Do you get confused when racing correspondents start going on about the bumpers, the hurdles, the steeplechases and suchlike on the TV and radio? If not, great. If so, read on for our quick guide to the types of horse race you might encounter if you scratch the surface of the world of the Sport of Kings.

While harness racing – where horses pull their driver in a lightweight two-wheeled cart behind them – is popular in some areas of the world, we’ll keep the focus on flat racing and Steeplechasing, known as National Hunt racing in the UK, France and Ireland.

Flat Racing

As the name suggests, unlike National Hunt racing, flat racing does not require horses to jump over any obstacles. Without the thrills, spills and general uncertainty hurdles can cause, flat racing is seen by many as the purer form of racing in which the horses’ speed and stamina and the jockeys’ skill and judgement are tested more effectively.

Flat races in the UK vary in length from five furlongs (1,006m) to over two miles, with the shorter races being categorised as sprints, the longest as “stayers” and the rest as middle distance races. Most of the races carrying high levels of prestige – the five British Classics, for instance – tend to be over the middle distances.

Flat races can be run on natural grass, known as turf, or a synthetic surface, dubbed all-weather, and there are different categories of race based on their perceived importance, (see our Horse Racing Grades article for more details).

The most popular and highly regarded flat races in the British racing calendar are the five Classics, with Royal Ascot being the primary flat racing festival of the year (see our Major Horse Races article for more details).

National Hunt Racing: Hurdles & Steeplechase

While saying that National Hunt racing involves jumping over obstacles, just to complicate things there are also some National Hunt races over the flat, known as “bumpers”, in which there are no obstacles to negotiate. The bumpers (also called NH Flat races) are designed for horses who have not previously raced in either flat racing or over hurdles or fences, so it gives them some experience before attempting a hurdle.

The vast majority of National Hunt racing, however, can be split into one of two branches: Hurdles and Steeplechases. Hurdle races require horses to jump over – surprise, surprise – hurdles, which are generally constructed so that a horse crashing the top section of the barrier is unlikely to fall or become injured. They are built to a minimum height of three foot, six inches.

With Steeplechases, horses must negotiate fences, but also open ditches and water jumps. The fences are constructed with more solidity and height than hurdles – often natural bushes are used – and are less forgiving, meaning horses must jump higher and cleaner to avoid a fall.

The majority of the National Hunt season in the UK and Ireland takes place from autumn to spring when the ground is generally softer to minimise the possibility of injury to horses and jockeys in the event of a fall.

As with Flat racing, National Hunt races are graded according to their importance, with Grade 1s attracting the best horses, jockeys and trainers (see our Horse Racing Grades article for more details).

Both hurdles and Steeplechases are divided into categories based on the age and experience of the horses, and the distance over which the race is to be run. Hurdles have juvenile, novice and open categories, Steeplechasing has the latter two.

Juvenile races are open only to three-year-old horses if the race takes place between October and December, or four-year-olds if the race takes place between January and April. Novice races are open only to those horses who haven’t yet won a race at the commencement of the current Jumps season, while Open races – as you might have guessed – have no restrictions. If a horse has never won a race, it is referred to as a maiden, and there are maiden races for such losers.

See our Major Horse Races article for details of the biggest National Hunt races, but the biggest of the lot are the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with the four-day Cheltenham Festival in March being the main meeting in the National Hunt calendar in terms of the number of top-quality horses, jockeys and trainers who attend.