Thoroughbreds vs. Olympians – the evolution in speed of man and horse

My friends at Silver Lining Herbs contacted me earlier this month about a story they featured on their blog – SilverLiningHerbs/ – that tracks the changes in man’s speed versus the change’s in horse’s speed since 1896. Though I’ve never shared a company’s story like this before, I found the points brought up in this feature very interesting, and I thought you all might, too. Let me know what you think!

May 6, 1896 marked the first Kentucky Derby victory on the standard course of 1.25 miles, as Thoroughbred Ben Brush crossed the finish line with a time of 127.8 seconds.  The very same year, Edwin Flack of Australia earned the first Olympic Gold medal in the men’s 1500 meter run with a time of 4:33.2 – that’s 273.2 seconds.  In the years following these monumental victories, a casual observer might suspect that Olympic 1500 meter times and subsequent Kentucky Derby winning times would follow a long-term pattern of decreasing times as training methods and nutrition improved.  That is almost the case.

After analyzing the winning times of each race over the course of 112 years, a surprising pattern appears.  The Olympic 1500 meter times do in fact steadily improve, while the winning times of the Kentucky Derby remain strikingly even across the time span.  This poses an interesting question: Why are human beings progressively improving their speed in comparison to horses?

Mark Roozen, DVM says the major difference comes down to available improvement in genetics.  “The comparison of human versus equine on race times must be more defined as human versus thoroughbred. The simple reason for the divergence of record times relates to the available genetic pool for improvement. By design the thoroughbred industry has a closed gene pool. Hence, any performance improvement must come from other non – genetic factors like nutrition or training.”

In Stephen Budiansky’s boo The Nature of Horses he explains that “…it is hard to make horses better because they are naturally built to operate at the very limits of what heart, lungs, and muscles can do.”

Budiansky goes into further detail on the subject, pointing out how horses generate nearly four times the expected energy output for a mammal its size when exercising at maximum capacity.  So by nature horses are ahead of the curve, not to mention that race horses have been bred for generations to be the best they can be.  Humans, on the other hand, continue to grow bigger, faster and stronger at a (comparatively) very rapid pace.  Which leads one to wonder, at what point will human beings reach their genetic plateau?


This article by provided by Silver Lining Herbs, a leader in horse supplments and dog supplements.


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