I don’t know if you pay any attention to sports like swimming, or track and field, but if you haven’t, the fact is that people keep getting faster. Records made even a few years back routinely get eclipsed. The magic four minute mile “barrier,” which Sir Roger Bannister first broke in 1954 (a barrier about which doctors were concerned, because they thought that the person who broke it might die), has been lowered by 17 seconds in the 50 years since.
On the other hand, thoroughbred racehorses keep plodding along (relatively speaking). Thoroughbred racehorse times haven’t improved much in, oh, the last 100 years or so (harness racing times have improved, by the way). The great racehorse Secretariat broke the equine version of the four minute mile back in 1973 at the Kentucky Derby – it’s only been done once since.
There could be any number of reasons for this. One might be the size of the performers – whereas athletes competing in track and field events keep getting bigger, and developing longer legs that can cover more ground, modern racing horses really haven’t changed in size, since, oh, pretty much ever.
Another difference between horses and humans might be the weight that the horses are carrying. Horses are still wearing shoes, nailed to their feet. Humans, on the other hand, keep getting racing shoes that are even lighter, or sleek swim suits that cut through the water with less friction. Changes in equipment have probably helped harness horses a lot – the light sulkies of today are a far cry from their bulkier, heavier predecessors. But the silks and whips and saddles of the Thoroughbred horse today would be easily recognized in the paddock in 1902.
Track and field surfaces and swimming pools are different, too. Tracks for humans used to be made up of loose gravel, and swimming pools just held water. Now the former are bouncy, which helps the runners’ legs spring forward, and the latter are constructed so as to minimize the waves that the swimmers make, which makes the water choppier, and harder to swim through. Contrast that with the dirt and grass that horses have been racing on since, well, the 18th century anyway.
Of course, horses don’t really have any reason to run faster. They’re not interested in setting world records, or training for glory, or to be featured in a reality TV show. At best, they’re trying to beat their buddies (and probably wondering what all the fuss is about): as noted by Jerry Seinfeld, below.
But the biggest problem with horses racing faster is that they may not be able to race any faster. That is, their racing at the capabilities of their systems. Any more, and the system would just break (which, sadly, it sometimes does). A really smart biologist from Stanford University named Mark Denny did a great study in 2008, whereby he concluded that there are limits to how fast horses (and humans, and dogs) can go. He concluded that in spite of breeding and training advances, and even the use of performance-enhancing drugs, we’ve pretty much reached those limits in dogs and horses, and are getting there in people. CLICK HERE to read the study by Dr. Denny.
Of course, none of this means that horses aren’t wonderful athletes. In fact, the are incredible athletes. It’s just that are running pretty much as efficiently as possible can. Just don’t expect much more from them. They’re doing the best that they can. Not a bad rule to live by, actually!