Those of us that enjoy the world of National Hunt racing have grown used to seeing horses jump over some truly astonishing-looking obstacles. When the Grand National rolls around, for example, the fences that are so well-known that their names are as uttered in households up and down the country as that of Red Rum come in to play. Some of them are truly fearsome obstacles, yet horse after horse take them in their stride. During Cheltenham Festival week, countless horses take on the challenge of the hurdles and fences that they are presented with without issue.
All of which begs the question, how high and how far can a horse jump? It is not unheard of for fences at big meetings to have a ditch or a water section that the horses need to get over in order to carry on racing. As a result, it is important that they can jump a decent distance as well as a particular height. Of course, there is a difference between what a record-breaking jump would be and what a standard jump would amount to, to say nothing of the fact that trained thoroughbreds are able to cope with higher heights than just an average horse could.
The World Record Height
At the time of writing, the world record for a horse jumping something is 2.47 metres, which is eight foot and 1.25 inches. It was achieved by a horse called Huaso, ex-Faithful in 1949, so it is unlikely that it is going to be broken any time soon. Of course, there are different records depending on what they’re doing and where they are doing it. As an example, the Puissance world record is seven foot and ten inches, or 2.38 metres, which was achieved by Optiebeurs Golo in 1991. Sweet N’ Low jumped seven foot and seven and a half inches in 1993 to set the North American record.
In the United Kingdom, the record for a jump was set by Lastic in 1978, when Nick Skelton guided him over an obstacle that was seven foot and seven and a half inches, or 2.32 metres. That gives you at least a sense of the sort of height that a horse is able to jump. The chances are that, unless you are a world record-breaker yourself, these horse could have jumped over you with some height to spare. Given that the world record for a jump of any sort was set in 1949, it is fair to say that horses have been asked to jump less impressive heights in the years that have followed.
How Far Can Horses Jump
Jumping isn’t just about getting over obstacles. Whether it is about the fact that some fences also include water aspects or have ditches involved, horses will sometimes need to ensure that they can get some distance on their jump if they’re going to remain safe. The longest horizontal jump was recorded in the August of 1975 when a horses named Something jumped 28 foot. That is an incredible distance for a horse to be able to jump and it is reasonable to point out that that is far from an average distance for horses.
On average, horses are able to jump three times their own length. Given the fact that horses are seven foot and nine inches in length on average, that would allow for a jump of 23 foot and six inches. That also shows the incredible feat that Andre Ferreira pulled off when he got Something to jump 8.4 metres. It also proves that, even with the training that was put in to get Something to jump so far, asking horses to jump more than three and a half times their own length is asking them to go a step too far, even if three times remains impressive.
The Mechanics Of Jumping
In order to take on a jump, horses need to go through several stages. They transfer energy to their hips, knees, fetlocks and ankles, propelling them over whatever stands in their way. The decision about whether the horse will actually make the jump or not is made on the approach, with horses refusing to jump if the approach is incorrect or, worse, falling. If they’re going to jump then their hind quarters will be used to push them forward and up. The moment that they’re in the air is when no further adjustments can be made to the jump.
The arc in motion is what comes next, happening once the horse has left the ground and heads into an upwards trajectory. This should take them over the obstacle, landing with one foreleg first before the other joins it. The muscles and tendons of the horse absorb the shock of the landing, which is why it is important that they are so tough and strong. Once the horse has landed all four of its hoofs on the ground, a period of what is known as ‘recovery’ begins. This is essentially just the horse returning to its normally running pattern.
Do Horses Like Jumping?
The truth about jumping is that it is not a particularly good thing for horses to do. It is not that it hurts horses to jump, but the act of jumping and landing puts a lot of exertion on their bodies and the bigger the jump, the more their bodies are being put under to cope with the landing. The tendons and ligaments of the horse are the things that receive the most damage, which is why jump racing is a sport for the winter months when the ground is much softer and the impact is far less damaging to the horses when they land.
Whilst it is impossible say whether or not a horse enjoys something, on account of the fact that we can’t talk to them and ask, there are some assumptions that we can make. Typically speaking, horses won’t do something that they don’t enjoy, no matter what you do to try and cajole them into it. As a result, the fact that horses do the jumps and continue to jump fences even after they’ve unseated their riders suggests that they are indeed enjoying at least an aspect of jumping. Wild horses jump, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that there is a degree of enjoyment involved.
What Affects A Horse’s Jumping Ability?
There are a number of factors that can make a difference when it comes to a horse’s ability to jump. On average, a horse without any training would be able to jump somewhere between two and a half and three foot. It takes training to get them to the point where they’re jumping obstacles and are five foot or so tall, whilst other factors will also have an influence on a horse’s jumping capability. The first of these is their measurements, given that how heavy a horse is can be important just as how tall they are will be influential.
Whilst young horses are full of energy and enthusiasm, horses that haven’t been ‘broken’ will lack the discipline to cope with jumping obstacles. As a result, riders tend to wait until horses are between one and three years old before trying to train them to jump over fences. Horses also need to be strong enough to get over obstacles, which is why it is typically much older horses that take on the major steeplechase events in the National Hunt calendar. Indeed, they’re not even allowed to enter certain races until they’re old enough.
Perhaps one of the biggest influences on how high a height a horse can jump will be their breed. Different breeds tend to have different body shapes, stamina and even temperament, so they will either be ignored for jump training or else encouraged to do it, breed dependent. Though any horse can be trained to jump if you’ve got the patience, the most common horses that are used for jumping disciplines are as follows:
- Irish sport
- American quarter
- German warmblood
There are, of course, countless other factors that need to be taken into account, from the weight of the rider through to the type of jump that is being taken on, but these are all of the most important.
How High Are Jump Racing Fences?
The final question that you might want to ask is how high the fences are in the world of jump racing. After all, horses taking part in some sort of showjumping competition might be able to jump over higher fences, but they’re not particularly relevant to the likes of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Firstly, it is worth bearing in mind that there are two different types of obstacle that horses typically need to get over during a racing meeting: hurdles and fences. Hurdles are typically smaller and more gentle obstacles, which is why it is the younger horses that take them on.
Hurdles that are used during the Cheltenham Festival, for example, are made out of ash and are a minimum of three foot and six inches in height. Fences, meanwhile, are much more formidable obstacles and tend to be made out of a mix of spruce and birch trees. They are a minimum of four foot and six inches during the Festival, differing in size as the course goes on. In the Grand National, held at Aintree Racecourse on the outskirts of Liverpool, the lowest fence is four foot six and the tallest is The Chair (pictured above), which is five foot two inches.