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The American Quarter Horse was purpose bred for a specific discipline and it is this job which gave the horse its name. The horse originates from Virginia and was bred for racing. Due to a lack of proper racecourses in Virginia, the early horse racing was carried out on dirt tracks called “race paths” which were effectively just areas hacked out of the wilderness. The race paths were often about a quarter of a mile long, hence the name, American Quarter horse.
The compact quality horse that the Americans produced was bred by combining native ponies and Thoroughbred stallions. These ponies would have originated via Spain and the Conquistadors into the Americas and so there is Arabian, Iberian and Barb lineage to be found within the breed. However, the American Quarter horse is generally viewed as deriving principally from an English Thoroughbred called Janus, the founding father who was present in Virginia between 1756 and 1780.
American Quarter Horses are not large horses, generally standing at around 15hh although some can be bigger. They are powerful and closely coupled with a tremendous turn of speed over a short distance. Some Quarter horses have been reported to reach racing speeds of 55mph. They are therefore ‘sprinters’ rather than horses which would race well over longer distances; it is the strength of their frame which dictates this limitation to their ability to maintain such a high speed over longer distances. A horse with these characteristics was clearly going to find favour amongst the cattlemen and cowboys. A turn of speed, agility when changing direction and the power to brace against a steer when it is roped, make them a natural choice for ranch work and it is this job for which they are perhaps best known. Today in modern America, the Quarter Horse is hugely popular as a cow pony, still performing cattle duties down on the ranch for which it is so well suited. It is also used for riding trails and in rodeos plus the full range of traditional American sports such as reining, cutting and barrel racing.
The American Quarter Horse Association was founded in 1940 by a group of horsemen from the south west of the United States. They wanted to maintain the breed and improve pedigrees through registration. Today, the American Quarter Horse Association claims that the breed is the most popular horse in the world and this statement is supported by the fact that there are around three million horses registered with them. The breed thrived throughout the middle of the last century when other types of horse were suffering in mainland Europe from the dual effect of the Second World War and the mechanisation of agriculture. The unique role that the Quarter Horse has on the American ranch cannot be replicated by machinery even to this day.
The American Quarter horse is not perhaps so commonplace in the UK, although there is a British arm of the American Quarter Horse Association, AQHA UK which has a dedicated following of enthusiasts. The horse has been exported in large numbers to Brazil and Australia and also into mainland Europe. The Quarter horse is a versatile breed and transfers well into other disciplines. They are tough and hardy. Occasionally some stock horse breeding will appear in a more unusual place. Lucinda Green’s famous horse Regal Realm, with whom she was World Champion and also won a silver medallist at the Los Angeles Olympics, was an Australian stock horse born on a cattle ranch which just goes to show the inherent abilities of this stamp of equine.
Since the inclusion of the discipline of reining by the FEI as one of the seven events at the World Equestrian games, interest in the Quarter horse has grown enormously. The British arm of the AQHA offers support, information, competitions and championships for devotees of the breed. The Quarter horse can be found in pockets around the UK. Those that practise western riding techniques are raising the breed profile in their local communities; demonstrations and displays of traditional cattle ranching techniques are always popular, they showcase the breed and draw the crowds at events and shows.