If you’re a casual fan of horse racing and don’t necessarily watch it all that often, you might well find yourself pondering what the difference is between a hurdle and a fence?
The answer comes in the form of the difficulty of the obstacle for horses to get over. It is what offers jump racing a degree of nuance within its own category, given that we already know that it differs from flat racing for obvious reasons. The two main genres of jump racing are hurdling and chasing, which is why you’ll see some races referred to as ‘steeplechases’.
There is, in fact, a third option, which is a long-distance event known as a cross-country race. The obstacles here are slightly different again, although they tend to be more in the fence category than the hurdle one.
The biggest difference between hurdles and fences can be found in the way that the two obstacle types are made. In simple terms, hurdles tend to be gentler and easier to get over than fences, whilst fences often present a tougher thing for horses to be able to jump over, largely because of the material used to make them.
A horse that lacks experience over jumps will start life out in hurdle races. They will take on these smaller, gentler obstacles as they begin to learn their craft. The idea, of course, is that a horse is likely to suffer any sort of serious injury or damage if they fail to negotiate a hurdle, which is why they’re more commonly used for the younger horses taking part in a National Hunt event. Hurdle races themselves contain at least eight hurdles during the running of them, presenting a sufficient challenge to horses that are presented with them in a race.
The Champion Hurdle is a good example of a race that features hurdles and is run over a distance of not less than two miles, which is what the National Hunt asks for its hurdling events. Hurdles have a minimum height of three foot and six inches, being made up of small branches known as brush in order to improve their flexibility.
The improved flexibility is what makes then an idea obstacle for less experienced horses to take on as their learning their craft, as does the fact that they are made up of generally more favourable material.
That isn’t to say that specialist hurdling horses don’t exist, because they do. There are some horses that jump hurdles throughout their career, never progressing to jumping fences. Equally, it would be misleading to say that no horse suffers a catastrophic injury over hurdles, given that plenty have died whilst taking part in hurdling events.
Rather, the point is more that hurdles tend to be more forgiving and are therefore much more likely to be jumped safely by horses learning their craft, before they have learned and matured enough to move on and jump over fences.
As you might have gathered from reading about hurdles, fences tend to be made up of much tougher materials and therefore ask a lot more questions of the horses that are participating in races that feature them. Whilst races featuring hurdles have the word ‘hurdle’ in their title, events that use fences are known as steeplechases. That is because this race type came out of the races in the early days of horse events, wherein participants races each other from one church to another, using the steeple of the church as their guide over the long distance of the race.
Fences are much larger than hurdles, with the National Hunt asking for a minimum height of four foot seven inches to be in play for a fence. The fences themselves tend to be made up of a mix of birch wood and spruce, with the distance of a steeplechase being between two miles and four and a half miles.
A steeplechase race includes more than just the fence, in order to make things as challenging as possible for the horses. This includes water, either before or after the fence, or a ditch, which also comes either before or after the fence.
The whole point of fences is that they are more of a challenge for the horses than hurdles, which is why horses need to ‘graduate’ to race over them. The horses need to be trained to get over the taller and more difficult obstacle of a fence, so you will never see a horse going straight from bumper races into steeplechases.
Fences are there to test horses, which of course means that many have failed the test and picked up injuries, either slight or even life-threatening. That is why it is so important for them to learn their craft before taking them on.
Why The Two Obstacle Types Are Used
Horses that have not long been taking part in jump racing will take on hurdles in order to get them practiced in the art of jumping in a competitive environment. The nature of the obstacles themselves are such that the jockey can keep a horse going at a reasonably good pace, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to get over them even whilst running quickly. The same is not true of fences, with jockeys often slowing their mounts down as they approach a fence in order to get them over it as safely as possible.
For that reason, a race run over hurdles will almost always be quicker than a race of identical distance run over fences. The safety of the horse is always paramount, which also explains why the National Horseracing Association is constantly looking at ways to improve fences in order to make them as safe as possible. It is an on-going process, but the reality is that, despite what anti-horse racing organisations might wish, neither discipline is going anywhere. They each offer a challenge different to just running to the horses, which is why they exist.