Elsewhere on the site you can read specific information about what, exactly, a furlong actually is. We will touch on that here out of necessity, but it is worth reading the full article to get a sense of why it is that a sport that exists in the modern day still uses such an antiquated term.
If you’ve ever watched a horse race then you might well find yourself wondering why it is that the measurements used to describe what is going on are so mixed. If you drove to London, for example, you wouldn’t be talking about how many furlongs the journey is.
Races can be relatively short or extremely long, depending on which discipline it is that you’re watching. In flat racing, the events are often short because the horses are bred to run quickly but not for very long.
Conversely, jump racing sees events taking place over a much longer distance, largely because the horses are bred for stamina rather than speed. When describing such races, it is easier to talk about shorter lengths and longer ones depending on the circumstance, rather than fractions of a mile for short distances.
Long Races Need Longer Measurements
When you are describing distances, it is helpful to discuss measurements that your audience is likely to understand. Get in a car in the United Kingdom and you’ll see distances on motorways that are sign-posted in miles, given that that is the long length that British people understand. As a result, when a race is relatively long, announcing the distance in terms of miles is something that most people will understand easily enough. At the very least, a race that is run over four miles is one that the majority of racing fans will at least have some sense of its distance.
The interesting thing about that is that miles aren’t used to describe the distances of races that don’t take place in countries that still use the mile. Look up the Melbourne Cup in Australia and you’ll find that it is run over 3,200 metres, having been reduced from 3.219 kilometres when the country joined the metric system in 1972. Each country will use its own measurement to describe the length of things, with horse races taking the same route. The confusing thing about the UK is the fact that the metric system is used in some instances but imperial units are still used for distances.
Shorter Races Are Clearer With Shorter Measurements
Whilst miles or metres are all well and good for longer races, shorter events tend to be signified by shorter distances. A furlong is an imperial unit that is the equivalent of 660 feet, 220 yards or one eighth of a mile, so it is used when describing shorter races.
After all, imagine the confusion if a race run over seven furlongs was instead described as being over seven-eighths of a mile, say, or 4,620 feet. It would be hard enough for the spectators to understand, let alone for the commentary team to be telling you how long was left of it.
As a result, horse racing as a sport opts to use the longer measurements of a mile for the longer race distances, converting to furlongs for the shorter runs. When races have even less distance to run, the yard comes into play. This is because racecourses are often not perfect when it comes to the lengths that they offer, meaning that a combination of factors are best used to describe how long an event will last for. Both racegoers and the people involved in watching races enjoy clarity, so shorter distances are used as and when needed.
A furlong is a term that comes from the Old English words of furh and lang, meaning furrow and long. It originally referred to the length of the furrow that would be ploughed into one acre of open field and a ‘furh lang’ was the distance that a team of oxen were able to lough without a rest. Eventually, this was standardised to be precisely 40 rods, or 10 chains. Rods and chains were ancient measurements with a rod being equivalent to five and a half yards and a chain being four rods, or 22 yards. A furh lang, therefore, was about 220 yards.
In the days of the Anglo-Saxons, measurements were used to know how big a field would be, such was the extent that land was the deciding factor in most instances. An acre was 4 x 40 rods, or four rods by one furh lang. As other measurements were introduced, the likes of rods and chains slowly started to disappear from common usage, but the furh lang, which had morphed to become the furlong, continued. Even when the Weights & Measurements Act was introduced in 1985, abolishing its use, it continued to be the distance for horse racing.
The final measurements that is used to describe horse races is that of yards. This is used for the same reason that furlongs are used instead of sections of miles: ease. Knowing that a race is, say, four miles, three furlongs and 20 yards is a simple way of explaining the length of an event without make it an overly confusing set of measurements.
A yard is three foot, or 36 inches, in length. Given the general size of horses, to say nothing of how quickly they run, anything other than a yard would be a somewhat pointless measurement.
Yards, on the other hand, allow a race to be broken down to a specific length without confusing matters too much. It is uncertain exactly where the yard comes from, with some suggesting that it came out of King Henry I’d arm standard, whilst others believe it was from the girth of a person’s waste.
Whatever the etymology of the yard, what we do know is that it is a helpful way of measuring race distances to keep any possible convolution, and the associated confusion that would undoubtedly come with it, to a minimum.