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HorseShowCentral > Horse Breeds > Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse - Horse Breed & Info

Characteristics of the Quarter Horse Quarter Horse Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

The Quarter Horse was developed in Colonial America, where the sport of quarter mile racing or short racing was popular, especially in the Carolinas and Virginia. Race tracks did not exist and roads often had twists, so a short race was ideal, often on Main Street.

Quarter Milers, Quarter Racers were named so because of their domination of short racing, and because the quarter mile was a popular distance.


Quarter Horses were developed on the basis of Indian horses, especially the Chickasaws horses, which were of Spanish origin, plus imported stallions from old England.

The Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred were closely associated in the United States during the early development of both breeds. Thoroughbreds became a recognized breed much earlier than did Quarter Horses, but when the first imports arrived from England, the Thoroughbred had not yet been standardized as a breed and the imports were not uniform in type.

During the time of these importations, horses were already in the United States and already had a genetic history and a performance history that reached much farther back in America than that of the new imports from England. Of course, before the Quarter Horse became an established breed, it would require the blood of some of these imports plus that of the existing American horse to be joined.

Something of interest to note is that the Thoroughbred was developed partly with blood from English native horses, partly with Spanish (Iberian) blood (the Royal Mares were mostly of Iberian blood), and then with line breeding to the three Foundation Sires. The early Chickawaw horses were also of Spanish blood.


A distinct conformation type that became known as bull dog type and as the trademark of the Quarter Horse breed came from Janus, the most famous of those imported stallions. Janus, was a grandson of the Godolphin Barb, credited as the first foundation sire of the Thoroughbred. He and his sons not only established this particular conformation type, but also sired the fastest sprint racers.

It is important to note that, while some Thoroughbred sires contributed strongly to Quarter Horses, it is also true that Quarter Mile Running Horses , as the breed was called then, in turn contributed to the development of the Thoroughbred in America. Some of the Thoroughbred sires which later became influential in the bloodlines of the Quarter Horse had inherited their early speed , their sprinting qualities, from their early American Quarter Running Horse ancestors!

In the first two volumes of Bruce’s studbooks (The American Studbook, N.Y., 1873), and in in Edgar’s Studbook (The American Race Turf Register, N.Y. 1833) many horses were included that were formerly registered as C.A.Q.R.H. (Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse) and F.A.Q.R.H. (Famous American Quarter Running Horse) or C.A.Q.R.M. (Celebrated American Quarter Running Mare).


The American style of short racing required a horse to get away quickly, to have early speed . Muscular hindquarters evolved as a conformation trait, that could reach under the body near the center of gravity and propel the body forward in the blink of an eye. The Quarter Horse is able to break so fast that it reaches its top speed within two or three strides. It is the fastest horse on the planet in absolute speed, and still the fastest horse over the quarter mile distance.

Most short distance runners, were ordinary work horses during the week, and then entered in a match race on Sunday, or whenever somebody offered a lucrative bet. Quarter Horses were therefore selected not only for speed, but also for soundness and an easy-going disposition. Starting boxes did not exist, races were started in different ways, but mostly lap and tap, and a slow starter or one too high strung, could have put his jockey in a disadvantageous situation and lose precious seconds at the start that might prove impossible to regain.

When long-distance racing in the European fashion became popular in the American East, Quarter Horses moved westward with the settlers, and enthusiasm for short racing also moved westward. As soon as short racing took hold, famous Quarter Horse stallions found their way into the Midwest and then further west. These horses also found new jobs out west, particularly as a ranch horse, and Texas especially became an early cradle for the new breed.

Out west, the Quarter racers were often bred to Spanish cow pony mares, and thus the breed got another shot in the arm of Spanish blood. Soon it became obvious that these horses were ideal ranch horses. While even in the late 19th century, they were already bred especially to win short races, most by then had jobs as cowboys mounts. The Quarter Horse was often preferred over the mustang, because they offered more size, more power on the end of a rope, more speed (you can t have too much of that when working cows), and they also simply filled a horseman’s eye better than most mustangs that were left. The mustang by then had degenerated for a number of reasons.


Working cattle, Quarter Horses were selected for level-headedness, but again also for agility. To turn on a dime and give some change was and still is a necessity for a cow horse.

By the turn of the century, the Quarter Horse had emerged as a definite breed in the West, but as yet no attempt had been made to found a registry and studbook for this breed. Records were most often kept privately if kept at all , as was both typical and befitting for the independently thinking westerners.

By the early years of the 20th century, much cross-breeding had occurred to improve local stock whenever opportunity permitted and this practice of cross-breeding so heavily began to threaten the existence of the breed with deterioration, It was then that a handful of dedicated breeders got together and founded the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) in 1940 in Texas.

There were several options as far as the breed name was concerned Quarter Racer, Quarter Running Horse, Billy Horse, Steeldust Horse would all have made sense (Steeldust was arguably the most prominent sire in the 19th century and beyond, and Steeldusts was a synonym for Quarter Horses ) but the founders voted as they did in honor of the breed’s beginnings as a Quarter Mile Running Horse.

The goal of the association was to save the breed from extinction, but what happened was that this horse became so popular that the American Quarter Horse Association became the largest breed registry in the world.


In the AQHA there was huge conflict was between hardliners, or purists, and breeders of racing Quarter Horses, which by the mid-20th century used more and more Thoroughbred (T.B.), and won with those products! There is only one thing that counts in breeding racing horses, and that is wins. When a mode was found that accommodated the racing breeders and made T.B. crosses acceptable, it opened up the breed and the stage was set for unprecedented growth of the Quarter Horse breed.

So after the foundation of the AQHA, branches of the breed pursued their own directions in the second half of the 20th century. A specialization took place, especially within the last few decades, that is without precedent. While even in the second half of the 20th century AQHA advertised its breed as the most versatile in the world , because it was indeed the unique quality of Quarter Horses to excel in all kinds of events, this is no longer true.

The all-around horse today is hard to find in the breed. It is not so much the individual Quarter Horse anymore but rather the specialized branches held together by AQHA that still cover a very wide variety of events. The most specialized breeding industries within the AQHA world are racing, cutting, western pleasure, halter, and reining, not necessarily in that order. Specialization has taken place to an extent that animals from one end of the spectrum might be completely incapable on the other end.

Between cutting and reining Quarter Horses, there is much overlapping, and in this case it is the same bloodlines that excel; only the events are extremely specialized in their rules and challenges.


The typical American Quarter Horse is a medium-sized, heavily-muscled horse. There is no other package of refinement and power in the world of horses that comes close. There is no other light horse breed that offers so much horse per inch at the withers, and no other breed that combines muscling and power with so much refinement and agility.

The typical head is shaped like a triangle from the side straight profile, small, firm muzzle, big, powerful jaws. Viewed from the front, Quarter Horses have a broad forehead that already has bulging muscling, and the big jaws are even wider, particularly in stallions. The eyes of a Quarter Horse are expressive and kind, ears small.

The neck is slim, of medium length and fairly straight, with a clean throatlatch, and no crest. The withers should be prominent, reaching far into the broad and powerful back, which in turn is closely coupled with the powerful hindquarters. The hindquarters are often spectacular, with breeches more powerful than in any other breed. Here, the stifle muscling is emphasized, which makes the stifle the widest part of the animal.

Many confuse the Quarter Horse’s muscling as being a draft horse trait. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The is practically no known draft blood in the Quarter Horse, and while draft blood cannot be ruled out in any breed prior to stud book records, the muscling of a draft horse is quite different from that of the Quarter Horse’s. The draft horse’s mass is made up to a large degree by massive bones, and partly by muscle, but its muscling is different, and the hindquarters are a good example: Draft horses have their widest part at the hip bones and taper down, while good Quarter Horses, as mentioned, are at least as wide at the stifle, typically even wider. The cloven rump is also a trait of the draft horse. While fat Quarter Horse babies may show a little of that, mature horses hardly ever do. The breed’s conformation could be summed up as like an extremely muscled Thoroughbred.

Still staying with the rear end, another trait the breeder is looking for is that the gaskin muscles are as much developed on the inside as on the outside.

The chest is fairly wide, although should never be extremely wide, as that would hinder fluent movements and agility. The shoulder of good Quarter Horses slope nicely, forearms show muscling consistent with the rest of the horse. Lots of heart girth is desired.

The frame of the Quarter Horse is not square, but rectangular, that is, the top line is shorter than the bottom line. The rectangular shape is not due to a long back, but due to a long, sloping shoulder and a long, sloping hip. Shoulder, back, and hip should be of equal length to give the horse the balance it needs.

Quarter Horses often have hooves that are small compared to the size of the horse, or compared with other breeds. They are about the size of a Thoroughbred, only the rest of the horse is heavier-muscled. If they are shaped correctly and the Quarter Horse is structurally correct, they will hold up well, though. The breed has also a tendency towards downhill individuals that do not have enough withers and are higher at the hip than at the withers. The days of the mutton-withered Quarter Horses are over, though, and most of today’s horses are at least level.

The outstanding traits of the breed are the soft attitude willingness to please - athletic ability, and cow sense. While cow sense is not important to the vast majority of horse owners, it is a must to note that there simply is no other breed that can hold a candle to the Quarter Horse when it comes to cow work, especially cutting.

Also, no other breed has been able to get a foothold in the sport of reining, which is totally dominated by Quarter Horses. Both, cutting and reining, have their proportionate number of highly successful Paint Horses, but then the Paint Horse as a breed, is bred for the same purposes and based on the same bloodlines, except with extensive white markings. In fact, there are many horses that are double-registered, AQHA and APHA.

Reining CompetitionQuarter Horse CuttingHorse RacingWestern Pleasure
Photos left to right show the dynamic action of Quarter Horses in reining, cutting, racing (race photo courtesy of AQHA), and western pleasure competition. The photo below displays the extraordinary conformation of the breed, as does the photo at the top of this page.

Quarter Horse Conformation

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos ©Oelke or Oelke Archive unless otherwise stated. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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