The Thoroughbred: The Pinnacle of Horse Breeding


Unlike many other breeds, the thoroughbred has bridged the gap between the equine world and the rest of the world. It’s not unusual to hear people refer to athletic animals as thoroughbred, meaning they are top quality, one of the best. Most racehorses worldwide are thoroughbreds. Thoroughbreds win the most prestigious races and the greats become household names. Red Rum, Secretariat, and Phar Lap are legendary horses from different corners of the world, all thoroughbreds.

The origin of the thoroughbred

While they are now bred worldwide with some people finding some small distinctions between thoroughbreds from different continents, the first thoroughbreds were British. James I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland began importing quality mares to breed better, faster horses with more stamina. The 43 mares imported during his reign and the reign of Charles I became known as the Royal Mares. This started the first General Studbook.

Later, 3 Arabian stallions were imported to improve the quality of this new studbook. The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian, and The Byerley Turk. It is said that all thoroughbreds can be traced to at least one of these 3 stallions or the original 43 mares.

Recognize Darley and Godolphin? His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has helped these names remain at the forefront of our minds. His racing operation is named Godolphin and his recognizable all-blue silks are seen on racecourses around the world. His breeding operation, named Darley, has some of the most competitive Stud Fee Terms available. (

Fun Fact: Did you know a thoroughbred has to be conceived naturally to be considered a thoroughbred and allowed to race?

This is to limit the number of mares a stallion can cover each year. Not only can this help level out the market, allowing more stallion owners to breed, but it also helps maintain some genetic variety.

Common features of the thoroughbred

Thoroughbreds really do come in all shapes and sizes. A Grand National runner will look very different from a 5-furlong sprinter. Even within races, the horses can look very different. However, there are features you can find in most thoroughbreds:

  • A fine, elegant head.
  • High or pronounced withers.
  • A high croup.
  • A broad, deep chest.
  • Long legs.
  • A well-muscled hind end.

Fun Fact: Over the years researchers have discovered the “Speed Gene.” All horses have a combination of CC, CT, or TT for this gene. Horses with CC are best suited to sprinting, CT middle distance, and TT long distance. There is a belief amongst National Hunt trainers that it would be impossible to win the Grand National with a horse without TT.

How they have been used in many sports horse studbooks

Being selectively bred for Centuries to race has meant that the thoroughbred is an incredible athlete. Their speed and stamina are hard to match and therefore they have been used as an improver of many breeds for years.

When more people started to have an interest in horses for leisure and sport, they needed to improve their workhorses. In the UK, the Irish Draft horse has a hugely popular workhorse but they lacked some of the speed and stamina needed for a day’s hunting. The Irish Draft cross Thoroughbred became hugely popular, now known as the Irish Sports Horse.

Many sports horse breeds went the same way. Studbooks across Europe often started with their Native breeds. But they wanted to improve them, make them better suited for sports and leisure riding. Many of these Studbooks turned to the thoroughbred. It is said that roughly 35% of the genes in the Hanoverian population come from the thoroughbred.

In the old, long format eventing, a thoroughbred was considered a must-have. While the modern, shorter format puts slightly less emphasis on speed and stamina, thoroughbreds are still sought after. Even though most warmbloods and sports horses now have a lot of thoroughbred in them, eventing breeders still favor those with more thoroughbred blood in them.

Other sports thoroughbreds have excelled in

Despite being bred for racing, thoroughbreds have excelled in other areas too. Before there were warmbloods, thoroughbreds were the original sports horse. They would compete in all disciplines at the very top.

In the modern-day, there are specialized breeds and bloodlines at the very top of Dressage and Show Jumping. Many of these bloodlines still contain a lot of thoroughbred blood, but it is rarer to see pure thoroughbreds still competing at the very top of the sport.

As I have already mentioned, thoroughbreds are still very desirable in eventing. You not only have pure thoroughbreds competing at the top level, but you can also see ex-racehorses at this level. They are also very popular in the higher levels of polo and endurance.

But thoroughbreds continue to excel in all sports, especially at an amateur level. So they really are much more than just a racehorse.

This article was written by Ruby from the EquiPepper blog, specializing in the retraining of racehorses.