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The American quarter horse is one of North America’s most popular and oldest horse breeds. The breed’s popularity stems from its many positive attributes, including its gentle nature, versatility, beauty, speed, agility, and loyalty. Quarter horses are suitable for all levels of riders and owners, as they tend to be friendly with people and easy to train. They’ve been used as race horses, as well as working ranch horses and family pets. They have a sturdy build and come in many colors; sorrel (brownish red) is the most common.
Weight: 950 to 1,200 pounds
Height: 14 hands (56 inches) to 16 hands (64 inches)
Body Type: Muscular body; deep chest; small head with wide forehead and flat profile
Best For: Working, family, and show
Life Expectancy: 25 years
American Quarter Horse History and Origins
The American quarter horse descends from Spanish and English horses used in the American colonies in the 1600s. These horses were crossed with local breeds, including the Chickasaw horse. The breed's name came from its dominance in quarter-mile races, and its sure-footedness made it a favorite among settlers.
Later, the quarter horse played an enormous role in the pioneers' westward expansion. The breed's agility proved invaluable to cowboys, farmers, and those who needed reliable transportation over rough terrain. Although the breed has existed since the 1600s, the American Quarter Horse Association registry wasn't established until 1940.
American Quarter Horse Size
Quarter horses range in size from around 14 hands (56 inches) to 16 hands (64 inches). The addition of thoroughbred bloodlines over the years has contributed to an increase in height. Weights of 950 to 1,200 pounds or more are common in this bulky breed. This has prompted some concern about the skeletal strain of such a weight-to-frame ratio.
Breeding and Uses
The exceptionally versatile American quarter horse excels as a working, family, and show horse. It's equally comfortable on the trail and on the farm.
Throughout history, quarter horses were very popular to help maneuver cattle and pull wagons. In modern times, their abilities shine in rodeo events, such as reining (in which the rider guides the horse through a pattern of circles, spins, and other movements) and team penning (in which riders herd specified cattle into a pen). Their powerful haunches help with quick movements to gather strays from herds of cattle, and they deftly propel the horses around barrels in barrel races.
The sport of quarter horse racing—which is more of a sprint than the thoroughbred racing many people are familiar with—has tracks across North America. Speeds of up to 55 miles per hour have been recorded during these short, intense races.
Colors and Markings
American quarter horses come in a variety of solid colors, roans, palominos, grays, grullo, buckskins, and duns. The brownish-red sorrel is the color most commonly seen in the breed. Moreover, white markings on the face and legs are common. Spotted patterns are accepted in the American Quarter Horse Association registry, as long as owners can prove both the sire and dam were registered quarter horses.
Unique Characteristics of the American Quarter Horse
The compact, muscular silhouette of the quarter horse is unmistakable. Its appearance exudes the steadiness that makes it such a solid choice for various roles. Quarter horses are sure-footed and agile, even at high speeds. And they are especially known for their "cow sense"—an instinctive skill for maneuvering cattle.
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Diet and Nutrition
American quarter horses require a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water in their diet. They can sustain on fresh grass, hay, rolled oats, and other grains, such as barley and bran. Treats, such as carrots and apples, can be given in moderation. As a general rule, American quarter horses eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of their body weight each day. That means a 1,000-pound horse requires 15 to 20 pounds of food daily.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
American quarter horses are typically highly trainable, gentle, and eager to please. But they are prone to certain health issues. They include:
- Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis: A condition that can cause uncontrollable muscle twitching, muscle weakness, or paralysis
- Polysaccharide storage myopathy: A disorder that damages muscle tissue and can cause stiffness, pain, and more
- Malignant hyperthermia: A condition that makes a horse susceptible to a state of abnormally high metabolic activity, which can result in a high temperature, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and more
Daily grooming can help an American quarter horse maintain a healthy coat and clear skin. Before a ride, brush the legs, face, girth, and saddle areas to ensure the horse is comfortable and all the oils have been evenly distributed on its body. Grooming a horse after riding can also help distribute the oils and sweat, especially in the summer. Try a detangler to brush out the horse's tail, which will make it bushier and more adept at swatting away flies. In the winter, use a waterless shampoo to clean, condition, and detangle the horse's mane and tail.
Can develop chronic lameness if overworked or overridden
Disproportionate weight-to-frame ratio, making it prone to a number of health concerns
Champion and Celebrity American Quarter Horses
The American Quarter Horse Association maintains the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas. Visitors can view photos and paintings of famous quarter horses, as well as various displays showcasing the breed's history. Hall of Fame inductees include hundreds of horses and people who have been instrumental in shaping the breed. Among them are:
- Wimpy: The first stallion listed in the American Quarter Horse Association registry
- Poco Bueno: The first quarter horse ever to be insured for $100,000
- Doc Bar: Figured into prominent pedigrees around the world
- Easy Jet: Had a highly successful racing career
Another well-known horse—more infamous than famous—was Impressive, who passed on the breed's propensity for hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. All foals known to be descendants of a horse that carries this condition must be tested.
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 typically have 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, and the same is true for 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
The purchase price to adopt or buy an American quarter horse ranges widely from $1,000 to $4,000. Pricing is dependent on age, health, whether the horse is coming from a rescue or a breeder, and any notable characteristics, such as lineage.
When choosing a horse, be on the lookout for red flags. For rescues, check that the organization is a registered nonprofit with a 501(c)(3) status, which means it had to go through more checks to be considered safe and legitimate. Also, especially for breeders, make sure you can receive documentation on where the horse was bred, its lineage, and any health history. If none of this is provided, you might not be dealing with a quality organization.
Spend plenty of time with the horse while it's still in the hands of the organization, so you can get to know it and make sure it's as healthy as the organization says. Look for any lameness, pain, trouble breathing, or other obvious signs of illness. 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, check out:
- Arabian horse
- American paint horse
Otherwise, you can check out all of our other horse breed profiles.