The evidence is ambiguous.
“I think the answer is that they are, but it’s hard to say,” says Stephen P. Davis, a researcher at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota who has studied horse performance. “I think they are very fast, though, with the potential to be highly versatile.”
But why? What’s it about the horse that makes it good at running across the distance as easily as the horse that can run the quarter mile in 4.4 seconds?
“That question is very difficult to answer,” says Dr. Davis.
Pachyderm research suggests that many factors are important: size of a horse versus the speed of its legs, its strength and stamina, its gait and posture, and a variety of other factors. Horses, it appears, run like they are trained; as a result, you don’t see the same kind of variability in speed that you see with humans. The horse is, after all, programmed from conception to birth to run at an incredible distance.
What may also be important, Dr. Davis says, is the length of the horse’s neck and the size of its lower leg. Longer legs are better in both space and time.
But the most fundamental of all horse reasons, says Dr. Davis, may be that the horse “is the only animal we know of that can run faster than it takes to walk.”
And as much as running fast on asphalt isn’t the point, according to Dr. Davis, there’s something more powerful at work in the human athlete.
“The fact that humans can run faster than any other animal really is really intriguing,” says Dr. Davis. “Whether the horse is an outlier in our scientific knowledge of athletic performance, or whether it’s the culmination of decades of evolution is a really open question.”
It is not yet known whether, when a marathon runs, a horse will race just as well or faster than a human runner. But it seems clear that a horse, or possibly the modern horse, is able to outpace an out-of-shape human with respect to performance on an athletic task that involves an enormous margin of variability.
And, if the horse is truly able to go farther than you and I with a single leg, and you really can’t do it (or wouldn’t like to), that might be as good an explanation as any.
Source: University of Minnesota
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