The American Quarter Horse is an American breed of horse that excels at sprinting short distances. Its name came from its ability to outdistance other breeds of horse in races of a quarter mile or less, where some individuals have been clocked at speeds up to 55 mph. The American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the United States today, and the American Quarter Horse Association is the largest breed registry in the world, with over 3 million American Quarter Horses registered worldwide.
The American Quarter Horse is well known both as a race horse and for its performance in rodeos, horse shows and as a working ranch horse. The compact body of the American Quarter Horse is well-suited to the intricate and speedy maneuvers required in reining, cutting, working cow horse, barrel racing, calf roping, and other western riding events, especially those involving live cattle. The American Quarter Horse is also shown in English disciplines, driving, and many other equestrian activities.
In the 1600s, colonists on the eastern seaboard of what today is the United States began to cross imported English Thoroughbred horses with assorted "native" horses such as the Chickasaw horse (a breed developed by Native American people from horses descended from Spain, developed from Iberian, Arabian and Barb stock brought to what is now the Southeastern United States by the Conquistadors).
One of the most famous of these early imports was Janus, a Thoroughbred who was the grandson of the Godolphin Arabian. He was foaled in 1746, and imported to colonial Virginia in 1756. The influence of Thoroughbreds like Janus contributed genes crucial to the development of the colonial "Quarter Miler," or "Quarter Mile Horse." This was a speedy working man's racer, sometimes referred to as the "Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse." The resulting horse was small, hardy, and quick, and was used as a work horse during the week and a race horse on the weekends.
As flat racing became popular with the colonists, the Quarter Miler gained even more popularity as a sprinter over courses that, by necessity, were shorter than the classic racecourses of England, and were often no more than a straight stretch of road or flat piece of open land. When matched against a Thoroughbred, local sprinters often won. As the Thoroughbred breed became established in America, many colonial Quarter Mile mares were included in the original American stud books, starting a long association between the Thoroughbred breed and what would later become officially known as the "Quarter Horse," named after the distance at which it excelled, with some individuals being clocked at up to 55 mph.
Early foundation sires of Quarter horse type included Steel Dust, foaled 1843; Shiloh (or Old Shiloh), foaled 1844; Old Cold Deck (1862); Lock's Rondo, one of many "Rondo" horses, foaled in 1880; Old Billy -- again, one of many "Billy" horses -- foaled circa 1880; Traveler, a stallion of unknown breeding, known to have been in Texas by 1889; and Peter McCue, foaled 1895, registered as a Thoroughbred but of disputed pedigree.
The main duty of the ranch horse in the American West was working cattle. Even after the invention of the automobile, horses were still irreplaceable for handling livestock on the range. Thus, major Texas cattle ranches, such as the King Ranch, the 6666 (Four Sixes) Ranch, and the Waggoner Ranch played a significant role in the development of the modern Quarter Horse. The skills needed by ranch hands and their horses became the foundation of the rodeo, a contest which began with informal competition between cowboys and expanded to become a major competitive event throughout the west. To this day, the Quarter Horse dominates the sport both in speed events and in competition that emphasizes the handling of live cattle.
However, sprint races were also popular weekend entertainment and racing became a source of economic gain for breeders as well. As a result, more Thoroughbred blood was added back into the developing American Quarter Horse breed. The American Quarter Horse also benefitted from the addition of Arabian, Morgan and even Standardbred bloodlines.
In 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was formed by a group of horsemen and ranchers from the southwestern United States dedicated to preserving the pedigrees of their ranch horses. The horse honored with the first registration number, P-1, was Wimpy, a descendant of the King Ranch foundation sire Old Sorrel. Other foundation sires alive at the founding of the AQHA and given the earliest registration numbers included King P-234, Peppy, Leo P-1335, Joe Reed P-3, Poco Bueno, and Joe Hancock P-455. The Thoroughbred race horse Three Bars, alive in the early years of the AQHA, is recognized by the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame as one of the significant foundation sires for the Quarter Horse breed. Other significant Thoroughbred sires seen in early AQHA pedigrees include King Plaudit, Blob, Top Deck, Vandy and Truckle Feature.
Since Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred crosses continue to enter the official registry of the American Quarter Horse breed, this creates a continual gene flow from the Thoroughbred breed into the American Quarter Horse breed, which has altered many of the characteristics that typified the breed in the early years of its formation. Some breeders, who argue that the continued infusion of Thoroughbred bloodlines is beginning to compromise the integrity of the breed standard, favor the earlier style of horse, have created several separate organizations to promote and register "Foundation" Quarter Horses.
Open stud books are not uncommon: many Warmblood breeds admit horses of various bloodlines if they meet a conformational or performance standard; the Appaloosa has had an open registry to the Thoroughbred, Arabian and American Quarter Horse; the American Paint Horse has had an open registry to the American Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred, and the Criollo has had an open registry to the Chilean Horse. A newer breed, the Azteca, is a cross between the American Quarter Horse and Andalusian breeds, and still allows infusions from these sources.
The breed is not only well-suited for western riding and cattle work. Many race tracks offer Quarter Horses a wide assortment of pari-mutuel horse racing with purses in the millions. Quarter Horses have also been trained to compete in dressage and can be good jumpers. They are also used for recreational trail riding and in mounted police units.
The American Quarter Horse has also been exported worldwide. European nations such as Germany and Italy have imported large numbers of Quarter Horses. Next to the American Quarter Horse Association (which also encompasses Quarter Horses from Canada), the second largest registry of Quarter Horses is in Brazil, followed by Australia. With the internationalization of the discipline of reining and its acceptance as one of the official seven events of the World Equestrian Games, there is a growing international interest in Quarter Horses. Countries like Japan, Switzerland and Israel that did not have traditional stock horse industries have begun to compete with American Quarter Horses in their own nations and internationally. The American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the United States today, and the American Quarter Horse Association is the largest breed registry in the world, with over 3 million American Quarter Horses registered worldwide.
The modern Quarter Horse has a small, short, refined head with a straight profile, and a strong, well-muscled body, featuring a broad chest and powerful, rounded hindquarters. They usually stand between 14 and 16 hands high, although some Halter-type and English hunter-type horses may grow as tall as 17 hands.
There are two main body types: the stock type and the hunter or racing type. The stock horse type is shorter, more compact, stocky and well muscled, yet agile. The racing and hunter type Quarter Horses are somewhat taller and smoother muscled than the stock type, more closely resembling the Thoroughbred.
Quarter Horse race horses are bred to sprint short distances ranging from 220 to 870 yards. Thus, they have long legs and are leaner than their stock type counterparts, but are still characterized by muscular hindquarters and powerful legs. Quarter horses race primarily against other Quarter horses, and their sprinting ability has earned them the nickname, "the world's fastest athlete." The show hunter type is slimmer, even more closely resembling a Thoroughbred, usually reflecting a higher percentage of appendix breeding. They are shown in hunter/jumper classes at both breed shows and in open USEF-rated horse show competition.