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The Quarter Horse: An American Icon

By Audrey Pavia

Published in Horse Illustrated, 1997

The breeze is blowing gently as your horse walks quietly along the trail. Yellow pine and ponderosa tower above you as Stellar jays caw among the trees. Your horse's ears barely move to the sounds of the forest: rushing water over rocks, the whooshing of leaves in the wind. He is calm and relaxed as you both take in the beauty of the alpine summer.

It is at this moment of perfect hush that it happens. In a split second, the stillness is shattered by a crashing in the brush. Your horse stops, his head up, his ears forward. Your body tightens, and you prepare for him to bolt.
Just then, a doe and her fawn leap from the trees and dash across your path, a mere 15 feet ahead of where you are standing. Your horse is tense, but he does not react. He is able to discern the difference between friend and foe, between real threat and imagined. He stands as steady as the rocky peaks in the distance, as sure of himself as the sun in the sky. And it's no wonder. He is, after all, a Quarter Horse.

Horse of the People

The Quarter Horse is a breed we've all seen, and one that most of us has ridden. Quarter Horses are everywhere, 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.

It wasn't always this way, however. In the not-too-distant past, 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 something called the Chickasaw. The Chickasaw, a rare breed still in existence today, was a horse originating from Spanish stock that was brought to the New World and later adopted by the Chickasaw Indian tribe of the Southeast. The Indians traded some of their short, muscular Chickasaw horses to the colonists, who bred them to the more refined English stock. The result was a hardy, fast and docile little horse that was a great worker during the week and a speedy competitor on holidays.

The sport of racing on short straightaways became more and more popular as the decades wore on, and this fleet steed developed quite a reputation. When the Thoroughbred was later developed and matched against this small horse, it was discovered that no animal could run the quarter of a mile like the little colonial horse. 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.

Despite the excitement of the quarter mile race, the popularity of the Thoroughbred soon pushed the Quarter Horse out of the limelight. But the breed soon discovered another job that needed to be done. By the early 1800s, the demand for a rugged and willing horse to help conquer the newly explored 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. In typical Quarter Horse fashion, he did so quietly, obediently and willingly, often giving up his own life alongside that of his hapless masters.

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 determine what she 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 for awhile with Thoroughbreds, but not for long. The association eventually closed the books to all other breeds, sending the practice of outcrossing on its way. 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 tell-tale 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 20 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.

There are two types of Quarter Horses roaming the world today: standard Quarters and running Quarters. Running Quarter Horses resemble their Thoroughbred ancestors in conformation, sporting more of the greyhound physique than the standard Quarter Horse. However, even the Running Quarter still has those powerful hindquarters, a trademark of the breed.

The Quarter Horse comes in a wide array of colors, numbering 13 in all, including buckskin, palomino, blue roan, red roan, gray, bay, chestnut, grullo, brown, black, dun, red dun and sorrel. Sorrel is the color for Quarter Horses – a whopping one-third of the horses registered in the breed are described as this being of this color.

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

Manifest Destiny

When that handful of horsemen started the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) in the spring of 1940, they probably didn't realize that they were launching what would someday be the largest breed registry in the world. Their love for the horses that had worked so closely at their sides were what motivated them to see the breed succeed, yet at the same time, they were laying the groundwork for what would become the greatest growth and marketing of a breed ever seen in the equine world.

Carolyn Hudnell has been with the AQHA for the past 40 years, and knows well the inner workings of the association. Formerly the director of member services, and currently serving as the administrative assistant to the association's Marketing Services Department, Hudnell says it was good leadership and a passion for the horse that gave the breed its early advantage. "What made a big difference back then was that the leadership was not the least bit self-serving," she says. "They weren't motivated by money. Instead, they were driven by how much they loved this horse."

The early edge for the association came not only in the form of motivated leadership, but quality leadership as well. "All the way from the Board of Directors to the executive committee, the association always had high caliber businessmen donating their expertise to the cause," says Hudnell. "These were people who were successful in other areas who were also horse lovers with a strong emotional attachment to this breed."

This talent in the world of business started the Quarter Horse off on the right foot, financially as well. "This organization has always had at least a year's capitol in the bank," says Hudnell. "We've always been able to pay for things we needed. We never had to go into debt." Few equine organizations can boast this kind of financial stability throughout their entire histories.
The talent of those individuals running the AQHA through the 1940s, '50s and '60s culminated in a huge marketing effort, launched in the 1970s. The association's goal was the make the Quarter Horse the most popular breed in America, and it didn't take too long before it succeeded.

Despite all the obvious business acumen behind the Quarter Horse's prosperity, Hudnell is quick to point out that the horse itself had a lot to do with its own success. "With this breed's combination of disposition, speed and cow sense, it was bound to become this popular," she says.

These days, the AQHA is the world's largest equine registry and membership organization. There are more than 3.5 million Quarter Horses registered throughout the world, and 314,000 individual members of the AQHA. The association has a whopping $30.4 million for an operating budget.

But it doesn't end here. The AQHA has even bigger plans for this all-American horse. Apparently, the association will not rest until the term Quarter Horse becomes synonymous with the word horse.

"We have a whole lot planned for the future," says Hudnell. Included in her list is expansions for the youth program, breeder referral program and DNA program. But the project that seems to be getting the biggest push by the AQHA is the association's new National Ride Program. Designed to reach horse lovers at the grassroots level, the program is open to all breeds and features AQHA-sponsored trail rides around the country. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of all Quarter Horse owners are recreational riders," says Hudnell. "This program is primarily for them."

The grassroots approach seems to be high on the priority list for the AQHA, which is planning an even bigger thrust to get new horse lovers into the breed. One example of this: The association is looking into a pre-college level school program that will introduce young riders to the breed at an age when they are most impressionable.

A Special Horse

So who is this horse that is causing all the fuss? Why were the breed's early leaders so enamored of him? What is it that sets him apart from other breeds?
Depending on who you talk to, you'll get different answers to these questions. People who use the Quarter Horse to work cattle cite the breed's cow sense as all-important. Those who show him in gymkhana speak most glowingly of his exemplary speed on the straightaway. Riders competing in western pleasure describe a level-top line and a penchant for collection.

But despite the breed's varied uses, there is one thing all Quarter Horse owners freely admit is the single most valuable aspect of the breed: its disposition. The Quarter Horse is the most willing, easy-going, even-tempered of all the breeds, hands-down. 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, he gives it his all. He quietly obliges whatever you ask of him, and he never, ever says no.

Copyright 1997, Audrey Pavia. This article cannot be reprinted in any form without written permission from the author.
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