What is a Quarter Horse and why is it named that?

August 23rd, 2023

Versatility, agility, strength, and speed are the overarching qualities that make the Quarter Horse such a stunning and special equine breed. In fact, the American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the United States, having officially registered more than 6 million horses since 1940.

Known particularly for their connection to horse racing, American Quarter Horses can also be seen performing at rodeos, in barrel racing, calf roping, dressage, or working as a ranch horse.

Where did the Quarter Horse get its name?

With a compact, muscular physique, featuring a short head, strong neck, deep chest, and robust hindquarters, Quarter Horses typically weigh between 950 and 1,200 pounds and stand 14 to 16 hands high.

Originating in the 1600s, the Quarter Horse first came into existence when colonial Americans crossed Native American horses of Spanish origin and English horses imported to Virginia with the hope of producing a quick and agile breed that could handle the demand of ranch work, cattle herding, and swift sprinting.

The fastest equine breed at short distances, the American Quarter Horse can run up to 55 miles per hour at a quarter-mile — thus, the inspiration behind its moniker — and would often compete on the main streets of small villages at the four-furlong distance in Colonial times.

By the late 1600s, Quarter Horses were raced over quarter-mile courses in Rhode Island and Virginia. Some of the foundational sires include Janus, a Thoroughbred who was the grandson of the Goldolphin Arabian, Steel Dust, and Peter McCue.

Where to watch Quarter Horse racing

Today, Quarter Horse racing can be found all across the U.S. at tracks like Delta Downs, Evangeline Downs, and Fair Grounds in Louisiana, as well as Remington Park in Oklahoma, Zia Park in New Mexico, and Lone Star Park in Texas. Additionally, you can watch and wager on Quarter Horse racing at TwinSpires.com.

Among the more prominent Quarter Horse races are the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity and the year-end, invitation-only Champion of Champions, held at Los Alamitos in Southern California.

Much like the Triple Crown for Thoroughbreds, featuring the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness S. (G1), and Belmont S. (G1), Quarter Horse racing has its own Triple Crown as well. The Grade 1 All American Futurity, run at 440 yards at Ruidoso Downs on Labor Day, is one of the richest races in the sport and makes up the final leg of the All American Triple Crown.

The Ruidoso Futurity is the first leg of the series, run at 350 yards, while the 400-yard Rainbow Futurity makes up the second leg and carries a purse of $1 million.

Notable Quarter Horses and trainers

Some of the most acclaimed Quarter Horse trainers include Blane Schvaneveldt, Paul Jones, Eddie D. Willis, and Jack Brooks. And while the training approach to Quarter Horse racing and Thoroughbred racing may vary, a few famous names have dabbled in both disciplines.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas — four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby and a record 20 Breeders' Cup races — got his start in Quarter Horse racing and is the only trainer in Derby history to also start a horse in the All American Futurity (1970). Lukas saddled 23 World Champion Quarter Horses, including influential sire Dash for Cash, and became the first person to get inducted into both the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (1999) and American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame (2007).

Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Bob Baffert has also excelled in both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing, getting his start with Quarter Horses at age 10. Later as a teenager, he earned $100 a day as a jockey in informal Quarter Horse races in Arizona, and began training Quarter Horses upon graduating college. Once he moved to California to work at Los Al, he transitioned to training Thoroughbreds full time in the 1990s.

Among the most highly regarded Quarter Horses, "Wimpy P-1," or "Wimpy," may be the most recognized. Born in 1937, the stallion is often considered the "Father of Western Pleasure" and achieved tremendous success in his own career, and through his progeny.

Doc Bar, Poco Bueno, Joe Hancock, Two Eyed Jack, and Smart Little Lena are other distinguished Quarter Horses who left their mark on the history of the breed.

Each year, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) also names a World Champion Racing American Quarter Horse at the American Quarter Horse Champions ceremony, a year-end event much like Thoroughbred racing's Eclipse Awards ceremony. In 2022, Empressum, the winner of the Champion of Champions, earned the coveted honor.