The Quarter Horse is a breed of horse that was bred to race a specific distance: one-quarter of a mile. That is how it got its name. In the early 20th century, there was no other breed of horse that could match the Quarter Horse’s speed over the quarter-mile distance. Some individuals have been observed to reach speeds that exceed 55 miles per hour, or 88.5 kilometers per hour, over that distance.
The Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the United States. Nearly 3 million living horses have been registered with the American Quarter Horse Association from 2014 data, which makes it the largest breed registry in the world.
Although the Quarter Horse earned its reputation on the racetrack, it has evolved into an excellent all-around performer. You can find the Quarter Horse performing at rodeo events and horse shows. Many ranchers still use this breed for their working horses. That is because the Quarter Horse is well-suited to the intricate tasks and fast maneuvers that are required for riding events, disciplines, and modern ranch work.
How Did We Get the Quarter Horse?
Horses arrived in the United States with European colonists, beginning in the 15th century. As the colonies began to establish themselves and become independent, those who settled in the New World began to import Thoroughbred horses. The horses that came from the first explorers were developed into regional breeds by local tribes and these horses were bred to the Thoroughbreds.
That was how the American Quarter Horse came about. There are Arabian, Barb, and Iberian ancestors to this uniquely American breed.
By 1746, the colonies were self-sufficient and exploring the idea of independence. There was also a love for flat-track racing beginning to develop. A Thoroughbred named Janus was imported and he would contribute a strong foundation to create a Colonial horse breed that was smaller and quicker than a Thoroughbred, with an extra level of hardiness.
That allowed the colonists to have a work horse during the week and a racing horse during the weekends when races were held. Even when racing champion Thoroughbreds, over a distance of one-quarter mile, the Quarter Horse could still excel. Its popularity continued to grow.
By the 19th century, the idea of manifest destiny had reached a fever pitch in the United States. People descended upon the US West to establish a home, find riches, or their own personal reasons. Many of those settlers brought Quarter Horses with them because the breed is willing, hardy, and an easy keeper.
As the settlers pushed West, they realized that there were herds of Spanish horses roaming wild around the countryside. Some homesteaders were able to capture some of these Mustangs and decided to breed them with their Quarter Horses. The offspring had a unique “cow sense” that made ranch work easier.
At the same time, the tribal cultures in the US West were still creating their own regional breeds, sometimes keeping extensive oral records of breeding habits and standards. As these horses mixed in with the Quarter Horse, the speed, strength, and “cow sense” continued to improve. The horses were so stout and sturdy, in fact, that Europe took notice. Quarter Horses began to be exported back across the ocean.
To ensure that no genetic bottleneck would occur, Morgan and Standardbred bloodlines were added to the Quarter Horse breed in the 19th century as well.
In 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association was formed to support ranchers and homesteaders so their pedigrees could be preserved.
To this day, Thoroughbreds are still admitted into the Quarter Horse stud book. To qualify, however, a Thoroughbred must meet specific performance standards.
What to Expect from a Quarter Horse
Modern Quarter Horses can be somewhat small compared to other horses. The breed standard accepts horses as small as 14 hands, which qualifies them as a pony. Some stallions can be 16 hands high or taller. Quarter Horses that come from England can be as tall as 17 hands in some instances.
There are three sub-types of Quarter Horse in terms of body style: stock, halter, and racing.
Stock Quarter Horses tend to be stocky, compact, and very muscular. They are agile, have the trademark speed of the breed, and are sure-footed. Halter horses tend to be a little taller and have a smoother muscular appearance to them, resembling a Thoroughbred.
Hunting and racing horses tend to be the tallest horses and they also retain many of the physical characteristics of a Thoroughbred. Show horses within this sub-type tend to be slimmer instead of stocky and can often be mistaken for a Thoroughbred from a distance.
Quarter Horses can come in a wide variety of coat colors. Sorrel is the most common color, which is similar to a chestnut coat. Black, brown, and bay are also somewhat common coat colors for the breed. Other solid colors, including palomino and cremello, are possible. Dun and roan coats are also permitted.
In the past, Quarter Horses were not allowed to have a spotted coat. The registry now accepts spotted horses as long as both parents are registered with the breed association and DNA testing can verify the parentage.
Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses: An Ongoing Relationship
From the first days as an established breed, the Quarter Horse stud book has incorporated Thoroughbred horses. There is an appendix section within the stud book that includes first-generation crosses of Quarter Horses and registered Thoroughbreds. An appendix Quarter Horse and a numbered Quarter Horse also produce offspring that are treated as a first-generation crossbred.
Horses that are registered in the appendix are still allowed to enter competition, but are not permitted for full registration. Only when an appendix horse can prove itself through performance can it earn its way out of the appendix to become a numbered Quarter Horse.
Thoroughbred crosses have occurred throughout the history of the breed, so the genetics between the two breeds have gone back and forth frequently. Some breeders have concerns that this may limit the viability of the Quarter Horse as a distinct breed in the future. To counter this trend, some breeders are focusing on the traditional characteristics of the breed to promote the earlier standards found in the “foundation” horses.
Health Concerns with the Quarter Horse
The Quarter Horse is prone to several different genetic diseases. To limit the prevalence of these disorders, the American Quarter Horse Association has stopped allowing the registry of horses that possess specific genes. DNA blood tests are available to determine if an individual horse is at risk of many of these diseases as well.
It is believed that some Quarter Horses carry the gene for Lethal White Syndrome. This is despite the fact that crop-out horses were not permitted to register. The gene is recessive and continues to appear in some foals, despite screening efforts to have it excluded from the gene pool.
A stallion named King P-234 is believed to be responsible for the introduction of GBED. This disease causes the horse to lack an enzyme that is required to store glycogen. Without glycogen, the skeletal muscles and heart of a foal cannot function properly. The disease only occurs in foals born from parents who both carry one copy of the gene.
HERDA can only be transmitted if both parents carry the gene for it as well. This genetic disease disrupts the stability of the collagen in the skin of the horse. Any rubbing or impact to the skin can cause it to split, separate, or tear off the animal. Horses that are born with this condition are usually euthanized before the age of 4.
Malignant hyperthermia is a mutation that is specifically associated with the Quarter Horse and any other breeds where the Quarter Horse is involved. The hyperthermia can be triggered by stress and overwork, as well as certain medications.
HYPP is also associated with the Quarter Horse and is linked to a stallion named Impressive. Affected horses will exhibit uncontrolled muscle spasms and twitches, along with substantial muscle weakness that can lead to paralysis. Only one parent needs to have the gene for HYPP to have it be passed along to their offspring. Any Quarter Horse born after 2007 or one that has a confirmed lineage through Impressive must be tested. Any with the H/H form of the gene are excluded from the registry.
The Quarter Horse is popular because it is such an intelligent easy keeper. These horses love social contact, a good day of work, and some healthy competition. Even if they aren’t formally raced, it is not unusual to see Quarter Horses holding their own formal races if there is enough space.
It may not be the first American breed, but it could be argued that the Quarter Horse is the best breed that has been developed in the United States. As this breed continues to evolve, the many benefits of working with a Quarter Horse will only improve.