types Of Horse Racing?

Horse racing is an ancient sport that has had an honored position in civilizations throughout history, as well as in legend and in mythology. In this article, we provide a brief overview of the history of horseracing, along with descriptions of the types of horse racing commonly seen today. Read on to learn more.

Men Have Raced Horses Since Time Immemorial

The earliest recorded horse races took place in ancient Egypt, Greece, Babylon and Syria. Mounted horse races were a part of the Greek Olympics in 648 BC, and in the ancient Byzantine, Greek and Roman empires, chariot racing was a popular sport.

Riderless, mounted and chariot racing were all extremely popular in ancient Rome, and were a major attraction at the Roman Spring Carnival from the mid-1600s to the late 1800s. A riderless race of between fifteen and twenty Barbary Coast Arabians ran down the straight thoroughfare of Rome (the Via del Corso) for a dazzling and dramatic close to the festival every year.

Horse racing is an aspect of these competitions that has endured and evolved. With the passage of time, Thoroughbred racing became the domain of the British aristocracy and the Royals. This is why today we often hear horse racing referred to as “The Sport of Kings”.

What Are The Different Types Of Horse Racing?

what is flat racing

There are essentially four different types of horse racing that are popular today, but within these types there are many variations.

1. What Is Flat Racing ?

This type of racing is the most familiar, and there are formal flat racetracks all around the world.

Breeds most often used in flat racing include:

  • Thoroughbred
  • Quarter Horse
  • Appaloosa
  • Arabian
  • Paint

In flat races, horses with riders compete by racing a straight track between two points or running a set number of laps on an oval track. There are exceptions, though. For example, the track at Windsor in the UK is laid out in a figure-eight shape. Most tracks are level, but there are some tracks in Ireland and Great Britain that include some hilly areas and changes in footing.

The surface of the track also tends to vary from one location to another. In Europe, horse race tracks are usually covered in turf. In Asia and North America, dirt tends to be more common. Artificial surfaces, such as Tapeta and Polytrack are quickly becoming popular choices for racetracks around the world.

The length of the track may also vary from 400 meters to 4 kilometers. Most races fall in the five-twelve furlong range. A furlong is a unit of measure pertaining specifically to horse racing. A furlong equals 201.168 meters in length.

In track vernacular, you may hear shorter races called “sprints”. In the UK, longer races are called “staying races”. In the US, these races are called “routes”. Just as with human footraces, a sprint is generally a test of speed, while a staying race is a test of endurance and stamina.

Some very prestigious races are geared to judge both speed and stamina. These mid-range races include:

  • Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
  • Dubai World Cup
  • Kentucky Derby
  • Melbourne Cup
  • Epsom Derby
  • Japan Cup

How Much Weight Must A Racehorse Carry?

Just as track length, shape and footing varies from place to place and race to race, the method of determining how much weight a racehorse will carry varies from one location to another. In conditions horse races, contestants generally carry the same amount of weight, but some allowances are made for very young horses or when mares are running against stallions. In handicap races horses are assigned different amounts of weight according to their abilities and other factors, such as:

  • The amount and type of training the horse has had
  • The jockey’s experience and record
  • The horse’s gender
  • Post position

2. What Is Jumps Racing?

When horses race and jump obstacles, that is jumps (or jump) racing, also known as Steeple-chasing. In Ireland and the UK, this form of racing is referred to as National Hunt Racing. The term, “steeple-chase” is also used to identify jumps races held within specific racing jurisdictions in the US. The term “National Hunt Race” mainly applies to jumps races, but it may also be applied to flat races that take place during jumps meets.

There are several variations on jumps racing, including:

  • National Hunt Racing
  • Steeplechase
  • Hurdling

Whether a jumps race is a steeple-chase (“chase” for short) or a hurdle race is determined according the size and the type of obstacles participants are required to leap over. In a chase, horses jump fences which must be at least 1.37 meters high. In a hurdle race, the jumps are lower (1.06 meters high) and are composed of brush.

The horse breeds most commonly used for jumps racing are Thoroughbreds and Autre Que Pur-Sang (AQPS), which is a French term meaning “anything other than Thoroughbred. It is typically applied to horses who are not registered as:

  • Thoroughbreds
  • French Trotters
  • Anglo-Arabians
  • Selle Francais

A horse who is a cross of one of these breeds is also referred to as AQPS.

Horses of different ages and abilities participate in different levels of competition. Naturally, as horses mature and gain more experience and success, they move to more and more challenging competitions. Typically, a jumps horse in Europe starts out participating in flat races at National Hunt meets. After about a year of experience and success, the horse may be entered into hurdles races. If all goes well, he or she moves on to steeple-chases.

This video addresses the difference between Flat and National Hunt racing.

3. Harness Racing

This type of racing is conducted using a sulky (small, one-person cart) and driver. Typical harness race horses include:

  • Scandinavian Cold-Blooded Trotter
  • Russian Trotters
  • French Trotters
  • Standardbreds
  • Finnhorses

The choice of horse depends greatly upon location, with Standardbreds most used in North America, New Zealand and Australia. They are also used in Europe, along with the French and Russian Trotters. It goes without saying that Finnhorses are most commonly used in Finland, and Scandinavian trotters are most commonly used in Scandinavia.

Best Harness Racing Finish EVER???

4. What Is Endurance Racing?

Endurance competitions first began in California in the mid-20th century. The first organized race was a 160.9 km, one-day competition with the starting point in Squaw Valley and the finish line in Auburn. In 1972, the American Endurance Ride Conference was established in the US. This was the very first association set up for the sport of endurance riding.

In endurance races, horses compete cross-country for long distances. These rides usually cover natural trails, but they may also require riders to go through populated areas and areas with some traffic.

The Mongol Derby is the world’s longest endurance race. It is a thousand kilometers and takes about ten days to complete. This competition takes place on the Mongolian Steppe and follows the course of Ghengis Khan’s messenger system, established in 1224.

How Long Are Typical Endurance Races?

Shorter competitions may be about 16 kilometers. Longer events may be as long as 161 kilometers. Short competitions may take only a few hours. Longer competitions may take days and involve camping out and encountering a wide variety of terrains and challenges.

6 Categories Of Endurance Races By Length

  1. Pleasure Ride 16-32 km
  2. Non-Competitive Trail Ride 33.7 – 43.4 km
  3. Competitive Trail Ride 32.1 – 72.4 km
  4. Progressive Trail Ride 40.2 – 96.5 km
  5. One Day Endurance Ride 64.3 – 160.9 km
  6. Multi-Day Endurance Ride 402.3 km

What’s The Best Steed For An Endurance Ride?

The best horses for this type of competition include:

  • Tennessee Walkers
  • Quarter Horses
  • Appaloosas
  • Mustangs
  • Arabians

When permitted, mules have an added advantage in terms of temperament, strength, endurance and sure-footedness. Here is are two “mule men” and their rugged, obliging mounts happily training for an endurance competition.

A mammoth donkey also makes a nice trail riding mount!

A sturdy pony is also an excellent choice for endurance riding!

In Fact, Variations Of All Types Of Races Are Open To Ponies!

Many pony clubs and other equestrian organizations also set up competitions for young riders and drivers of ponies and miniature horses.

Shetland Pony Racing!

2018 WIHS Shetland Pony Steeplechase Championship Series at Devon – Monday, May 28

Mini Trots Gunning 2015

There’s Always More To Learn About Horse Racing

This is just a brief overview of the many interesting aspects of horse racing throughout the ages. It is a fascinating subject, and the more you learn, the more you will want to know.

One important thing for true horse lovers to remember when contemplating supporting or participating in horse racing is the fact that racing is a big business. As such, professional racing is usually exploitative of horses. For this reason, it’s wise to be careful of how you support and participate in horse racing. For example, if you plan to bet on the horses, learn about the history of owners and stables and don’t give financial support to those with a known history of cruelty or a high incidence of horse injury or death.

If you decide to participate in racing or endurance riding, don’t lose sight of the fact that you are responsible for your horse’s safety and well-being. Winning is great, but getting there must be enjoyable and safe for you and your horse. Just as with “all things horsey”, racing and endurance riding are done in partnership with your horse. If you approach the topic without imposing your own agenda and expectations, your experience and your horse’s will be far more satisfying.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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