Anything Equine,  Equestrian topic,  Equine Anatomy,  Opinion

Legendary Hearts of Horses

Legendary and large heart horses:


On June 9th, 1973, Secretariat gave us something so magnificent; something so sublime and something so truly remarkable.

With every stride Secretariat took during the Belmont Stakes – the third and final leg of the American Triple Crown – people knew they were witnessing the greatest performance in all of Belmont’s history.

With 1/4 of a mile to go, he was 14 lengths in the lead. Coming out of the turn for home, he was 18 lengths in the lead. People watching on television heard words infused with unmitigated awe: “He’s moving like a tre-mend-ous machine!”

And we wept. We wept long before the race was over because of his courage, his pride, his freedom. His statement to all of us: I never give up, I never give in, and I do my best every single Moment.

Secretariat finished the 1973 Belmont Stakes an astonishing 31 lengths ahead of his competitors, in a world record time of two minutes and twenty four seconds. He didn’t hurt, harm or cut anyone else down to win, nor was he shy or ashamed of winning. For Secretariat, those ridiculous notions things didn’t exist.

It was phenomenal. Awesome. Indelibly etched in our consciousness, and a instance that has not been duplicated…ever.

Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970, and died on October 4, 1989 at only 19 years old. It was very sad.

There were such hopes that the world would see more horses just like him after he went to stud.

There were such mysteries surrounding his existence.

Just how did he run so fast, typically coming from the back of the pack and annihiliating the field of runners that opposed him?

Dr. Thomas Swerczek DVM, PhD, who preformed his autopsy said, “It was the biggest [horse] heart I’ve ever seen.” (Bonner, 2004) And it was perfectly healthy.

As he lifted the ‘mega-heart’ out of Secretariat’s body, you could imagine people gasping in stunned silence, just as they did during his racing career.

An average heart for a horse his size is eight and a half pounds…and Secretariat’s heart weighed about twenty-two…

Demonstrating the super large heart, and suggesting the room it needed inside a horse's body compared to a normal sized heart.
Secretariat needed a custom girth to reach the billets on each side of his saddle.

This is like the difference between a roaster chicken and a Thanksgiving turkey! Imagine the main arteries leading away from it to supply the body, imagine the size of the major veins bringing the oxygen depleted blood back to it.

Imagine that this heart muscle was strong; its walls thick, and its capacity over two times larger than normal.

Just one beat of Secretariat’s heart accomplished the work that required two beats of a another Thoroughbred (his rivals), whether they were his height or even taller.

Note: It doesn’t take much to rob a horse of his potential, big heart or not. Improper nutrition, improper handling, negligent mare care, any number of things may conspire to hold back any individual.

To set a Soul like this free, it takes tremendous skill; knowledge combined with love and patience to nurture and coax the horse into an understanding of what is expected…so much so, that he takes this information and owns the knowledge for himself. He masters his environment. He takes the lot that has been given to him, and shows his best to the world, on the world’s stage. Without reservation. Without doubt. He accepts the confines of human rules and expectations, and courageously expresses himself. He becomes our hero. He humbles and inspires us with his generosity, his Spirit, and his countenance. This is a Legendary Heart, one that shows us what can be done. One that tells us to have courage, and live life not in a dream world, but in a real world; a hard world. To dig our deepest without fear. Until you do that, you won’t know what you are capable of…

Clearly, this wonderful horse was surrounded by people who taught him their system respectfully; leaving his Spirit, his willpower and eccentricities, and his own determination intact. For Secretariat’s part, it is safe to say that he was nurtured from the day he was conceived, and brought to his full potential by careful, compassionate, and knowledgeable people.

But how was it that he had such a big heart?

Following the remarkable discovery of Secretariat’s heart, the renowned equine cardiologist Dr. Fred Fregin, and researcher Marianna Haun embarked on the large heart trail. The work was twofold: first, compile a database of horses and record their statistics using ECGs and ultra sound technology, and second; combine that with extensive pedigree research.

It was theoretically determined that the trait for the large heart was carried on the X, or female, chromosome, which is why it is called the X Factor – and in following this gene to its possible roots, the X factor begins to tell an epic story…with an unexpected turn they didn’t consider…

We do know that the super heart was a ‘genetic’ trait, and the phenomenon of the equine large heart was not new.

Following their ‘X-trail’ however, and stepping further back into time, there was another horse; one that was in the pedigree of Secretariat hundreds of times, and one who had a story of his own.


Born during a solar eclipse, he was so named on April 1, 1764.
painting by George Stubbs (1724-1806)

Eclipse’s white face punched through a thick, chilly fog with the suddenness of a violent storm. He delivered an unmistakable message: I am unbeatable.

‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ became the horse’s motto. Strong and full of fury, Eclipse snapped at his adversaries, never allowing any one of them to pass him.

Eclipse was a raging flame, willful and incorruptible. Whip and spurs were absent from the jockey’s fittings, as the horse would never tolerate such garishness.

Like Secretariat, his performance improved with distance, while his competitors were burned up by fatigue. Eclipse won his challenges with such ease, that it was more than just a victory, it was a reckoning. Undeniable, and unwavering. Consistent and crushing.

During the 18th century races were typically two or four miles long. Historical accounts convey that Eclipse eased over the finish line with the rumor of other horses having been entered in the race. It was as if they constituted an entirely different event.

Eclipse was not the first undefeated champion of the newly formed British Thoroughbred, but he was the most celebrated. Eclipse was a phenomenon, carrying a veil of superiority that was respected and feared. He was a legend in his own day, acquiring a loyal base of supporters whose endless chattering filled the air for years to come.

He was an egotistical horse, unwilling to tolerate forceful actions originating from man or beast. His own integrity was paramount, his dialogue intense. This was his countenance both on the track and off. He was a horse of magnificent talent and tremendous will; one who demanded respect – one who would not suffer anything less.

This was a horse whose individuated spirit – his soul – was here to tell people, ‘I will perform for you, but you must ask…you must seek my willingness. I have my own opinion, I have my own way. Ask, and I will give freely. Take without permission, attempt to force, and I will not have it. I will fight.’

It must have been such a thrill to have watched Eclipse race during the nascent development of the breed known as the Thoroughbred. Startlingly fast and undefeated in 18 events, the chestnut colt was a harbinger of Thoroughbred greatness.

Upon his death on February 26, 1789 – at almost 25 years old, he was examined by Monsieur Charles Vial de St. Bel, who recorded the session with meticulous detail. Among Eclipse’s measurements, it was noted that he had a heart that weighed fourteen pounds…

Excitement prevailed for Fregin and Haun, as the pedigree trail sparked by Secretariat led to Eclipse himself. The ‘X-factor’ theory was shaping up on both ends of history. Both were gifted super horses, powered by hearts that made them legends; governed by an insatiable and unconquerable spirit of the wind.

The story could begin and end here. But of course, it is not that simple.

There’s a problem. A big one…

The idea that a single genetic mutation occurred either at Eclipse’s conception, or during his fetal development that endowed him with a larger than normal heart, has been presented. It makes the theory easier to grasp, but this is quite a stretch given the magnitude of the equine canvas.

Perhaps the epigenetic conditions were ripe, but why this one horse? Why Eclipse when there were literally millions of horses on Earth who could have not only carried the trait, but also had the conditions to express it?

A study of horses ‘before’ the Thoroughbred was needed, but the interest in funding this kind of thing wasn’t ready.

A ‘spontaneous mutation’ would mean that only Eclipse could have possessed this super power, and therefore, he would be the only able to endow his offspring.

The dilemma becomes; which came first — the large heart gene, or Eclipse? Research pointed toward a descendant of Eclipse – a mare named Pocahontas – to whom they attributed the proliferation of the large heart gene.

Note: Pocohontas’s son Glencoe was famous in Britain. He was imported to the USA, where he had an astounding influence on several breeds.

The story continues…

Following the ‘x-factor logic’ – which means that something in Eclipse prompted this attribute to express itself – the trail includes his parentage which has embedded clues: his undefeated maternal grandsire Regulus, and the qualities by way of these x-factor female components…

Following the theme and logic that only mares pass on this trait, three mare lines standing out in Regulus’s heritage are two of the Royal mares in Queen Anne’s stable: Royal mare number 6 and Royal mare number 2.

They had produced horses like Hautboy that would later strongly influence the Thoroughbred blood in the New World (to become the USA), Snake, and Bald Galloway who would also become prominently established in the pedigrees of the best horses in Britain and the New World. It is important to keep in mind that these mares were bred to many oriental stallions, including Lister Turk, White Turk, and the Barbs like Fenwick Barb and St. Victors Barb.

There were also the daughters of Brimmer. Brimmer was a champion racehorse and sire, however, because he was such an early horse, little has been documented. His heritage was primarily Turkish and North African…

The Byerley Turk had already established his line, and when the lines of the Royal mares met with his, fantastic horses were the result.

This would all come to meet the blood of the Godolphin Horse…who reinvigorated compactness, stamina and speed…a formula that was phenomenal, especially as the foundation of the Quarter Horse and eventually horses like Man O’ War and Secretariat.

Continue to Chapter Two now (going back in time): Godolphin Horse and the Byerley Turk

Note: Centuries earlier, the blood in these Royal mares had provided the foundation for breeds such as the Connemara and the Irish Draught horse. They were known for their speed and agility. These sturdy, athletic horses were used by Robert the Bruce in his fight for Scotland’s independence…while King Edward tried to prevent these valuable beasts from ever getting into the possession of his enemies (a similar sentiment executed much differently, influenced the US Government in their war against the Native Americans).

PS: Another large heart horse:

Phar Lap

Phar Lap wins the Melbourne Cup

During the 1930’s, researchers in Australia identified a departure from the norm when they witnessed the size of Phar Lap’s heart. Phar Lap, Australia’s ‘Wonder Horse’, was a very large horse, with a very large heart seemed to have been bypassed by the large heart researchers.

Forty seven years before Secretariat was born, a little foal came into being named Phar Lap. During his racing career, he had become a true legend; cantering rather than galloping across the finish line, usually with several lengths to spare.

Equine Large Heart research had begun almost 50 years earlier in a different country!

After his passing in 1932, his body was preserved, and his heart revered. The phrase “a heart as big as Phar Lap’s” signifies strength, power, and generosity.

Physically, his heart weighed 14 pounds, and is on display at the National Museum of Australia.

Phar Lap’s Heart
Photo by AY Arktos
Used by permission under Creative Commons license

His pedigree does include Eclipse (and Pocahontas) in X positions, however, there are far more Godolphin Horse and Byerley Turk daughters sprinkled throughout those ‘influential and essential’ theoretical X positions. If cumulative effects, inbreeding coefficients, probabilities and other mechanisms have their influence, then Phar Lap’s blood would be an advocate for the amount of ‘varied spice in the sauce’, rather than a few chance peppercorns.

Continue reading! The next chapter goes further back, to the origins of the Thoroughbred…

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