Horses have been our trusted companions and sources of power for centuries, aiding in transportation, agriculture, and various other activities. But have you ever wondered just how much horsepower a horse possesses?
Horsepower is a unit of power.
And power describes how fast energy is exchanged; a use of energy divided by how long it takes to use that energy. Therefore the measurement of horsepower refers to what the sustained output of an engine is.
Although it may seem safe to assume that one horsepower is the output a horse is capable of creating at any one time, it’s not that simple. The maximum output of a horse can be up to 15 horsepower, and the maximum output of a human is a bit more than a single horsepower.
Where does the term horsepower come from?
The term “horsepower” has its origins in the work of James Watt, a Scottish engineer who played a crucial role in the development of the steam engine during the late 18th century. Watt sought a way to market and describe the power output of his steam engines to potential buyers in a relatable manner.
To achieve this, he needed a unit of measurement that people could easily understand and compare to the power of his engines. At the time, horses were widely used as a source of power for various tasks, from pulling wagons to turning millstones. People were familiar with the capabilities of horses, so Watt decided to use them as a reference point.
Here’s how James Watt arrived at the term “horsepower”:
- Watt conducted experiments to determine the amount of work a horse could do over a certain period, such as turning a mill wheel or lifting weights.
- He then calculated the amount of work that his steam engines could perform in the same period.
- To make the comparison more relatable, Watt defined one unit of horsepower as being equivalent to the amount of work that a typical horse could do over a specific amount of time. Specifically, he determined that a horse could sustainably do 550 foot-pounds of work per second (or 745.7 watts in modern SI units).
This definition allowed Watt to market his steam engines by stating that they could produce a certain number of “horsepower,” making it easier for potential customers to understand and compare the capabilities of his engines to the work done by horses. This concept of horsepower quickly caught on and has been used ever since to describe and measure the power output of engines and machines, both in the context of steam engines and in modern internal combustion engines.
Watt’s estimates were pretty accurate.
One horsepower is roughly the average rate of work a healthy draught horse can do over a full day, confirmed by data from the 1925 Iowa State Fair and by English veterinary surgeon William Youatt.
Watt calculated that, over an average day’s work, a horse could turn a 24ft mill wheel around 2.5 times per minute. Power is defined as the work done per unit time, where work is a measure of energy transferred, calculated by multiplying the force applied by the distance travelled.
In 1993, biologists R. D. Stevenson and R. J. Wassersug published a letter to Nature in which they estimated the maximum power output a horse can muster. Previous studies had shown that the maximum sustainable mechanical power per kilogram of muscle is between 100 and 200W. Using the lower bound, they calculated a theoretical peak performance of 18,000W, or around 24 horsepower.
Looking at data from the 1925 Iowa State Fair, they found a much lower real-world value. Over a short period of time, they calculate, a horse can exert up to 14.9 horsepower.
Measuring Horsepower in Horses:
- One horsepower equals one horse: The term “horsepower” might make it sound like a horse generates one horsepower, but it’s not that straightforward. In reality, the average horse produces about 0.7 horsepower. This number was derived from Watt’s calculations when comparing the work done by a horse to that of a steam engine.
- Factors affecting horsepower in horses:
- Breed and size: Larger horse breeds tend to have more horsepower than smaller ones. Draft horses, known for their immense size and strength, can generate more power compared to smaller breeds.
- Age and condition: A younger, healthier horse is likely to have more power than an older or unhealthy one.
- Training and fitness: Just like humans, a horse’s physical condition and training play a significant role in its ability to generate power. Well-conditioned and trained horses can be more powerful.
A baby horse, known as a foal, does not have the same level of horsepower as an adult horse. Their muscles are still developing, and their power output is much lower. It’s like comparing a young child’s strength to that of an adult.
Draft horses, such as Clydesdales or Percherons, are among the most powerful horse breeds. They can produce between 12 to 15 horsepower, thanks to their impressive size and strength. This is equivalent to the power of a small car engine!
While horses may not generate as much horsepower as the machines we use today, “horsepower” has been vital throughout human history. From ploughing fields to providing transportation, horses have played a significant role in human civilisation.
Horses have helped shape modern society and have contributed critically to the modern world. Everywhere horses were domesticated and used, they changed history; from the Mustang revolutionising life for indigenous tribes on the American continent to Genghis Khan’s conquests. While the unit of horsepower today is mostly to facilitate easy understanding of power, the history behind the number is more than just the number—it’s about the history, the partnership, and the remarkable contribution of these animals.