Americans are a very practical people. After all, they left their home countries with all the amenities to live in a raw land where they had to do everything themselves. Part of this heritage is the quarter horse, commonly called “America’s Horse” and the “World’s Fastest Athlete”.
Spanish explorers and traders brought the first horses to the American continent. These were the Arabian, Turk, Iberian and Barb breeds. Eventually these steeds were let loose in the wild for a variety of reasons. The Native Americans thought at first that a man on a horse was a new monster. Eventually the Chickasaw Indians realized that the horse was a separate being, and they took to them quite naturally. The wild mustangs were also domesticated by the Comanche, Shoshoni and Nez Perce tribes.
In 1611, the actual quarter horse breed was begun, as the feral horses were cross-bred with Spanish-breed stallions shipped in from England. It is also believed that Irish Hobbies and Galloways from Northern England were included in this process of cross-breeding. The cross breed, Equus caballus, emerged as an animal perfectly suited to the needs of colonial America. While typical English thoroughbred horses were slim, with long legs suited to long distance racing, the new breed was stockier, somewhat short (15-16 hands), compact, very muscular, especially in the hind quarters, and stronger, making it perfect for pulling carriages, hauling goods, riding and short-distance racing. With the infusion of wild genes to the high-strung thoroughbreds, the quarter horse is known for an even disposition.
The quarter horse was so named because it was the fastest type of horse to run a straightaway quarter mile, coming home in 21 seconds or less, at clocked speeds of up to 55 mph (88.5 km/h). But well beyond the racing capabilities, its build made it an excellent cow horse, able to stop abruptly from a full gallop and turn quickly. The ability to be both agile and swift made it very adaptable to the needs of handling cattle and ranch chores. These abilities are regularly tested, for both horse and rider, at American rodeos to this day.
Quarter horses became an integral part of colonial America. Flat racing became popular as the eastern United States civilization developed, often across simply a flat stretch of road or open land. These sprinters shined and gained in popularity, racing against other quarter horses. This style of racing became an economic boom for breeders, and often more thoroughbred blood was infused using Arabian and Morgan blood.
As America expanded westward, the quarter horse became part of the scenery in the west, as it could easily pull Conestoga wagons, farm wagons and plows. It battled Native Americans, contained herds of cattle, carried pony express riders, rushed doctors to injured frontiersmen, and even brought preachers to isolated worshipers. It was just right for ranches, cutting cattle, roping and branding calves, and traveling through brush and raw land. These horses were part of the frontiersmen’s tools, not a luxury, so blood lines were of no interest. Instead, they were bred for utility. The new breed emerging was discovered to have an innate “cow sense”, a natural instinct for working with cattle. Even with the advent of the automobile, these horses are irreplaceable for handling livestock on the range.
In 1940, in Amarillo, Texas, a group of horsemen and ranchers decided to preserve the pedigrees of these widely popular quarter horses by establishing the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). By registering their animals with this Association, breeders established the quarter horse as a distinct breed and could trace lineage. In 1951, the Ohio Quarter Horse Association was established. Today, over three million horses are registered with the AQHA (making it the largest breed registry in the world) and over 49,000 with the Ohio Association, testimony to the popularity of the breed. Through these registries, stud fees can be collected and increased. Since these lists are still open to new types, some breeders have separated to form registries of the original type, called “Foundation” Quarter Horses. The registries have identified several genetic diseases of concern to breeders, and the required DNA tests have allowed breeders to keep these in mind. The quarter horse is now exported and listed with other countries’ registries as well.
Because of its practical origin, the American Quarter Horse has a wide variety of characteristics. Weighing in under 1,500 pounds, the quarter horse is considered a light breed of the stock body type class (as opposed to hunter/racing or saddle types); Other body types are registered as well, but the stock type is the most common. There are seventeen recognized colors: sorrel, grullo, bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, perlino, dun, red dun, gray, palomino, red roan, blue roan, bay roan, and cremello.
Despite the proliferation of technology today, the American quarter horse has maintained a place in the hearts of its country through the 21st century. Not only is it found on ranches and racetracks, it has established a place in show arenas, bridle trails, back yards and rodeos, being easy to keep and maintain. It dominates the sports of cutting and reining. The quarter horse has gained recognition in English Pleasure riding, jumping, western pleasure riding, dressage, mounted police, and of course, racing. This unique breed can hold its mane high and compete with any other breed in the world with ease.