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Choosing the perfect horse depends on your personality and energy level in addition to your equestrian and social goals. Photograph courtesy of Leslie Savage Henry Ford famously said of the Model T,  “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants—so long as it is black.”  However, it’s a little-known fact that Model T’s also came in grey, green, blue and red. Ford, who wanted his customers to be as uniform as his cars, had to bow to this reality: people like choices.

What’s true for cars also holds true for a more ancient vehicle, the horse. Humans refined this mode of transportation three thousand years before the Model T ran horses off the road. Refinement resulted in a rich diversity of sizes, shapes, and colors, along with a wide range of intended purposes. Today, there are hundreds of different horse “models.” Which, of course, we know as breeds. 

When people first get involved with horses, they often choose a breed on a whim. “I remember riding a pinto pony at my granddad’s farm, so I’ve always wanted a spotted horse!” Or, “I really like Arabs. I could totally see myself in a Bedouin costume!”

But be forewarned: which breed you choose will likely determine the activities you will take part in, especially when it comes to competition. You can ride a Hanoverian show jumper in a barrel race but you won’t win against smaller, hard-charging Quarter horses. Likewise, the compact Quarter horse can’t match the tall Hanoverian over jumps!

Even your social group can be affected by your horse. If you’d rather shop for boots at Neiman Marcus than your local western wear store, you might prefer a Warmblood and hob-nob with dressage riders. But if you’ve always dreamed of being a cowgirl in jeans and boots, you may want a fleet Quarter horse so you can hang with the rodeo crowd. If that group is a little too fast and wild for your tastes, you may be more comfortable with the women in mid-life who seem to prefer the safer Western pleasure show scene or  the up and coming Western dressage. If that’s the case, a reliable Paint or Arabian pleasure horse might better suit your needs.

So, what breed of horse is right for you?  Which kind best suits your individuality, your personality and desires? Read on as we present the “standard features” of the popular horse breeds in America today. We’ve broken them down into four categories, based on each breed’s most appealing qualities: athleticism, aesthetics, romanticism and comfort.

The Athletes 

Are you the type that loves competition, high speeds and plenty of action? Take a closer look under the hood of these high-performance equine sport models.

 

Quarter horses dominate the fast-paced sport of women’s barrel racing. Photograph of Charmayne James, courtesy of Gavin Ehringer

1. American Quarter Horse 

Claim to Fame:

Fastest horse in the world over one-quarter mile.

Appeal:

World’s most popular and versatile equine with more than five million registered since 1940.  Availability is never a problem; prices vary from mild to ridiculously expensive. 

Description:

Quarter horses are compact and muscular. They range in size from 14 to 15.3 hands (a hand equalling 4 inches, with the measurement taken at the high point of the back called the “withers”).  Moderation characterizes the breed, which comes in a palette of 16 distinct colors. Chestnut, bay, brown and buckskin are common, while golden palomino and the lead-gray grullo (pronounced “grew-yo”) are much less so.

Suitability:

Though used in English equitation, the Quarter horse shines brightest in western riding events: barrel racing, reining, roping, cowboy mounted shooting, western pleasure and the like. They’re standard issue on ranches due to an innate “cow sense.”  They also make outstanding trail horses.

Quarter horses today often come custom-bred to excel in specialties such as reining, racing, and halter classes (in which horses just stand at halter, looking handsome). Quarter horses bred for “pleasure riding” (an arena event where horses are judged at the walk) tend to be calm and docile, while those bred for the racetrack and barrel racing can be quite the opposite. Most Quarter horses, however, are willing learners with calm, pleasant personalities.

Prices vary from as low as $2,000 for a well-trained horse to more than $100,000 for a young colt with excellent prospects in a specialty like reining or cutting.

Expert opinion:

American Quarter horses suit any type of rider, from beginners to professionals.  These horses are enjoyed by people of all ages and take part in a wide variety of activities including shows, rodeos, races and recreational riding. – Sarah Davisson, American Quarter Horse Association.

2. Arabian

Claim to fame:

Considered the world’s oldest horse breed and a contributor to the most significant modern light horse breeds. 

Appeal:

If the Quarter horse is the equine equivalent of a world-class sprinter, the Arabian is the ultra-marathon runner.  The nomadic Bedouins of Arabia bred stamina into their hardy horses so that both could survive long, treacherous desert crossings.  Today,  Arabian horses rule the sports of endurance riding and competitive trail.

Besides their athletic prowess, Arabians have a compelling, romantic history. Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, and George Washington all rode them.  And the prophet Mohammed proclaimed that those who were kind to the horses would be rewarded in the afterlife.  

Description:

While the Arab’s colorful history and its stamina are touted by breeders and owners, most will admit they were first attracted to the horse’s handsome appearance.  Big, expressive eyes are set wide on a broad forehead topped with small ears.  The Arab’s profile curves gently from forehead to nose, giving the horse its distinctive look. People also can’t help but be captivated by tails held high like flags. Arabs seldom exceed 15.3 hands, making them ideal for smaller riders. Like Quarter horses, prices start low and finish high: a top Polish-bred mare, Kwestura, sold at auction for more than $1.5 million!

Expert Opinion: 

Arabs are smart, athletic and adaptable.  I have had scores of Arabians and won national championships in nearly every English and Western discipline.  

We also use them for working cattle and cutting.  I have yet to find one that wasn’t a natural-born cow horse. – Kathie Hart, fourth-generation Arabian horse breeder/exhibitor.

A Hanoverian Warmblood in the dressage ring. Photography courtesy of Gavin Ehringer.

3. Warmbloods 

Claim to Fame:

Equine Olympians that excel in show jumping, dressage and eventing.

Appeal: 

Known as “sport horses,” Warmbloods have smooth, long, ground-covering gaits that can make the horses look like they’re floating. Their dizzying height also makes them well-suited to cross country and stadium jumping. 

Description:

In general, Warmbloods are tall, elegant horses between 15.2 and 17 hands, predominantly with solid colors. They look similar to Thoroughbreds but with a more substantial build.

Collectively, the name “Warmblood” encompasses many breeds. Nearly every Northern European country has its own Warmblood type. These include Dutch Warmbloods, Danish Warmbloods, Swedish Warmbloods, the French Selle Francais, and a myriad of German breeds; Trakeheners, Holsteiners, Oldenburger, Hanoverians, etc. Most have similar histories: as tractors replaced horses on farms, breeders turned to the emerging recreational market for customers. They systematically improved farming and draft horse breeds (the so-called “cold blooded,” or docile horse types) with Arabians and Thoroughbreds (“hot blooded” or temperamental).  The result: Warmbloods! Over time, breeders painstakingly refined Warmbloods to become the amazing, beautiful creatures we see today.

Suitability:

These are the horses you’ll see in the Olympic Games during the dressage (“schooling”) and jumping competitions. Most are tall, over 16 hands, and while that’s ideal for show jumping and cross-county competition, their height can be imposing to beginners. Gaining confidence can take time when you’re that high off the ground!  However, Warmbloods can be very forgiving of mistakes, so long as the rider has learned and practices a good seat in the English saddle. 

Though they have a reputation for being expensive, a big addition to their price tags was simply the cost of importing them from Europe. Today, domestic breeders produce quality Warmbloods in the U.S., which greatly reduces the cost. Expect to pay just south of $15,000 for a well-trained individual.

 The Lookers

Are you someone who likes sparkling jewels and eye-catching outfits? Do you prefer to stand out from the crowd? Always on the lookout for something unique? These are the breeds that will please.

Photograph courtesy of American Paint Horse Association

1. American Paint Horse

Claim to Fame:

A Cadillac cowhorse with plenty of “chrome.”

Appeal:

“Pinto” (Spanish for “painted”) horses had been roaming free in North America since 1519, when Spaniard Hernando Cortez first brought caballos to the New World.  Their flashy white patches on dark coats were especially prized by Southwest Plains Indians. But by the mid-20th Century, few horsemen were interested in breeding pinto horses. But that was about to change.

In 1962, a Texan named Rebecca Tyler Lockhart sat at her kitchen table, writing down the names of friends who shared her enthusiasm for preserving spotted horses. Lockhart’s vision was grander than merely saving the spots. She wanted “Paint” horses with proper cow horse conformation.  That’s to say a body plan efficient for long workdays on the ranch but with the hard acceleration and agility needed to overtake a sprinting calf.  That, in essence, is the Paint horse appeal: color, cow sense and conformation.

Thanks to Lockhart and friends, the American Paint Horse Association they started grew to become the second-largest breed registry in North America.

Description:

Except for their flashy and highly-variable coat patterns, very little differentiates Paint horses from Quarter horses. In fact, some Paints (mainly those used for breeding) are “dual registered,” which means they are registered in both horse associations.

Paint horses can be produced by other Paints, Quarter horses or Thoroughbreds, but must exhibit a specified minimum amount of white hair over non-pigmented skin. Registry requirements also specify a stock-horse type conformation suited to ranch work and western riding.  This means that a high-stepping Saddlebred with a loud pinto coat cannot be considered a Paint.

Suitability:

As a stock horse type with Quarter horse ancestry, Paints cover the same broad spectrum of competition as Quarter horses. You’ll find them at the top levels of barrel racing, cutting, reining, roping, cow horse, etc. They’re also commonly found on working ranches and on the trails.

Thoroughbred-type Paints are bred for track racing and barrel racing, but may also be directed toward jumping or dressage, where height and a slighter build are an advantage. Most Paints, however, fit the Quarter horse job description. Their prices are approximately equal to similar-quality Quarter horses.

Expert Opinion:

The Paint breed registry is smaller than the AQHA and more family-oriented. It’s like the difference between shopping at Neiman-Marcus versus an upscale women’s dress boutique. – Karen Bannister, owner of White Harvest Farms of Colorado, producer of World Champion Quarter Horses and Paint Horses.

Photograph courtesy of Little Keepers Photography

2. Appaloosa

Claim to Fame:

Originally developed and bred by the Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

Appeal:

It’s hard to say which draws more people to this colorful spotted horse, its American Indian heritage or its highly individualistic spotted coat pattern. Often, it’s both.

Description:

The Nez Perce horse was highly acclaimed in the Old West for its speed, stamina, and sure-footed mountain sense. Outcrossing with other breeds – primarily Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds and Arabians – has resulted in horses with the best attributes of those breeds but with the unique and highly-attractive Appaloosa coloration.

Today’s Appaloosas are typically built on the Quarter horse plan, with broad backs, moderate frames and muscular bodies. However, some breeders maintain the foundation breeding, which adheres to the original Indian horses that had higher withers, narrower barrels (chest and rib cage), and a slighter build. These sure-footed “throwback” horses are particularly well-suited to endurance and mountain trail riding.

Suitability:

As with the other western stock horses, Appaloosas make versatile arena performers, particularly in the western events. They make exceptional trail horses and frequently are put to work on ranches. Foundation types, along with those outcrossed on Arabians, excel at endurance.

Expert Opinion:

The Appaloosa heritage is special. Part of our mission is to preserve that heritage. Many people, including riders in Europe, get involved with the Appaloosa breed because of its Native American history. – Steve Taylor, CEO,  Appaloosa Horse Club

The Romantics

These are horses that grace the covers of romance novels; imagine bare-chested Fabio holding a stallion by its bridle. Now, lose Fabio and saddle one up yourself. These are for women who prefer to keep their studs in their place – the barn.

Photograph courtesy of the Mustang Heritage Foundation

1. Mustang

Claim to Fame:

Wild horse of the American West.

Appeal:

The imagery of wild horses running loose in the vast Western landscape has an inescapably romantic appeal. When passing legislation to protect them, the U.S. Congress declared that the Mustang is “a living symbol of the pioneering spirit of the West.” Ride ‘em cowgirl!

Description:

Mustangs were the wild descendants of Iberian horses brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Some are directly related to the Spanish Barb, Andalusian and the Arabian. However, most include the blood of a variety of horses brought west by Indian traders, trappers, pioneers, settlers, the military and cattlemen.

Because they are not a breed, there are no common characteristics among Mustangs other than hardiness, sure-footedness, and resourceful dispositions that enable them to thrive in harsh wilderness conditions. Most are small and compact, like Arabians, as that body type is best-suited to desert survival.

Suitability:

A well-trained Mustang may be used for a variety of purposes, including events like cowboy mounted shooting, barrel racing, competitive trail, team penning and more. They excel as trail horses due to their wilderness savvy.

Under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management, free-ranging Mustangs are rounded up and penned as a means of population control. Individuals can buy these horses at adoption prices starting as low as $125. However, buying an untrained range horse accustomed to a life of freedom may be a prescription for catastrophe.

Fortunately, there’s a program called the “Mustang Makeover,” in which professional horsemen take on the challenge of training a Mustang in 100 days. The trainers then exhibit their horses to earn awards. Afterward, an “adoption auction” is held. The event is hosted by the non-profit Mustang Heritage Foundation. 

Expert Opinion:

Our goal has been to show how these horses can be trained in as little as three months to become willing partners. And they already know how to take care of themselves and deal with situations on the trail, such as wild animals, that would rattle other horses. – Kali Sublett, Executive Director, Mustang Heritage Foundation

The Comfort Horses

You still look great but you’re not as young as you used to be. Who is? Sometimes your joints ache, your back gets stiff and your muscles get sore.  You certainly don’t want a bone-jarring horse making things worse!  The solution: gaited horses.

There are a number of smooth-riding breeds from which to choose including the Tennessee Walking Horse, the Missouri Fox Trotter, the Saddlebred, the Rocky Mountain Horse and the Peruvian Paso.  All possess ambling gaits that replace the trot, which is considered the hardest and least pleasant gait to ride.  Among the most popular and elegant gaited horses is the Paso Fino. 

Photograph courtesy of Brandi Johnson Photography

1. Paso Fino

Claim to Fame:

Paso Finos claim as an ancestor the now-extinct Spanish Jennet breed, first brought to Santo Domingo in the 1500s by Christopher Columbus. It is from the Jennet that it gets its natural, stylized gaits.

Description:

Paso Fino literally means “fine step,” and that’s an apt description of this horse’s gaits. The Paso has a true walk and canter but does not trot. In the trot, the horse’s opposing front and back feet touch ground at the same time. With the Paso, all four feet move one-at-a-time, as in the walk but faster, producing the smooth middle gaits, the paso fino (slowest), paso corto (as quick as the trot), and paso largo (faster still). All of the gaits fall in a smooth, rhythmic manner while the back sways side-to-side rather than up-and-down.

Pasos come in almost every color and marking, including pintos. They are on the small side, between 13.2 and 15.2 hands, making them particularly easy for smaller women to mount and ride.

Suitability:

Athletic and highly-trainable, Pasos are used in competitive trail riding, western pleasure, driving and English equitation.  They’ve been successfully campaigned in cowboy mounted shooting, team penning, and even barrel racing. But their strong suit is the pleasure they provide as horses used for daily riding.

Expert Opinion:

Beginning riders struggle to manage the trot. When they can’t control their bodies, it’s difficult to concentrate on the horse.  The Paso gait is so smooth, it makes it possible for novices to sit back and enjoy the ride. – Nola Haupert-Keill, owner of multiple national champion Paso Finos n