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.
Weight: Between 950 and 1,200 pounds
Height: Range from about 14 hands (57 inches) to 15 hands (60 inches)
Body Type: Medium-boned, finely chiseled heads, wide foreheads, and flat profiles
Best for: Working, family, and show
Life Expectancy: 25 to 35 years
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.
American Quarter Horse Size
Quarter Horses range in size from about 14.3 hands to 15.3 hands. 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.
Breeding and 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.
Colors 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 makes 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.
Diet and Nutrition
American Quarter Horses require a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins, and water in their diet. They can sustain healthily on fresh grass, hay, rolled oats, and other grains like barley and bran. As a rule of thumb, you should feed your horse at least one percent of its body weight, and specifically with American quarter horses, you will need to feed it between one and a half and two percent of its body weight. That means a 1,000-pound horse requires 15 to 20 pounds of food per day.
You can feed your American quarter horse treats like carrots and apples.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
American quarter horses are prone to genetic diseases such as:
Polysaccharide storage myopathy: A disease caused by a defect that affects more than 10 percent of quarter horses as well as other breeds
Malignant hyperthermia: A disease that is triggered by extreme stress, use of anesthetic halothane, and muscle relaxant treatments. It can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, muscle tissue breakdown, and sometimes even death.
Generally, daily grooming can help your American quarter horse maintain a healthy coat and clear skin. Before a ride, for example, make sure to brush the legs, face, girth, and saddle areas to ensure your horse is comfortable and all the oils have been evenly distributed on their body. Grooming your horse after riding can also help distribute the oils and sweat that your horse may have garnered from riding, especially in the summer.
You can use a detangler to brush out your American quarter horse's tail, which will make it bushier and more adept at swatting away flies. In the winter, you can use a waterless shampoo to clean, condition, and detangle your horse's mane and tail.
Calm and gentle demeanor
Can be "easy keepers" once trained
Can develop chronic lameness if overworked or overridden
Disproportionate body weight to frame ratio, making it prone to a number of health concerns
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.
How to Adopt or Buy an American Quarter Horse
When thinking about adopting or buying this horse, keep in mind a few factors, including reputable breeders and organizations, price ranges, and how to know that the horse you'd like to bring home is as healthy as advertised.
The purchase price to adopt or buy an American quarter horse ranges widely from $1,000 to $4,000, the median purchase price for an American quarter horse being $2,700. Pricing is dependent on the age, shape, and health of the horse, as well as any notable characteristics, lineage, and whether it is adopted or purchased.
When choosing a breeder or adoption agency, be sure to look out for any red flags. For rescues, check that the organization is a registered non-profit with a 501(c)(3) status, which means the organization had to go through more checks to be considered safe and legit. As for adoption agencies and breeders, also, make sure you can receive documentation on where the horse was bred, its lineage, and any health history. If none of this can be provided, you should consider checking into the organization.
Spend plenty of time with the horse while it's still in the hands of the organization, so that you can get to know it and make sure it's as healthy as the organization says. You don't want to end up bringing home a special needs horse when you are not prepared to care for one.
More Horse Breeds
If you're interested in similar breeds to the American quarter horse, check out: