American Quarter Horse Origin and Characteristics

American Quarter Horse Origin and Characteristics

The American Quarter Horse gets its name because of its sprinting speed. As a breed, it is the best at covering the distance of a quarter-mile during a race. Some elite horses within this breed have been documented reaching speeds that exceed 50 miles per hour.

There are 11 foundation horses that established the modern Quarter Horse bloodlines. Spanish, Arabian, and English horse breeds have all contributed to the establishment of this distinctly American breed. 

This unique speed has created an intense popularity in this breed. About 4 million American Quarter Horses are currently registered, making it the largest breed registry in the world right now. This breed is also the most popular breed in the United States for ownership today.

Although it gets its name from its speed over a specific distance, the American Quarter Horse excels in numerous performance competitions and working opportunities. They are particularly talented in rodeo events and are sought after by those who need working horses for a farm or ranch. This is because they pick up intricate skills and maneuvers rapidly, allowing for herding, roping, or barrel racing. 

Many American Quarter Horses are shown in driving and English riding disciplines.

What Is the History of the American Quarter Horse?

In the late 17th century, Thoroughbred horses were being imported to the United States from Britain. The goal was to improve colony horses so that they could perform the hard work needed in the establishment of communities. These imported horses were bred with local horses that had been brought to the continent in the century before, creating a breed that was fast, hardy, and willing.

As the speed of these horses became known, racing gained in popularity in the colonies. Even when matched against Thoroughbreds, on short and flat courses, the new horses would often win the race. These sprinters would then be included in the local Thoroughbred stud books, creating an intertwined history between the two breeds that still benefits from the association.

During the phase of westward expansion in the United States, the colonial Quarter Horse was then bred with horses taken from the feral herds that roamed the territories. These cross-bred horses had a unique sense for herding that was needed for homesteading. This trait was kept in the following generations of foals and helped to develop the modern Quarter Horse.

The primary duty of the first modern Quarter Horses was to work the ranch. It is a duty that is still needed from this breed today. Despite mechanization, the “horse sense” of working with livestock cannot be replicated. These skills transitioned into rodeo events which are held in the current day.

Yet mechanization was a threat that could not be ignored. From the railroads to the development of the automobile, farming and ranch work was looking at machines to enhance productivity. That left many horse breed on the outside, looking in. 

That’s why in 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association was initially formed to preserve ranch horses and their pedigrees. The goal was to ensure that the qualities of this breed were not left to deteriorate over time. 

Even though this breed is formally established, the appendix has remained open to Thoroughbred horses because of the close association between the two breeds.


American Quarter Horse Characteristics

The American Quarter Horse offers a strong stamina, a powerful chest, and a refined head. There is an intelligence behind the eyes, alert ears, and a curiosity that can sometimes get an independent horse into trouble. Most horses within this breed will stand 14.2-16 hands high, but some horses can exceed 17 hands, especially if they are outside of the stock-type of build.

These horses come in virtually all colors, but what is unique about them is that the most common coat color is sorrel. Many other breeds would consider this color to be a variation of chestnut. Bay, brown, and black are common within the breed as well. Spotted patterns are discouraged within the breed, but if DNA verification proves that both parents are registered Quarter Horses, a spotted foal will be accepted as well.

With the American Quarter Horse breed, there are three specific types that are recognized.

  • Stock Type. This horse is the type that is suited for working with livestock. They have a sense for working specifically with cattle. These Quarter Horses tend to have powerful legs and hindquarters, giving them the ability to make quick movements and agile turns. They are a little taller, have a smoother gait, and a topline that is close to level.
  • Halter Type. This horse is the type that is built more for driving and strength-based competitive events. These Quarter Horses tend to be more muscular than the other types. They have a smaller head as well, wider jowls, and a muzzle that appears more chiseled. These horses may weigh 200-400 pounds more than the standard Quarter Horse as well.
  • Racing Type. This horse is bred for pure speed. They have long legs, a lean profile, and powerful muscles in the hindquarters. Many have a profile that is like that of a Thoroughbred. They are primarily trained to race distances of up to 870 yards and then top performers retire into breeding programs.

The legs of the modern American Quarter Horse are quite sturdy. They shouldn’t be coarse, while their haunches and shoulders should have supportive musculature.

Temperament for the Quarter Horse is often linked to individualized lineage. Those who have heavy Thoroughbred influences tend to feature more hotblooded than warmblooded traits. Individuals with a history of Quarter Horse parentage over 2-3 generations tend to have more warmblooded traits.

Most are equally comfortable under the saddle for competitive events, recreational riding, or general working needs.

Health Concerns with the American Quarter Horse

There are several genetic conditions that affect the American Quarter Horse breed, partially due to the establishment of the modern lineage. A stallion named Impressive, foaled in 1969, was an appendix American Quarter Horse that was allowed full registry two years later. He became a World Champion in 1974, despite carrying just 48 halter points. His status created a high demand for studding and Impressive was prolific. He sired more than 2,250 foals, with 30 becoming World Champions in their own right.

Impressive also had HYPP, or hyperkalemic periodic paralysis.


HYPP can cause substantial muscle weakness, involuntary muscle twitches, and paralysis when active. It is a dominant gene, so only one parent is required to pass it along to a foal. DNA testing is available and required by the registry. Since 2007, some horses with the genetic disposition for HYPP have been excluded from the registry. 

Any horses with Impressive in their lineage must also have their status and risks of HYPP in their paperwork. The issue with this condition is that it can cause a seizure in the horse at any time. If a rider is under saddle and the seizure occurs, it could be dangerous for all parties involved.

American Quarter Horses are also highly susceptible to Malignant hyperthermia, which alters how the body of the horse supplies oxygen, regulates body temperature, and removes carbon dioxide. If not treated immediately in an effected horse, the condition can lead to circulatory collapse. Triggers for the condition include overworking the horse or stress.

These additional conditions are somewhat common within the American Quarter Horse community as well.

  • GBED – Glycogen Branching Enzyme Deficiency.
  • EPSM – Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy.
  • HERDA – Hereditary Equine Regional Dermal Asthenia.
  • Lethal White Syndrome.

With proactive testing and immediate treatment, many of the concerns that these issues present can be managed or eliminated. For this reason, many Quarter Horse foals are tested to ensure their good health can be passed to future generations.

American Quarter Horses Continue to Grow in Popularity

Over the last two decades, the total registered global population of American Quarter Horses has grown by over 1 million individuals.

What makes this breed so popular is that it is so highly versatile. It is one of the few breeds that has managed to cement its place in the agricultural sector, despite continued advances in mechanization. If you go to the ranches of the US West, you are likely to find Quarter Horses working with livestock every day.

Their popularity is also due to their speed and agility, especially within the world of rodeo. Many world champions have come out of this breed in multiple disciplines, especially when cattle are involved in the sport. The intuition of these horses is unique and has helped homesteads to grow, ranchers to thrive, and families survive in sometimes difficult environments.

Despite their strength, stamina, and endurance, most Quarter Horses could be classified as an easy keeper. They are willing to work, love building social relationships within a herd and with humans, and enjoy competing in multiple events. 

For the quarter-mile event, you will not find a faster horse than the American Quarter Horse. They have established themselves as an integral part of US history because of their versatility and that has helped their popularity to grow throughout the world. 

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