Quarter Horses are everywhere. You see them at boarding stables, in backyards, in the show ring, on dude ranches. They are living fixtures in the American equine landscape, and are the most populous breed in this country, and the world. 

But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1800s, the Quarter Horse was nothing more than a good sprinter and a humble working cow horse, admired by those who worked closely with him, but little-known outside of certain circles. It has been a long, hard climb to the top, but all along, this tenacious horse had all the ingredients it took to succeed.

The Quarter Horse’s story starts long before our country was even born. Colonists in the 1690s began crossing imported English horses to the Chickasaw, a rare breed still in existence today. Originating from Spanish stock that was brought to the New World and later adopted by the Chickasaw Indian tribe of the Southeast, these short, muscular horses were traded to the colonists, who bred them to their more refined English stock. The result was a hardy, fast and willing little horse that was a great worker during the week and a speedy racehorse on the weekends.

The sport of racing on short straightaways became more and more popular as the decades wore on, and this distinct horse gained quite a reputation. When the Thoroughbred was later developed and matched against this small horse, people discovered his speed over short distances. It was not long before the breed became known as the Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse, known as the C.A.Q.R.H. for short.

Besides being the fastest breed at a quarter mile, this horse soon became the horse of choice for yet another job. By the early 1800s, the demand for a rugged and willing horse to help conquer the newly explored American West put the Quarter Horse in good stead. Hitched to covered wagons and saddled for cross-country treks, the Quarter Horse was asked to bring settlers past the Mississippi into the frontier West.  

It was around this time that the Quarter Horse’s almost uncanny connection to cattle was discovered. As vast herds of longhorns spread throughout the newly settled land, the Quarter Horse was used to work them. Here cowboys discovered that the breed retained the legacy of its Spanish ancestor, the Andalusian, who had worked cattle in Spain for centuries. Quarter Horses seemed to have an innate ability to read a cow’s mind, to figure out what the cow was going to do long before she even knew it herself. Hence the breed became famous not only for its speed, but for its cow sense, too.

After the turn of the century, cattlemen continued to breed this amazing little horse. Finally, in 1940, when the days of the Old West were all but gone, a group of horsemen came together to officially preserve the breed they called the Quarter Horse. Ranchers had been quietly breeding Quarter Horses for their own uses up until now, but they wanted to provide this horse with the recognition that they felt it deserved in the horse world. The breed was later mingled with Thoroughbreds, but only for a short time. The association eventually closed the books to all other breeds. Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred crosses can still be registered with the AQHA, but only as Appendix Quarter Horses.

The founding Quarter Horses of those early years of the AQHA stamped a distinct look upon the breed. Stocky, heavy muscling was necessary for the type of work the Quarter Horse was doing—roping cattle, running sprints—and this conformation was a part of the breed’s early ancestry. A small head and a short tail were two of the breed’s telltale characteristics.

Today, the Quarter Horse is a bit less stocky. A move toward horses that were less “bulldoggy” than those of the past has taken place over the last 40 years. But the modern Quarter Horse still sports compact muscling; powerful hindquarters; a short back; a well-muscled neck; and a broad, deep chest. Its head is also still short and refined, with tiny ears and wide set eyes, although the days of short tails are gone.

The Quarter Horse comes in a wide array of colors, including buckskin, palomino, blue roan, red roan, gray, bay, chestnut, grullo, brown, dun and sorrel.

Height in the breed varies somewhat. Some Quarter Horses are small and compact like their ancestors of long ago, measuring in at 14.3 hands. Quarter Horses bearing more Thoroughbred blood in their pedigrees sometimes come in as high as 16 hands or more.

These days, Quarter Horses are seen in just about every discipline, from western sports to dressage and jumping. Although the breed is well known for its athleticism, it’s also famous for its most valuable trait: its disposition. The Quarter Horse is the most willing, easy-going, even-tempered of all the breeds. He can chase cattle in the morning and give rides to babies in the afternoon. He can spend 12 hours in a trailer and cover 50 miles of trails the very next day. He can test in dressage one morning and sail over fences the next. Whatever it is, the Quarter Horse gives it his all. He quietly obliges whatever you ask of him, and he never, ever says no.