The American Quarter Horse

Two American Quarter Horses standing in a pasture.
American Quarter Horses can carry the gene for HYPP. Ken Gillespie Photography/First Light/Getty Images

The American Quarter Horse is North America's most popular horse breed, also ranking among the oldest. With more than 5 million registered American Quarter Horses worldwide, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) is the world's largest breed registry.

The breed's popularity stems from its many positive attributes—among them, its gentle nature, versatility, beauty, speed, agility, and loyalty.

American Quarter Horse History and Origins

The American Quarter Horse descends from the Spanish and English horses used in the American colonies in the 1600s. The breed's name owes to its fast performance in quarter-mile races that the colonists held in Virginia and Rhode Island. Its sure-footedness and grace even when running at such great speeds made it an early favorite among settlers. Later, the Quarter Horse played an enormous role in the American frontier's westward expansion; the breed's endurance and agility proved invaluable to cowboys, pioneers, and farmers, as well as those who needed reliable, stable transportation in tough terrain.

Quarter Horses are a mixture of Arabian, Spanish, and English-bred horses. Because their lineage includes a bit of draft horse, they are known as warmbloods (like Morgans and Canadians). Although the breed has existed since the 1600s, the American Quarter Horse Registry wasn't established until 1940.

 There are 11 foundation Quarter Horse bloodlines; these 11 families are the ancestors of all Quarter Horses around the world. The introduction of Thoroughbred bloodlines has created the leggier “Appendix" and compact reining types within the breed.

Body Type

These hardy horses are medium-boned, with finely chiseled heads, wide foreheads, and flat profiles.

Their legs are sturdy without being coarse, and their shoulders and haunches are heavy and muscular. The infusion of Thoroughbred bloodlines has influenced the look and temperament of some Quarter Horses. Foundation Quarter Horses are bred to remain true to the original Quarter Horse type, which was used for cattle work on the open range.

American Quarter Horse Size and LIfespan

Quarter Horses range in size from about 14.3 HH to 15.3 HH. The introduction of Thoroughbred bloodlines has contributed to an increase in height. “Appendix” Quarter Horses standing up to 16 HH and more are not unusual now.

Weights of 1,200 pounds and greater are common in this massively built, sturdy breed, prompting concern in some circles about the skeletal strain of such a weight-to-frame ratio.

Uses

This exceptionally versatile American Quarter Horse excels as a working, family, and show horse, equally comfortable on the trail and on the farm. They were once very popular as working cow horses because of their renowned "cow sense"; in modern times, their abilities shine in rodeo events such as reining, cutting, team ​penning, ​and speed games. Their powerful haunches help with quick departs to gather strays from herds of cattle, and propel them quickly yet deftly around the barrels in barrel races.

Quarter Horse racing—more like sprints than the Thoroughbred races with which most people are familiar—remains an exhilarating sport with tracks across North America. Speeds of up to 55 miles per hour have been recorded during these short, intense Quarter Horse races. Whether under saddle or in the harness, their steady dispositions make them ideal beginner and family horses.

Color and Markings

Quarter Horses come in a variety of solid colors, roans, palominos, grays, grullos, buckskins, and duns. Spotted horses and pintos are accepted in the AQHA registry, as long as owners can prove that both the sires and dams of their horses were registered Quarter Horses. Markings such as stockings, stars, stripes, and blazes are common.

Unique Characteristics of the American Quarter Horse

The compact, muscular silhouette of the foundation-type Quarter Horse is unmistakable.

Its appearance exudes the strength and steadiness that make it such a solid choice for so many situations. They're sure-footed and agile, even as they race at high speeds over short distances. Quarter Horses are especially known for their "cow sense"—a natural, instinctive skill in working with cows. This intuitive nature and underlying intelligence make them easy to train.

Champion and Celebrity American Quarter Horses

As evidence of equestrians' love of the American Quarter Horse, AQHA created and maintains the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas. Visitors to the museum can view photos and paintings of famous Quarter Horses, as well as various displays showcasing the breed's anatomy, history, attributes, honors, and storied place in American culture. Its Hall of Fame inductees include hundreds of horses and people who have been instrumental in shaping the breed; they're selected from nominations each year by a committee and honored each March. Among them are:

  • Wimpy: The first stallion listed in the AQHA registry
  • Poco Bueno: The first Quarter Horse ever to be insured for $100,000. He garnered several championships as a yearling and moved onto a successful cutting career in 1948.
  • Doc Bar: Bred for racing but never attained success. When his offspring excelled as cutting horses, however, he earned a reputation as a performance sire and figures into prominent pedigrees the world over.
  • Easy Jet: Proved indefatigable as a 2-year-old, winning 22 out of 26 starts. Even after having raced extensively, he remained strong and sound.

Another well-known horse, more infamous than famous, was Impressive, who passed on a condition known as hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). All foals known to be descendants of a horse that carries this condition must be tested. HYPP is a hazard because it causes occasional seizure-like symptoms, before which there are no warnings; these episodes can occur while the horse is being handled or ridden, posing a danger to anyone working with or riding it.

Is the American Quarter Horse Right for You?

With a calm, gentle demeanor, this breed is the ideal choice for families and beginning riders. American Quarter Horses are blessed with a steady temperament, but this does not mean they are slow to learn. Their intuitive nature makes them easy to train for ranch work or competition such as roping and cutting. The same is true for more recreational purposes: They need very little guidance from riders once trained and tend to be "easy keepers" that thrive on good pasture or hay. 

More Horse Breeds

If you’re interested in similar breeds, check out:

Also, take a look at our other horse breed profiles.