The Cowboy’s Horse


There are an estimated 350 different recognized breeds of horses and ponies worldwide today, which is actually pretty mind-blowing to me. I guess because western folks are incredibly loyal to just a handful of those. While the Arabian horse is reportedly the most popular breed worldwide, the Quarter Horse is, by far, the most popular in North America.

Known as “America’s Horse” due to its origination in the Colonial US in the 1700’s, the Quarter Horse got its name because it was developed to run the distance of a quarter mile faster than any other breed. When comparing the short, stocky Quarter Horse and the long, leggy Thoroughbred side by side, it is easy to tell which horse was built to be a sprinter and which was built to excel at longer distances.

The first “Famous American Quarter Running Horses” were heavily influenced by the Thoroughbred, most notably “Janus” who was a grandson of the Gadolphin Arabian. Later, pioneers began breeding these Colonial Quarter Horses with Native American ponies of heavy Spanish influence. They quickly learned that these horses had an instinctual cow sense that made them well-suited for ranch work.

What Makes the Quarter Horse  the Cowboy Favorite Today?

Cow Sense

Cowboys, as their name would suggest, spend a lot of time working with cattle, so it’s advantageous for them to ride a horse that has the ability to read and react to cattle. What does that mean? Well, it means that if a cowboy is moving cattle, his horse is watching them as intently as he is and anticipating the cow’s next move.

Many Quarter Horses have a natural instinct to want to either chase or react to a cow. If you’ve ever watched a great cutting horse work, that is an example of a horse, after a lot of training, reacting to a cow to an extreme degree.

For a horse, the instinct to chase a cow can sometimes be more powerful than the instinct to “react” to a cow. Chasing is an offensive action, while reacting is a defensive action. But with ample training a Quarter Horse with a natural interest in cattle can be encouraged to “read” them and anticipate their every move.

This is imperative in a situation where a cow must be separated from the herd. She will do just about anything to get back to the safety of the herd, so it takes a competent horse and cowboy to keep that from happening.

This talent was first developed on ranches for daily activities like sorting cattle but has grown into a multi-million dollar competitive industry with cutting and reined cow horse events that showcase the Quarter Horse’s natural instincts. You just don’t see many other breeds that are able to compete at the same level as the Quarter Horse in events that incorporate cattle.

It is truly amazing to watch a Quarter Horse compete at the peak of his ability, but these traits were originally developed because cowboys on ranches needed good cow ponies. And they still do today.


It is difficult to find something that the Quarter Horse can’t do. He is heavily-muscled with a compact body and neck. He has powerful shoulders and hindquarters on top of sturdy legs. No matter what the competitive discipline, if it involves a western saddle, there will most likely be a Quarter Horse packing it.

No other horse is as well-suited as the Quarter Horse at reaching top speeds quickly, and then having the ability to engage those muscular hindquarters to stop and turn on a dime.

But even within the breed the, the Quarter Horse’s conformation varies. Selective breeding has allowed Quarter Horse enthusiasts to develop horses that excel at a number of different disciplines. From the short and stocky “bulldog” style to the taller and leaner “running” style, it is no wonder the Quarter Horse is proficient at anything from reining to racing to show jumping to western pleasure and everything in between.

The Quarter Horse is the king of diversity.


Quarter Horses are known for being smart and level-headed. It’s what makes them the ideal breed for any level of rider. And the reason, in addition to their athleticism, why they excel in a number of different disciplines.

They are highly trainable, which along with their athletic ability, helps them to be such a well-rounded breed.

Take Scamper, for instance. This amazing horse owned by Charmayne James knew his job so well, that when his headstall broke at the National Finals Rodeo, he ran the barrel pattern flawlessly and even won the round. See the video:

And then there’s Stacey Westfall who ended up with an appearance on Ellen after this video of her and “Roxy” went viral.

But that’s certainly not the only brilliant horse she’s ever ridden. Here’s another one.

I have had horses who could open any gate that wasn’t chained closed and could untie just about any knot I could come up with. One night, I left my dog locked in the barn with my horse in the corral just outside. The next morning the door was wide open and my dog certainly couldn’t reach the handle.

Of course horses are like people and some are smarter than others. Plus, they can’t really reach beyond the potential of the people who ride, handle and train them. So, no matter how intelligent a horse may be, they need still need someone competent to bring that out in them. Which is why, as a beginning rider, it is vital to start out with a horse that is well trained, solid, and will take care of you because someone else already did the hard work with them.

I have ridden many different breeds of horses from Arabians, to Appaloosas, to Morgans, to Peruvian Pasos and they all have something unique to offer. But for a cowboy horse, the Quarter Horse will always be the obvious choice.

Have anything else to share about the Quarter Horse? Leave it in the comments section below.

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