Quarter Horse Vs Thoroughbred: What Is Best?

September 25, 2022
quarter horse vs thoroughbred

Since the horse’s domestication some 6 000 years ago, they have been an integral part of human society. Although they are no longer our “beasts of burden,” horses remain an important part of society. Horses are bred to fulfill a particular purpose, and one of the most popular is horse racing. But which horses make the best racers, the Quarter Horse vs. the Thoroughbred?

Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds are both very versatile breeds. Quarter Horses are uniquely suited for ranch work and rodeos, and Thoroughbreds are great race horses. Quarter Horses were originally bred to be fast at the quarter mile, and may be quicker than Thoroughbreds over shorter distances, but Thoroughbreds are better in longer races.

Comparing different horse breeds is challenging. Although most breeds have a significant amount of overlap, they were bred for different purposes and to meet different needs. To understand which is best between the quarter horse and the Thoroughbred, we’ll compare them across several criteria.

Defining “The Best,” Quarter Horses Vs. Thoroughbreds

“Which horse is best?”  is subjective. Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds were bred for different reasons, and comparing them without understanding the similarities and differences is challenging. 

For example, if you were to judge a fish on how well it could fly, not many fish would meet the standard. Instead, we’ll investigate these two breeds according to their intended purpose and how well each suit and fulfills the purpose.

The “best” horse is the one that does what you need it to do, to the best of its abilities, and better than the rest in its class.

Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are popular racing horse breeds; however, the type of racing and their performance in a race differs.

Quarter Horses are quicker than Thoroughbreds over shorter distances, reaching speeds up to 55mph. The faster acceleration of these horses means that judges start the timer as soon as the horses exit the gates.

Thoroughbreds are slightly slower than Quarter Horses, reaching a maximum speed of roughly 44mph. Thoroughbreds require a few seconds to build up speed, so judges usually start timing races after a couple of seconds.

The running style of each horse also delineates these two. Quarter Horses usually keep a consistent speed throughout the race, while Thoroughbreds build up speed as the race continues. 

These running traits reflect the racing styles the two breeds compete in. A Quarter Horse runs a shorter distance, a quarter mile – which it was originally named for, and those horses that start well usually end well

On the other hand, Thoroughbreds run a longer race (between ½ a mile and 2 miles), and horses that start behind have room to pick up speed and finish better. 

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Breed Overview

The table below compares some of the prominent characteristics of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

CharacteristicsQuarter HorseThoroughbred
General descriptionRelatively short, muscular body with short legs, deep chest, and a wide forehead on a short head.These horses have slim bodies, broad chests, and short backs.
They have delicate heads on long necks. They are athletic in appearance.
Height14.3 to 16 hands (56 to 64 inches) to the shoulder.Average of 16 hands (64 inches), but range from 15 to 17 hands (60 to 68 inches).
Weight950 to 1 200 pounds1 000 to 1 200 pounds
Top speed55mph44mph
The maximum distance at top speedRoughly ¼ mile, but they can gallop for up to 1 mile.Racing horses can go for around 2 to 2.5 miles at full gallop but, on average, 1 to 2 miles.
TemperamentCalm and cooperative Sensitive and highly spirited. 
Rider suitabilityQuarter horses are fantastic for beginner riders. They are confident and calm horses that are responsive when well trained.Although trained Thoroughbreds are suitable for many riders, they usually better serve more experienced riders (i.e., they often don’t make great beginner horses). 
Breed featuresQuarter horses are great at getting up to speed quickly, making sharp and quick turns. They are amazing sprinters with good stopping abilities (they can hit the brakes hard).
These horses are versatile, meeting a variety of needs.
Thoroughbreds are considered to be “hot” horses. They excel in racing but take time to build up speed. 
They have short leg bones, which produce long strides, and Thoroughbreds are renowned for their stamina.
Governing Body in the USAmerican Quarter Horse Association. Established in 1940.The American Jockey Club. Established in 1894.

The table above shows that Thoroughbreds are slightly larger and heavier than Quarter Horses. Quarter Horses are also usually stockier in their build. 

This muscular build gives Quarter Horses the strength they need for quickly accelerating, turning, and stopping, while Thoroughbreds are better at longer distances.

The intended purpose of the horse dictates which is the better breed. Both are versatile, but Thoroughbreds are usually more highly strung than Quarter Horses.

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Areas Of Use And Origin

To truly value and appreciate these two breeds, we need to know where they came from, why they were initially bred, modern uses, championships/competitions, and the skill level required to ride them.

Quarter Horse in feild

The Origin Of The Quarter Horse

The (English) American settlers used these horses to race quarter-mile routes in Rhode Island and Virginia from the late 1600s and earned the name American Quarter Horse.

The American Quarter horse originated in roughly 1660 (in America). The Quarter Horse breed developed by crossing the already present, naturalized American horses of Spanish origins with those that the English settlers brought with them in 1610 .

The settlers bred these horses with performance in mind and within the genetic tree of the American Quarter Horse were various thoroughbred sires, including the English Thoroughbred Janus  (imported in 1756 to Virginia); Steel Dust (born in 1843); and the most important, Peter McCue (born in 1895). 

McCue is held in high regard for improving the Quarter Horse breed.

thoroughbred horse

The Origin Of The Thoroughbred

The Thoroughbred finds its origins in 3rd century England, although the breed was only recognized in the 1600s. Records from this early era hold that Arabs and Barbs (horse breeds) were imported to England and adapted well to the environment. 

These horses were identified as prime racing (and jumping) horses, so selective breeding (coupled with the horses’ favorable development on the pasture) led to the development of Thoroughbreds.

Since the late 1600s, Thoroughbreds have a well-recorded bloodline in the General Stud Book, and all English Thoroughbreds are related to the original Royal Mares. These “Royal Mares” were 43 mares imported to England during the reign of king James 1 and Charles 1. 

Three stallions were added to the genetics line of the Thoroughbred (and entered into the General Stud Book) after importing them into England:

  1. 1689 – the Byerly Turk
  2. 1700 – the Darley Arabian
  3. 1730 – the Godolphin Barb

This English line of Thoroughbreds moved around the globe for racing and local horse breed “improvement.” 

The Thoroughbreds within the US trace their origins to 1730 when Bulle Rock, a stallion of the Darley Arabian, arrived in Virginia. An additional 186 Thoroughbreds from England (imported over 45 years) make up the backbone of these horses in the States.

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Modern And Historical Uses

Although Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds were originally bred for racing (as performance horses), their uses were not limited to racing alone.

Quarter Horses Modern And Historical Uses

As more Thoroughbreds moved to the States, the Quarter Horse could no longer “keep up” with racing. Although they are fantastic sprinters, the Thoroughbred is superior over longer distances

Not wanting to lose the breed, those living in the west and southwestern areas of the United States during the 1800s discovered that Quarter Horses made marvelous frontier horses

They were quick, agile, had a good nature, and were perfectly suited to herding cows, making them invaluable for the Cowboys of the Old West.

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In modern times Quarter Horses are used for several activities, including:

  • Ranch work (like cattle cutting, herding, etc.)
  • Rodeo events and races (like barrel racing and reining)
  • Trail riding
  • Pleasure riding for the family
  • Racing 

Thoroughbreds Modern And Historical Uses

Conversely, a Thoroughbred’s build and disposition make it a better racing horse over longer distances (more than a quarter-mile). However, Thoroughbred’s use is not limited to racing. They are an ideal breed for several activities, including:

  • Dressage
  • Hunting
  • Jumping 
  • Polo
  • Riding horses

The historical and modern uses/purpose of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds show that both breeds are performance horses. Although both started as racing horses, Thoroughbreds became more popular in this field of use. Today, most racing Quarter Horses are crossed with Thoroughbreds to produce taller, faster appendix horses.

Both breeds are versatile, so they meet various needs off the track. 

Quarter Horse runnig

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Competitions And Tournaments

Since humans domesticated the horse, trying to see who was fastest was the next “logical” step. Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds are both popular racing horses, although they don’t often compete against each other.

Some of the prominent Thoroughbred horse races in the US are:

  • The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes (these races comprise the Triple Crown, one of the most prestigious events in US horse racing).
  • Breeder’s Cup
  • Travers Stakes
  • Arlington Million
  • Arkansas Derby

Although Quarter Horses are popular in rodeo events, there are still some Quarter Horse races in the US, including:

  • The Kansas Futurity, Rainbow Futurity, and All-American Futurity (these races form the Triple Crown of Quarter Horse racing).
  • Mystic Lake Northlands Futurity
  • Evangeline Downs
  • Ruidoso Downs Challenge Trials

In the US, the largest “pot” (prize money for winning a race) in Quarter Horse racing is the All-American Futurity, with a pot of $3 million

For US Thoroughbreds, in 2018, the Pegasus World Cup (held in Florida) had a pot of $16 million, and the winner (Gun Runner) took home $7 million

If that seems like an obscene amount of money, in 2020, the Saudi Cup in Dubai ( Thoroughbred racing) had a pot of $20 million (the winning horse received $10 million). 

In comparison, the top-earning Quarter Horse made $2 781 365 after 11 wins in 16 races. While Quarter Horses earn a good deal of money from racing, they are nowhere nearly as well-paid as the winners of Thoroughbred races.

However, both breeds participate in numerous other activities and races for varying amounts of prize money.

The Skill Required To Ride A Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred

One clear delineating factor between Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds is how skilled the rider must be.

Quarter Horses’ have a calm and relaxed demeanor, which makes these horses ideal for novice riders. Thoroughbreds are more highly strung, and beginner riders may struggle on these horses.

However, training plays a tremendous role in horsemanship. A well-trained, calm, Thoroughbred is almost as user-friendly as most Quarter Horses. 

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: General Characteristics

To properly compare these breeds, we’ll examine additional characteristics, including coloration, diet, health risks, and upkeep costs. 

Although not directly related to the performance of these horses, these other characteristics are important when deciding between the two (if you plan on purchasing a horse).

Quarter Horse stallion

Physical Characteristics Of Quarter Horses Vs. Thoroughbreds

Although not identical in appearance, the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred bear several similarities in physical appearances. Both breeds have solid colors; however, these colors can vary significantly. 

Thoroughbreds usually come in bay, black, brown, chestnut, or gray. They may also have white blazes on their faces or markings on their legs, but they are often without any markings.

Quarter Horses are usually brownish-red sorrel; however, they also come in buckskin, dun, grullo, gray, roan, and palomino. Like Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses may also feature white face and leg markings.

Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds are comparable in height and weight, with Thoroughbreds slightly taller and heavier.

Where the breeds differ is in their builds. While Thoroughbreds are sleek and athletic, Quarter Horses are stocky and muscular, with shorter, broader heads.

Thoroughbreds have slightly longer back legs, which assists the horses in galloping.

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Temperament And Behavior

One of the more significant deviations between Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds is their behavior. While Quarter Horses are calm, steady, and easy to train, Thoroughbreds are “hot-blooded.”

Both breeds are intelligent and, depending on what purpose they need to serve, take well to training. Ex-race horses (particularly Thoroughbreds) tend to be difficult to re-train for general purpose riding. They often react to loud, sudden noises (reminiscent of the starting pistol) and bolt.

While Quarter Horses are ideal for riders of all experience levels, Thoroughbreds might be too much for a beginner to handle, so these horses better serve experienced riders.

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Diet And Nutrition

Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds require a healthy balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins. 

The exact amounts of these they need depend on various factors, including the type of food (i.e., the quality of the hay and supplements), the size of the horse, its activity levels, supplements to grazing ratio, etc.

As a rule of thumb, Thoroughbreds usually eat more food than other horses of similar size, as they have a faster metabolism, so expect to feed a Thoroughbred more than a Quarter Horse.

An essential part of any horse’s diet is water. Horses need access to an unlimited amount of clean drinking water.

Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse Vs. Thoroughbred: Health Issues 

Quarter Horses are usually “healthier” than Thoroughbreds concerning health and health-related issues as they do not suffer from as many of the same ailments.

Health Issues Affecting Quarter Horses

Quarter Horses are not exempt from health issues, some of which include:

  • Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). This genetic condition causes a sodium channel mutation in a horse’s muscles.  It is only affected by horses that are descendants of the Quarter Horse Impressive.

As the neurotransmitters “leak” into the synapse, they cause muscle tremors, shaking, and weakness, especially when there are higher potassium levels in the blood.

To manage these involuntary muscle contractions, owners must feed low potassium foods and remove alfalfa from the diet. 

  • Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSM). Another genetic condition, PSM, causes muscle stiffness and pain (especially in the rear) because of abnormal glycogen accumulation, particularly after exercising.
  • Malignant hyperthermia (MH). This condition is also genetic, and it causes horses to react badly to anesthesia. 
  • Hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia (HERDA). This genetic condition was first discovered in 1971 and traces back to Poco Bueno. It’s a defect in the structure and function of collagen. Often noticed only as training is begun, as wearing a saddle often causes the horse’s skin to tear away, leaving large raw areas that won’t heal. These horses can survive but are not able to be used or bred and are often euthanized. A.Q.H.A. requires testing on breeding horses.

As these conditions are all genetic, it is important not to breed with horses suffering from them. If you do, you’ll pass on the traits to the next generation.

Health Issues Affecting Thoroughbreds

Unfortunately, Thoroughbreds suffer from several health-related issues, mainly due to the horses’ intensive breeding to make them great runners. 

These issues include:

  • Exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. When pushed to the limits, the horse’s lungs tear and bleed. This hemorrhaging usually only occurs in racing horses.
  • Small hearts. A genetic defect of some Thoroughbreds is that their heart is too small for their body, which leads to circulatory issues.
  • Small hooves. Another genetic issue is hooves that are too small for the horse, causing lameness.

Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses have a similar life expectancy of 25 to 35 years, barring injury and disease.


Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds are versatile horse breeds that excel in the horseracing industry. While Quarter Horses outpace Thoroughbreds in races up to a quarter mile long, Thoroughbreds are faster in longer races. Quarter Horses are ideal for beginner riders and are popular with rodeos and ranch work. Thoroughbreds are usually a bit difficult for beginners as they are spirited. Both breeds are intelligent and similar in height and weight, although Quarter Horses are stockier.


I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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