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Horse versus human, who would win?

Saturday was a sports viewing doubleheader in our household: the Kentucky Derby followed by a lackluster Lakers vs. Suns game 7. During the basketball game, the commentators referred to the speed of the Suns’ Leandro Barbosa and that plus the similarity of his name to Derby winner Barbaro’s led to a discussion about which of the two would win in a race the length of the basketball court. Three of us argued that the horse would win and one argued for the human winning.

So, how fast are horses and humans? In winning the Belmont Stakes in 1973, Secretariat averaged 37.5 miles/hr over a mile and a half. World record holder Asafa Powell averaged 22.9 miles/hr in the 100 meter dash. Jesse Owens raced horses over a 100 yard distance and beat them, but only because the horses reared at the sound of the starter’s pistol, giving him a sizable head-start. In 2004, in an annual race held in Wales, a chap named Huw Lobb beat a field of horses and other humans over a distance of 22-miles.

But that doesn’t do much in answering the question of which would win over the short distance of a basketball court (94 feet or 28.7 meters). I searched high and low online and found little about the acceleration of either horses or humans. No doubt horses are much faster than humans, but a man is probably quicker off the line. So I put the question to you in hopes that you can answer it:

In a 94-foot race between a human sprinter and a thoroughbred race horse, who would win? Assume a standing start for both, the horse races on dirt, the man runs on the court, and both horse and man are among the fastest at their respective distances.

Reader comments

ElliottMay 08, 2006 at 9:19AM

horse wins no question. Anytime a human has beaten a horse, it's been a circus-style gimmicky spectacle.

A man might be quicker off the line, but a horse would catch up by the 10 yard line. Horses are EXPLOSIVE off the line...

VisserMay 08, 2006 at 9:20AM

I would say man would beat the horse on a basketball court. Traction would probably become an issue for the horse. Unless the horse was fitted with some new Jordans.

jkottkeMay 08, 2006 at 9:23AM

Traction is not an issue. If you actually read the question it says the horse races on dirt, not on the court.

JesseMay 08, 2006 at 9:45AM

Horse. Undoubtedly. They only take a second to get going, and thoroughbreds are absurdly fast

Dave MungerMay 08, 2006 at 9:47AM

Man, undoubtedly. Horses are fast, but not that fast.

jkottkeMay 08, 2006 at 9:51AM

I read during the course of my research that quarter horses are very quick off the line and have a high top end (50-55 mph), but can only maintain that speed for a 1/2 mile or so. In comparison, thoroughbreds are slower off the line (but can maintain a high speed for longer) and in some races, they don't start the clock until the horses are already out of the gate and a few strides down the track.

jankowskiMay 08, 2006 at 9:51AM

What about a man riding a horse vs. a horse riding a man?

What about horse vs. man on a basketball court -- but running suicides instead of running one length of the court? How much agility does a horse have in small spaces?

Do they have to dribble the ball the length of the court, or just a flat sprint?

What if there were a conveyor belt next to the court which moved with respect to a centaur wearing a referee jersey at half-court?

JesseMay 08, 2006 at 9:54AM

I've got it- if the horse and the man are running on a conveyor belt/treadmill type thing that goes backwards at the speed they go forward, will they ever take off?

Dave MungerMay 08, 2006 at 9:56AM

Okay, I just looked at the replay of the Kentucky Derby on YouTube. 5 seconds into the race, I'd estimate the horses had traveled about 50 feet. Given that good football players run 40 yards -- more than twice that distance, in 4.2 seconds, there's no doubt the man would win in a 94-foot race.

HenrikMay 08, 2006 at 10:02AM

The man wins. It only takes 3-4 seconds to run the court, and the horse needs a few seconds to get going.

Look at the start in the 100m race. They reach 70-80% of full speed in just a 5-10 meters. There is no way a horse can be that fast in the start.

KendallMay 08, 2006 at 10:05AM

I would have to weigh in on the side of the man. Acceleration will play such a huge roll in such a short distance.

londenioMay 08, 2006 at 10:12AM

I actually once saw a race between a human and a Horse over 50 metres (or was it 30?) on TV. The man was a good sprinter (not super-elite, but it doesn't matter) running on a synthetic track. The horse was running on grass under similar conditions as those used in horse racing (i.e. with a human riding him/her).

The result: even for all practical purposes. The acceleration of a sprinter is much greater. The horse catches up over the finish line.

emilyMay 08, 2006 at 10:25AM

I'm with londenio -- I think they'd be about even, maybe the horse would win by a quarter-length. The man might lead off the line, but as the horse gets into his gallop a second or two later, he will catch up or (slightly) overtake by the end of the race.

Now, if it were the length of a *football* field, I'd say the horse would win by a mile. A curling pitch? It's a free-for-all.

Dave MungerMay 08, 2006 at 10:32AM

Londenio, distance in your example is critical. If it was tied at 50 meters, then clearly the man would win in 30 (about bb court length). If the competition was really 30 meters (which I doubt, given the Kentucky Derby tape), then your argument that it's a tie does hold water.

Mark LamsterMay 08, 2006 at 10:36AM

For what it's worth, In 1914 baseball speedster Hans Lobert raced a horse around the diamond after an exhibibition match in Oxnard, CA. Lobert, who was timed circling the bases in under 14 seconds, claimed to have had the measure of the horse, until he was "crowded." See Larry Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" for the details of the episode.

richMay 08, 2006 at 11:22AM

The human has the advantage of wanting to start fast. The horse will only start fast if convinced. I bet the delay involved in the latter is enough to lose a 94-foot race.

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 11:31AM

I'm a sucker for these stupid thought experiments (I guess we'd need a jockey?). I'm leaning toward Man on this one, though I have no scientific backing to offer. I *do* know (from my tiny experience as a sprinter) that in taking the average speed of Powell, you're not only taking into account his slower rate during his ramp up phase, but also his deceleration in the last 20 metres or so.

A normal human cannot maintain top speed over the course of 100 metres. The man who wins the Olympic 100 metre sprint is the man who decelerates the least, by and large. Carl Lewis was my all-time favourite sprinter and won his races (usually) by nipping folk at the line; he had horrible starts, but great endurance. I digress.

If starting from stock-still, I'm guessing by the time a horse reaches man-beating-speed, there might be too much of lead to make up for this short distance. Then again...?

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 11:35AM

Just to reiterate here, folks, that this is a (30 metre race, not a 100 metre race.

londenioMay 08, 2006 at 11:44AM

I admit that the inaccuracy of my memory made my previous comment useless from a scientific perspective. I will add another piece of useless information that you guys will find amusing.

The "competition" I witness on television was a "triathlon-relay" humans vs animals. The first stretch was the aforementioned sprinter vs. racing horse. The second leg was a BMX biker jumping over fences against a horse (a different one of the Show-Jump type) jumping over fences. The last part (and I am not making this up) involved climbing a telephone post and back down. Representing the animal kingdom was a tiny chimpanzee. Homo Sapiens was represented by a worker from the telephone company. The chimp was a slow climber and our species won.

The show might have been "That's Incredible!".

NeilMay 08, 2006 at 11:56AM

Sounds like it's time for another Fox special -- Man vs. Beast 3!

In one of the previous competitions, a man was beaten handily by a zebra in 100 meters, but I still think man would easily win in a 30 meter race.

JakeyMay 08, 2006 at 12:08PM

Amarillo Slim claims in his autobiography to have beaten a horse over 100 yards. He did this by turning the race into two 50 yard shuttles. The horse caught him on the first leg, but couldn't turn fast enough to get back and win overall. It's only a guesstimate, but I would suppose that to mean that the difference over 50 yards was relatively small. Most likely that would mean that over 30 yards, the human would win.

JayMay 08, 2006 at 12:25PM

Joey Gathright is widely considered the fastest player in baseball. His reported time from home plate to first base (on contact with the ball, mind you, not a standing start "race") is 3.3 seconds. It's 90 feet between the bases which makes it the closest comparable distance in sports. If you arbitrarily deduct 0.1 seconds in cinsideration of a standing start, and add 0.1 for the addtional 4 feet, it's a virtual wash.

The most comparable distance for a horse is in Rodeo barrel racing in which the 1st and 2nd barrels are often 90 feet apart, and, in my opinion, the turn off of the 1st barrel would simulate a standing start. Unfortunately, I can't find any accurate times for the splits in barrel racing.

Any help?

Leszek SwirskiMay 08, 2006 at 12:37PM

Reminds me of Family Guy's new fox show: Fast Animals, Slow Children

CharlotteMay 08, 2006 at 12:52PM

Are we talking Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse? QHs accelerate even faster than TBs.

Jake BoumaMay 08, 2006 at 1:40PM

I think the human would win. I don't know anything about human or equine acceleration, but I don't think the horse would hit its stride until after the basketball court ran out.

(sMay 08, 2006 at 2:18PM

The maximum stride length for a horse is about 7 meters, with a stride rate of 2.25 strides/second and a top speed of 70 km/hr. Now, it is general consensus that a horse would outrun a cheetah over long distances but is no match over short distances. Unfortunately, this analogy can't be extended to humans because we don't match the cheetah in any manner. Bear in mind that the stride length of the cheetah is nearly the same as that of the horse but the stride rate is higher (~3.5). If we go by the 40-yd measure of quickness/speed, a human may outrun the horse. But over 100m, there's no way a human can outrun a horse. But of course, we can wait till Superman Returns :).

Horse-cheetah info: here. Strange: I can't find info. on human stride length, stride rate, and other interesting parameters.

essMay 08, 2006 at 2:35PM

The whole point of horses is better legs. As soon as one people see another people on horses, the first thing they do is steal some horses. In all of human history, someone would surely have noticed if human legs were, in fact, a more speedy and reliable way to get around. Literature and poetry and tribal legend typically focuses on the speed of horses. Even the Bible, which may be the least animal-friendly religious text after the Book of Mormon, says the horse "swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage."

I do know the only way to catch a naughty horse is to feed another horse, fuss over a dog, or otherwise make the horse think the last thing on earth you want is his lazy, sneaky ass. If humans were faster than horses, we would just run after them.

Sometimes when this question comes up, people talk about native Americans and others "walking" horses down to catch them in the wild. There's not a huge amount of evidence that anyone actually had much success with this and the descriptions of the technique involve using rotating teams of people to keep the horses from eating or drinking so it's not a good measure of human v. horse endurance.

Cheetahs cannot run very far so a reasonably fit human could, by contrived rules, outrun a cheetah on a set course. Just set it so that the distance was enough longer than the Cheetahs' top length to allow the human to catch up and pass. But, that's hardly a meaningful measure.

I suspect a quarter horse (or a polo pony) could hit full speed before a basketball court ran out. Barrel racing times are under 20 seconds (good times are under 15) and although the long last leg after the final barrel is when a lot of horses make their time, they've still gotta hurry to and around those three barrels and the first two are less than 100-feet apart. Don't most of these stunt races involve track thoroughbreds?

The only way to settle this is to find a clip of the Chimp v. Man telephone pole challenge! If we are truly better at climbing than the chimp, we can do anything! We can put a man on the moon!

DKRMay 08, 2006 at 2:47PM

I'm waiting for someone to actually do this. Would be a neat TV ad for Foot Locker or something...

MarkMay 08, 2006 at 3:15PM

This site indicates a 30 meter split time of 3.67 seconds at the World Championships in Athens Greece in 1997.

Now all we need is a time for horses over a 30 meter run.

GordonMay 08, 2006 at 3:38PM

I have a relative who raced a horse 5km (or thereabouts) in Buckingham, Quebec and won...this was way back in the early part of the last century

hard to believe I know, I have an old newspaper article about it...will dig it up.

NicoleMay 08, 2006 at 3:52PM

A majority of people seem to think that in the time it took the horse to "get going" the human would have a necessary advantage built up. However, running humans also require a certain amount of time to reach their max speed (thus the use of starting blocks, etc). Thus, I would hypothesize that the human advantage on this point is negated. My experience with horses has told me that horses don't require much of a start (10-15 yards) to reach max speed, and, given that a horse has a max speed higher than the human, I would predict a win for the horse.

I know the question is framed around a thoroughbred horse, but considering that 2-year-old QH winners on small tracks in South Dakota generally post times of 13.5 - 14 seconds over 250 yards, I feel as though a top thoroughbred could maintain something similar for the length of a basketball court.

everettMay 08, 2006 at 3:56PM

In 1998, Ben Johnson (Olympic Gold medal sprinter banned due to steroids) raced against 2 horses and a car. He finished behind both horses and the actual lengths were different for each competitor...

"Johnson, who was stripped of his gold medal in the 100-meter dash in the 1988 Olympics, had to cover 80 meters (262 feet). The thoroughbred ran 120 meters (394 feet), the harness horse 100 meters (328 feet) and the stock car 140 meters (459 feet)." (NYT link

Also..."Johnson...who led for the first few steps but was overtaken quickly and finished several meters behind the winner." (CNN/SI)

So, he had a 40 meter head start and was 'overtaken quickly'.

Johnson may not have been a word-class sprinter at this point, but also note that the thoroughbred was 17 years old.

Either way, I think in the hypothetical basketball court, either the horse wins or it's real close to a tie. If you take the 3.3 secs for a human to cover 94 feet and the 7 seconds(from both articles) for the thoroughbred to cover 394 feet, and then assume it's a tie at 94 feet as the horse overtakes the human - the horse would have to cover the remaining 300 feet in 3.7 seconds, or 81 ft/sec, which is roughly 55 Mph - the high end speed for a quarter horse referenced by Jason above. If you think the horse is slower over the first 94 feet (and therefore the human beats it), he'll have to be going faster than 55 Mph for the remaining 300 feet to make it in 7 seconds.

acMay 08, 2006 at 4:05PM

Here is your answer right here, the slowest horse ever beats a human:

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 4:22PM

{from the 'Zippy Chippy' article} "...Zippy Chippy won his first race in August 2001, when he narrowly defeated a Rochester Red Wings baseball player in a 120 ft (37 m) race."

That extra 7 metres might make the difference, but either way, sounds like it'd be close.

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 4:30PM

Also, re the Johnson race, check the video and you'll see:

1. The horses got a running start (advantage horsemeat)
2. Everybody ran on a muddy track (less traction for bj; advantage mr. ed)

See who was ahead at halfway and then dial it back a bit. If this is set up the way Jason mentioned originally, I think the results are different.

ziadMay 08, 2006 at 4:44PM

A 100m race (followed by a 60m one) were done in fance in 1990 between Daniel Sangouma (then France's 100m champion) and Jappeloup (then best horse).
The horse won both, by a wide margin (5m for the 60m race).
The only reference I can find to it is this article in the archives of french communist newspaper l'humanité.

This previous article makes a reference to a race between Jesse Owens and a horse in 1936

everettMay 08, 2006 at 4:51PM

check the video and you'll see...

The tinyURL link isn't working. I would love to see the video of this. Please try it again if you can. Thanks.

AugustMay 08, 2006 at 4:53PM

ess has it right: A thoroughbred (sp?) is the wrong horse for this competition. What you want is a quarter horse (called a quarter horse because they are essentially the fastest breed on the quarter mile). I dated a horse trainer for 7 years; a quarter horse will leave a human being in its dust before the ten yard mark.

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 4:56PM

the ben johnson race, the long way around:

Charles FollymacherMay 08, 2006 at 4:57PM

(sorry, jason, please clean up the above)

acMay 08, 2006 at 5:08PM

Well, this article says Zippy Chippy lost and if anyone can get the video to work, maybe that will help.

Troy WormanMay 08, 2006 at 5:14PM

I put my money on man.

WahMay 08, 2006 at 5:59PM

In a 34-yard race, I'd have to go with man as well.

One main reason...Newton's 1st motion law.

The horse is much larger than the man. Much like a chipmunk would beat a man in a 1 foot race, it's a matter of picking the right distance.

It shouldn't be too hard to get acceleration statistics for horses and men and see where the sweet spot is. Then you have races at that distance and introduce gambling. Step 4: Profit.

However, soon we would have to deal with the human-animal hybrids that Bush warned us I'm not sure about the long term prosepect of the HMRL....the Horse/Man Racing League...later taken over by the profit-driven Centaur Running Circuit...and ultimately put down by...oh let's say...your mamma.

BTW, you should see this amazing treadmill/runway I built...

WahMay 08, 2006 at 5:59PM

In a 34-yard race, I'd have to go with man as well.

One main reason...Newton's 1st motion law.

The horse is much larger than the man. Much like a chipmunk would beat a man in a 1 foot race, it's a matter of picking the right distance.

It shouldn't be too hard to get acceleration statistics for horses and men and see where the sweet spot is. Then you have races at that distance and introduce gambling. Step 4: Profit.

However, soon we would have to deal with the human-animal hybrids that Bush warned us I'm not sure about the long term prospects of the HMRL....the Horse/Man Racing League...later taken over by the profit-driven Centaur Running Circuit...and ultimately put down by...oh let's say...your mamma.

BTW, you should see this amazing treadmill/runway I built...

Jonathan SandersonMay 08, 2006 at 6:48PM

A few years ago, I raced a sprinter (Welsh rugby international - very fast chap) against a car (supposed to be a Mazda Miata/MX-5, but an MX-6 turned up on the day, drat), for a TV show. The sprinter won very comfortably over 20 metres, and our calculations suggested the car wouldn't have caught him before, as I recall, 28 metres.

We'd previously done calculations involving a Lotus Elise, which is unusually quick off the line. Even then, the Lotus boys in Hethel were trying to work out how much excess weight they could strip out of the Elise. In the end, they reckoned they'd be able to beat an Olympic champion to 20 metres, and maybe to 15, but that was really pushing it.

Horses, unfortunately, I've no idea about.

Nikhil MulaniMay 08, 2006 at 7:20PM

Man. A horse will take a while to get to the speed that a man can get to in a short time, such as a basketball court.

Ken HirschMay 08, 2006 at 9:06PM

At least twenty years ago on a TV show that may have been That's Incredible they showed a race between a cheetah, a horse, and a race car. The cheetah was in the center lane with high walls on either side. I think the cheetah was in a cage that opened at the same time as the horse's gate opened and the race car got a green light. And there was some unidentified foodlike object at the other end of the track.

I thought it was obvious that the cheetah would win since it was a relatively short distance. By the time the cheetah pooped out the race car should be up to speed and have passed them both.

The horse won.

But, just as with Jesse Owens, it was because the cheetah was spooked. The roar of the race car (which the cheetah couldn't see) caused it to cower for a few seconds in the back of the cage. The horse was about 90% of the way down the track when the cheetah looked up and saw the bait that was at the end of its lane. The cheetah went from 0 to 60 in a fraction of a send and nearly won despite the horse's huge head start.

Michael GallMay 08, 2006 at 10:25PM

As an extra piece of information, Australian Rules footballers complete a 20m sprint as part of their draft camp on grass. A great percentage of them will complete that in under 3s and faster runners will bring it closer to 2s. If the horse has anything like a 1s reaction speed, the human will win.

KathyMay 08, 2006 at 11:32PM

Anyone who thinks a horse needs much time to accelerate probably hasn't owned one. Granted, I've never clocked this, but I swear my horse can go from a dead stand to all-out sprint in the blink of an eye.
If the horse is trained for short distance--as well-trained as the human--my money's on the horse. (If it's a TB or Quarter horse, anyway. The Budweiser Clydesdales... not so much.)
Great question : )

MortenMay 09, 2006 at 3:56AM

It depends on how the start goes, think of predators and flight animals.
Horses are flight animals, and in a given situation out in the wild the horse would sense the reason to run much earlier than a human. Taken this into account, the horse would be way ahead of a man (= the predator). In a race with a prepared start, the man would win on such a short distance.

Bryce SheehanMay 09, 2006 at 9:24AM

lolz lotsa comments!

Seriously, I'd go for the man. A man could get off the the line much faster, even if the horse knew what to do!

Suicides: Man. Haha, if you've seen a horse change direction as fast as a human, it would be a sight to see.

chrisMay 09, 2006 at 9:30AM

not answering the question but some interesting knowledge about horse physiology

can breathe only through their noses
can only breathe in synch with their stride
have outsized spleens that release oxygen-rich red blood cells into the blood stream when they run
have hearts that can handle blood that thickens with the 50% increase in red blood cells
are the only animals, other than humans, that sweat through their skin

RobMay 09, 2006 at 10:08AM

Barrel racing could be used for judging time.
I'm sure someone has a time and distence it takes a horse from third barrel to end.
Might have to add the time it takes to get around the barrel to estimate the accelaration from standing still.

EricMay 09, 2006 at 10:09AM

Kathy is right imo. If you've ever tried to catch a horse...

RobMay 09, 2006 at 11:04AM

Apocrine Glands (what causes sweat and stinky teenagers) are found through out the animal kindom but horses has the most to my understanding. Within the distence that is discibed I don't think it comes into play.

If someone has slow-mo films of horses coming out of the gate and that also shows the rail. By knowing the distace of each post holding the rail, one should be able to calculate the first dozen strides of acceleration.

nice birdseye view Arcade race track with horse, on mapblast.
285 W. Huntington Drive . Arcadia, California

RobMay 09, 2006 at 12:13PM

Maybe this will help. Took some time for me to download it.
I looks like it took less then two seconds, from when the first foward movement of the front leg to the last hair on the tail went by.

DanMay 09, 2006 at 3:58PM

Hmmm... interesting.

You're positing a trained human sprinter against a horse untrained or trained in another discipline. Train the horse to sprint (a quarter horse in particular) - and believe me they are monstrously explosive when they need to be - and the horse will win.

But take your average 30 year old man or woman and your average horse in its early teens (equivalent relative ages) and who do you think would win? I'll take the horse - every time.

Basically, you need a really, really well trained human if you're even going to come close to beating your average horse.

And don't count out those heavy draft horses to quick either! My Belgian (the Coors beer horses) can jump a 4 foot fence from a stand still with 190 lbs on his back (me) - and there's no way I could beat him in a 30 yard race... assuming of course that I could convince him to race against me.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.