American Quarter Horse: Breed Profile

American quarter horse gallops

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The American Quarter Horse, one of the most popular breeds in the world, traces its roots back to the 1600s. Descended from a mix of Arabian horses with mustangs, the American Quarter Horse is known for possessing a good temperament, lots of versatility, beauty, speed, agility, and loyalty. Quarter Horses make great mounts for all levels of riders and owners, as they tend to be friendly with people and easy to train. They are used as race horses, working ranch horses, and family pets.

Breed Overview

Weight: 950 to 1,200 pounds
Height: 14 hands (56 inches) to 16 hands (64 inches)
Body Type: Muscular body; deep chest; small head with wide forehead and flat profile
Best For: Working, family, and show
Life Expectancy: 25 years

American Quarter Horse History and Origins

The American Quarter Horse descends from Spanish and English horses that were imported into the American colonies in the 1600s. These horses were crossed with native breeds, including the Chickasaw horse and the Mustang. This pairing created a shorter, more sturdy horse that was well suited for the terrain and work of the new American frontier.

The Quarter Horse name is derived from the breed’s dominance in quarter-mile length races. The Quarter Horse has the ability to outrun other horse breeds in races of a quarter mile or less. Some horses have been clocked at speeds up to 55 mph (88.5 km/h).

Horses are also known for being sure-footed and reliable mounts. Their level-headed disposition and eagerness to please make them ideal for working with cattle and other livestock.

Later in American history, the Quarter Horse played a large role in the pioneers' westward expansion. The breed's agility proved invaluable to cowboys, farmers, and those who needed reliable transportation over rough terrain. Although the breed has existed since the 1600s, the American Quarter Horse Association registry wasn't established until 1940.

American Quarter Horse Size

Quarter Horses range in size but are compact and typically stand between 14 hands (56 inches) and 16 hands (64 inches) in height. They have a sturdy build and come in many colors, though sorrel (brownish red) is the most common. The addition of Thoroughbred bloodlines over the years has contributed to an overall increase in height. Weights of 950 to 1,200 pounds or more are common in this bulky breed. This has prompted some concern about the skeletal strain of such a weight-to-frame ratio.

American Quarter Horse Uses

The exceptionally versatile American Quarter Horse excels as a working, family, and show horse. These horses are equally comfortable on the trail, on the farm, or in the show ring.

Throughout history, Quarter Horses have been very popular as mounts to help maneuver cattle and pull wagons. In modern times, their abilities shine in rodeo events, such as reining (in which the rider guides the horse through a pattern of circles, spins, and other movements) and team ​penning (in which riders herd specified cattle into a pen). Their powerful haunches and agility make them an ideal choice to gather strays from herds of cattle on the ranch as well as fierce competitors in cutting horse competitions. Their short bursts of speed allow them to excel in races, both flat course, and barrel races.

Colors and Markings

American Quarter Horses come in a variety of solid colors, as well as roan, palomino, gray, grullo, buckskin, and dun. The brownish-red sorrel is the color most commonly seen in the breed. White markings on the face and legs are common. Spotted patterns are accepted in the American Quarter Horse Association registry, as long as owners can prove both the sire and dam were registered quarter horses.

Unique Characteristics of the American Quarter Horse

The compact, muscular silhouette of the quarter horse is unmistakable. Its appearance exudes the steadiness that makes it a solid choice for various roles. Quarter Horses are sure-footed and agile, even at high speeds. They are especially known for their "cow sense"—an instinctive skill for maneuvering cattle.

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Diet and Nutrition

Like all horses, American Quarter Horses require a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water in their diet. It is important to remember that each horse is an individual, and like humans, each will have specific nutritional needs. Though breeds share many characteristics in common, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for Quarter Horses.

Most domesticated horses are fed a mix of hay and grain. Hay types that are available vary from region to region and a veterinarian should always be consulted to make an appropriate diet for each horse. The horse's age, body condition score, and activity level must all be taken into consideration. Treats, such as carrots and apples, can be given in moderation.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

American Quarter Horses typically have a pleasant disposition and are highly trainable, gentle, and eager to please. However, there are some health issues that they are prone to that should be noted, including:

  • Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP): HYPP is a genetic condition that has unfortunately been passed down in the Quarter Horse lineage. A horse affected by HYPP suffers from muscle tremors, weakness, and shaking. HYPP results from a mutation in the horse's sodium channels located in the muscle. The defect in the sodium channel causes neurotransmitters to leak out inappropriately which results in the muscles contracting involuntarily in the presence of high blood potassium. Choosing low potassium feeds and avoiding alfalfa can help manage the disease, but these horses should not be bred.
  • Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSM): PSM is a genetic condition that results in an abnormal accumulation of glycogen in the horse's muscles. The disease causes episodes of muscle stiffness and pain, which are more likely to occur after exercise. Quarter Horses with PSM are often reluctant to move and have tight, spasming muscles, especially in the hind end. Horses that are diagnosed with PSM should not be bred since it may have a genetic basis.
  • Malignant hyperthermia: This is a genetic condition that makes a horse at high risk of having an adverse reaction to anesthesia. Horses with malignant hyperthermia in their lineage should be genetically tested prior to anesthesia.

Grooming

Daily grooming can help an American Quarter Horse maintain a healthy coat and healthy skin. Before a ride, brush the legs, face, girth, and saddle areas to ensure the horse is comfortable and all the oils have been evenly distributed on its body. Grooming a horse after riding can also help distribute the oils and sweat, especially in the summer. Tails and manes should also be thoroughly brushed to remove tangles and debris.

Champion and Celebrity American Quarter Horses

The American Quarter Horse Association maintains the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas. Visitors can view photos and paintings of famous Quarter Horses, as well as various displays showcasing the breed's history. Hall of Fame inductees include hundreds of horses and people who have been instrumental in shaping the breed. Among them are:

  • Wimpy: The first stallion listed in the American Quarter Horse Association registry
  • Poco Bueno: The first quarter horse ever to be insured for $100,000
  • Doc Bar: Figured into prominent pedigrees around the world
  • Easy Jet: Had a highly successful racing career

Another well-known horse—more infamous than famous—was Impressive, who passed on the breed's propensity for hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. All foals known to be descendants of a horse that carries this condition should be tested.

Is the American Quarter Horse Right for You?

With a calm, gentle demeanor, this breed may be a good choice for families and beginning riders. It is important to always match the desired lifestyle and work to the individual horse's temperament and health. American Quarter Horses typically have a steady temperament and are willing to learn their jobs. From ranch work to competition, as well as trail riding and fun, these horses can do it all.

Pros

  • Calm and friendly
  • Great working cow horse
  • Good for trail and pleasure riding

Cons

  • No obvious cons to this breed

How to Buy an American Quarter Horse

The most essential thing to do when looking to purchase an American Quarter Horse is to find a professional horse trainer that you trust. The trainer can help find suitable matches for you as well as aid you in evaluating potential purchases. How much you will need to spend on an American Quarter Horse is highly variable and dependent on what purpose you need the horse for, age, health, and breeding.

When you have found a horse that you are interested in, spend plenty of time with the horse and ask it to perform the functions you will want to do with it after purchase. It is highly recommended to have a licensed veterinarian perform a comprehensive pre-purchase examination to identify any possible illness or lameness issues, and to determine the horse's suitability for the desired use of the purchaser.

Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. History of the Quarter Horse. American Quarter Horse Association. 2020. Accessed June 8, 2022

  2. Feeding the Quarter Horse. Performance Horse Nutrition. 2021. Accessed June 8, 2022

  3. Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysys. University of Minnesota. 2021. Accessed June 8, 2022

  4. Young, A. Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine. 2020. Accessed June 2, 2022

  5. Young, A. Malignant Hyperthermia. UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine. 2020. Accessed June 8, 2022