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The Quarter Horse: America’s Breed

The hardworking "steel-dusts" of Texas became an icon of the American West and remain favorites of cowboys and cowgirls today!

September 14, 2017

A storm of hoof beats and flying clods of earth erupt as a field of quarter horses explodes off the start, propelled forward by strong, stocky legs and incredibly powerful hindquarters. The high gloss of exertion defines a jumble of cut, brown shoulders and sculpted equine flanks for only a few moments, it seems, before the winner blazes across the finish line and lopes triumphantly to claim victory.

The winning horse will have covered the 440 yards in less than 21 seconds. The date? It could be 1780 or 2010. The place? A quarter mile street in colonial New England or a modern racetrack. The winning horse? In both scenarios, an American Quarter Horse. Bred in the early days of America to excel on the quarter mile racetrack, the genesis of this well-known breed began long before they came to epitomize the resilience, strength and spirit of the American West.

The colonists of the eastern seaboard would eventually reject their British rulers, but they would forever retain their countrymen’s love of horse racing. As the harsh realities of settling New England softened into a more or less comfortable existence, the wealthy, well-established farmers renewed their passion for horse racing, using the English horses they had imported for plowing and riding.

In addition to the traditional four mile distance, the quarter-mile sprint became a wildly popular event, often run through the main streets of small villages. To the south, in Virginia and the Carolinas, enterprising racing enthusiasts were trading their English stock for the faster horses of the Chickasaw Indians. These Spanish Barbs were then bred to the English horses and the result was proudly called the “Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse,” (quarter referring to the quarter-mile distance at which they excelled.) However, these were not the quarter horses we know today.

In 1752, John Randolph of Virginia imported a stallion called Janus, a direct descendent of a “foundation” Thoroughbred. Though Janus was a long-course racer, it soon became apparent that his progeny possessed lightning fast speed over short distances, and they passed that power on to successive generations. The crossing of Janus with the Chickasaw horses created the first “prototype” quarter horse, a compact, powerful, and agile animal.

After the American Revolution, the tall, sleek Thoroughbreds became the horse of choice for the nation’s new aristocracy, whose elegant breeding farms and elaborate racetracks bespoke the sophisticated lifestyle to which they aspired. The nations’ quarter horses spread westward with the hardy, resilient pioneers who sought opportunity and wide open spaces.

To the delight of these early adventurers, they found that their tough little horses could work all week and still race hard on the weekends! It was during this time that a seminal stallion, Sir Archy, contributed a number of colts and fillies to a bloodline that would eventually become the modern quarter horse. The creature we now call a “quarter horse,” however, was still missing one genetic ingredient—wild mustang DNA.

Across the West, evolution has sculpted the long-abandoned Spanish stock into a cunning, resilient and clever feral horse ideally suited to the hardships (and equine jobs) of the American West. By infusing wild mustang blood into the short-racers’ pedigree, a vital and intelligent hybrid was created, with a temperament and talent new to the equine world.

To the needs of the open range cattlemen in Texas, the quarter horse was exquisitely well suited. Then one day, into the seemingly limitless longhorn ranges and dusty trails of Texas was placed a single superior cow horse named Steel Dust, who just happened to be a phenomenal race horse. (As the pioneers and settlers moved west, they continued to race horses, if only down the dusty streets of cow towns like Dodge City and Abilene.) So superior were Steel Dust’s reflexes and work ethic, so agile his mind, and so quick his feet, that for a time, cowboys and cowgirls called all quarter horses “Steel Dusts,” and sought them out for both range work and racing. Time passed.

Like many legendary figures, the existence of the original Steel Dust became questionable. By the 1900’s, the stocky, muscular cow ponies called Steel Dusts were becoming ever more rare in Texas and beyond. The Fat Stock Show On March 15, 1940 in Fort Worth, Texas, (the social event of the season) provided an opportunity for passionate “stock-horse” enthusiasts to incorporate the American Quarter Horse Association and save this “dying breed.”

A savvy and wealthy cowgirl, Anne Goodwin Hall, invited the key players to a lavish dinner at her home the previous evening, where she and her husband lobbied the key players to secure a critical mass of support. Steel Dust’s legendary bloodlines were eventually formally documented, as well as a number of other superior “stock-type” horses. Together, they became the foundation stock of the modern American Quarter Horse.

Since then, the American Quarter Horse Association has registered millions of American Quarter Horses! The stocky, smart, and muscular prototype so sought after by cowboys and cowgirls was preserved and enhanced, creating lightning fast and spectacularly athletic cutting, reining and roping mounts still used today for ranch work, rodeos, and cow horse competitions.

As the versatility of the American Quarter horse became evident, however, the breed’s phenotype was carefully expanded to create horses with the same intelligence and work ethic, but with the taller stature needed to excel at jumping, dressage, and other more traditional forms of equitation. Today, American Quarter Horses can be found excelling at just about any and every equine job. Nowadays, however, contemporary cowgirls are just as likely to be found on a recreational trail ride as a ranch, and the American Quarter Horse has reinvented itself once again.

From racetrack to ranch, dressage court to dusty trail, the American Quarter Horse continues to be our nation’s horse of choice—America’s Breed.

All photos are courtesy of The American Quarter Horse Association.

(Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).

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