What Is a Quarter Horse?

What Is a Quarter Horse?

Known for speed, athleticism and trainability, the American Quarter Horse is incredibly versatile. Learn how the world’s most popular horse breed came to be.

Orren Mixer's painting of the ideal American Quarter Horse

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

Compiled by Tara Matsler

The American Quarter Horse is one of the oldest recognized breeds of horses in the United States. Today, with more than 6 million horses registered, the American Quarter Horse Association is the world’s largest equine breed registry, making the American Quarter Horse the world’s most popular horse breed.

The requirement of speed and dependability has long been a tenet of the breed. At its April 22, 1940, meeting, the AQHA Executive Committee established:

“All Quarter Horses must be able to run a quarter of a mile in twenty-three seconds, or show that they are capable of Quarter Horse Performance under ranch conditions.”

But what exactly is a Quarter Horse? 

Breeds That Make Up a Quarter Horse

To trace the Quarter Horse’s origin, we go back to the first millennium, to the creation of the Spanish Barb, the ancestor of the American mustang. The 1600s then saw crosses between native American horses of Spanish origin and English horses imported to Virginia.

710 A.D. – Spanish Barb Created 

  • This breed was a cross between the North African Barb and native Spanish stock. 
  • The Spanish Barb was created during the Moorish invasion of Spain.

1500s – Spanish Barbs Brought to Florida

  • Spanish explorers landed in Florida in the early 1500s. 
  • Hernán Cortez rode Spanish Barbs in the conquest of Mexico. 
  • Francisco Vásquez de Coronado rode Spanish Barbs as he searched for the golden cities in the American Southwest. 
  • These horses were later obtained by Native Americans.

1611 – English Stock Horses Crossed With Chickasaw Horses

  • American Colonists began crossing their hardy English stock horses with speedy Chickasaw horses (descendants from Spanish Barbs). 
  • This breeding became known as the "Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse." 
  • Colonists raced through the main streets of small villages, which was usually one-quarter of a mile. 
  • And thus began the American Quarter Horse: named such for its sprinting prowess at one-quarter of a mile.
  • More influence on the Quarter Horse breed was to come.

1752 – Janus Arrives in Virginia

  • In 1728, a stallion known as The Godolphin Arabian was imported to England. He was one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred. 
  • In 1752, looking to add the stamina to short sprinters, John Randolph of Virginia imported Janus, a grandson of The Godolphin Arabian. 

1844 – Steel Dust Comes to Texas

  • Steel Dust was a descendant of Sir Archy.
  • Cowboys loved Steel Dust's offspring. "Steeldusts" were intelligent, displaying lightning speed, heavily muscled and offered great cow sense.
  • Referred to these types of horses as "Steeldusts."

Read more about the history of the American Quarter Horse.

The Genetic Makeup of the Quarter Horse Breed 

Spanish Barb (from Chickasaws) 
+ English stock (draft-type)       
+ Thoroughbred (imported from England) 
+ Mustang (from west of the Mississippi)
= the American Quarter Horse

Facts About the American Quarter Horse

  • More than 6 million horses have been registered by AQHA, making the American Quarter Horse the world’s most popular horse breed.
  • The Quarter Horse name is derived from the breed’s 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). 
  • Quarter Horses are the preferred horses of American ranchers, with the world renown King Ranch and Four Sixes Ranch – among many others – raising impressive remudas.
  • Quarter Horses dominate rodeo timed events. In team roping, barrel racing, tie-down roping and steer wrestling, the top horses you’ll see in professional rodeo and at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo are Quarter Horses. 
  • Quarter Horses also dominate in reining, the only western sport to have ever been added to the FEI World Equestrian Games.
  • It’s not just racing, ranching and western events in which Quarter Horses excel – Quarter Horses compete in a wide range of events, from jumping to dressage. 

Read on for more Quarter Horses and AQHA facts.

What Does a Quarter Horse Look Like? 

Since the inception of the registry, AQHA has held halter classes to judge horses on their conformation proximity to the breed ideal. The AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations, specifically Rule SHW350, states that the ideal American Quarter Horse shown at halter is a horse that is generally considered to be solid in color and possesses the following characteristics: 

  • The horse should possess eye appeal that is the result of a harmonious blending of an attractive head.
  • Refined throat latch.
  • Well-proportioned, trim neck.
  • Long, sloping shoulder.
  • Deep heart girth.
  • Short back.
  • Strong loin and coupling.
  • Long hip and croup.
  • Well-defined and muscular stifle, gaskin, forearm and chest. 
  • All stallions 2 years old and over shall have two visible testicles. 
  • These characteristics should be coupled with straight and structurally correct legs and feet that are free of blemishes. 
  • The horse should be a balanced athlete that is muscled uniformly throughout.

Quarter Horses come in a wide array of colors, from classic sorrel to stunning buckskin and eye-catching blue roan. Learn more about Quarter Horse colors.

Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds: Appendix Quarter Horses

A Quarter Horse can be crossed with a Thoroughbred. The resulting offspring is eligible for the Appendix registry. The dam and/or sire must be registered with AQHA and/or The Jockey Club. Acceptable crosses:

  • Quarter Horse (sire) x Thoroughbred (dam)
  • Thoroughbred (sire) x Quarter Horse (dam)

The Thoroughbred is the only outcross that is accepted into the AQHA registry. All other horses must have both a dam and sire that are registered American Quarter Horses. 

Learn more about Appendix Quarter Horses.

American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer Walter Merrick explains the differences between Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

What Quarter Horses Are Used For?

The Quarter Horse is known as the world’s most versatile horse, because it excels in such a wide range of disciplines.

In show competition, you’ll find Quarter Horses competing at AQHA and all-breed events in western, English and halter. Some classes include:

  • Reining
  • Cutting
  • Western pleasure
  • Trail
  • Western riding
  • Hunter under saddle
  • Jumping
  • Working hunter
  • Pleasure driving
  • Showmanship
  • Halter

Learn more about AQHA show classes.

Because of their amazing nature and dependability, Quarter Horses are often used in equine assisted activities and therapies, as well as Equestrians With Disabilities classes.