The athletic thoroughbred: everything you need to know

  • Few breeds can claim as much influence on modern equestrian sport as the thoroughbred horse. Many other breeds, from American Quarter Horses to Morgans, Irish Draughts to Standardbreds, European warmbloods and many more, have been infused with thoroughbred blood to enhance refinement and athleticism.

    Thoroughbreds themselves appear everywhere, from taking their riders around the hunting field or dressage ring, to excelling at the highest levels of eventing, showjumping, and polo. Their heart, work ethic, and people-oriented nature makes them excellent all-round riding horses, although they can be energetic and forward-going, so are not ideal novice rides (as with any breed, there are always exceptions).

    Primarily, though, thoroughbreds are known and bred as racehorses. The breed was founded in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, when English mares were bred to three imported stallions of Barb, Turkomen, and Arab lines.

    The General Stud Book, the first official register of horses, was established in 1791, only listing horses that could be traced to those three stallions and to 43 “Royal mares” imported under the reign of James I.

    The end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th saw horse racing increasing in popularity and the creation of the English ‘Classic’ races such as the St. Leger, the Oaks, the Derby, and the 2000 Guineas. The first English steeplechases, an idea adopted from Ireland, were established in the 1830s, and the most famous of these, the Aintree Grand National, was first run in the late 19th century.

    In the United States, now the world’s largest producer of thoroughbreds, Flat racing took off in 1868, becoming immensely popular in the 19th century. After a worrying spell when bookmaking was banned in the early 20th century, it bounced back when pari-mutuel betting was legalised in 1908 and horses like Seabiscuit and Man O’War became as famous as human celebrities. After hitting a flat spot following WWII, the 1970s saw another boost with equine stars like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed winning the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont – three Grade One stakes races held within a month of one another).

    Racing has attained mainstream press and TV coverage of an extent not found in most equestrian sports, not least because people can bet on it. Famous racehorses like Frankel, Kauto Star, Red Rum, and Sea The Stars have become household names in the UK.

    The racing industry has substantial net worth, in the UK contributing £281 million to the economy, while in the United States it is worth $34 billion. Although a horse cannot be registered as a thoroughbred unless it has been conceived by live cover — the Jockey Club does not permit artificial insemination, which limits the number of foals a stallion can sire — Britain produces about 5,000 foals per year, and the US produces roughly 20,000.

    Only a fraction of the horses produced become successful race winners, but many more find their way into riding homes and second careers. There is a wide range of competition series in Britain supported by Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), a charity dedicated to promoting the welfare and rehoming of ex-racers.

    Thoroughbreds dominate the sport of polo and have a long history as successful upper level eventers. Sixteen of the 56 starters at the Land Rover Kentucky CCI4* in 2018 were thoroughbreds, 11 of which were “off the track”. William Fox-Pitt’s champion eventer Parklane Hawk, a full New Zealand thoroughbred, won Burghley in 2011 and Kentucky 2012, and New Zealander Jock Paget’s Clifton Promise, another New Zealand Thoroughbred, won Badminton in 2013. Gemma Tattersall’s Arctic Soul is another former racehorse that has excelled in the sport. Eventing had drifted away from primarily using Thoroughbreds when it dispensed with the long format around 2003, but now they are making something of a comeback as upper level cross-country courses demand more endurance, and most of the top horses have a substantial amount of thoroughbred blood.

    Although it is less common to see one on the international grand prix dressage stage, American Hilda Gurney won team bronze on her ex-racer Keen at the 1976 Olympics and competed him again at the 1984 Olympics.

    Before warmbloods were readily available outside of Europe, it wasn’t unusual to find thoroughbreds showjumping international grand prix courses in the ‘80s, with horses like Touch of Class, the mare who secured the gold medal for the American team in the 1984 Olympics, or Gem Twist, the individual silver medallist and part of the American silver medal winning team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

    For most riders who aren’t looking for FEI prospects, thoroughbreds can be an excellent mount for any discipline.

    Susan Corbett, who owns Girsonfield Stud and Racing in Otterburn, Northumberland and has bred racehorses for 25 years, told Horse & Hound: “We feel that thoroughbreds have so much more to offer than any other single breed — with elegance, speed, movement, intelligence. As fashions continually change in eventing, showjumping and dressage, it usually comes back to the thoroughbred to take the prizes!”

    Unlike other horses, there is no “breed standard” for thoroughbreds as breeding has aimed for speed, rather than establishing a specific phenotype. However, certain characteristics enable a horse to run fast, and thoroughbreds are instantly recognisable. They have a refined head, deep chest, lean body, and long, flat muscles, with well-angled shoulders and powerful haunches. Their height can range from 15hh to 17hh.

    Although they are in many respects the supreme equine athletes, one should be aware of health problems which turn up frequently in the breed. Racing pushes horses to the limits of their athleticism, and while plenty remain sound, many don’t, and potential owners of ex-racers should be on the lookout for common problems like stress fractures, bone chips, bowed tendons, and sacroiliac damage. There are also some conditions thought to be genetic due to a high percentage of inbreeding (90% of thoroughbreds are related to Northern Dancer). These include bleeding of the lungs (exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage) and small, flat feet with thin soles and walls.

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    Anyone interested in owning an ex-racehorse should contact RoR. They explain on their website: “Clearly not all racehorses go on to star in a different sphere, but RoR hopes that, on seeing what can be done, more riders will think about taking on a racehorse when they are looking for a new horse. This will help racehorse owners and trainers, equine charities, retrainers and, most importantly, the horses to find secure and knowledgeable new homes.”

    In addition to liaising with the racing industry and the general equestrian community, they provide competitions for ex-racers in showing, eventing, dressage, showjumping, and polo.

    Susan Corbett reflects: “I hate the fact that people expect ex-racehorses to be given away when so much work goes into their education — especially on our yard we really give a full education — just in case they do need a future career away from racing. RoR classes are helping greatly to counteract this problem.”

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