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The History of the Quarter Horse
and Its Future in Dressage

Cynthia Hodges, M.A.

As to temperament, the most esteemed are those which, although quiet are easily excited but none the less can be calmed, and those which although calm are hard workers. Calumella, from De Re Rustica 1st century A.D.

A Quarter Hoss is good enough for me! Will Rogers

The story of the American Quarter Horse, the oldest distinct breed in the United States, begins in ancient Greece, where the Thessalonians bred superior calvary horses. The Thessalonians were masters of equestrian sports, including that of bull-dogging, i.e. jumping on a steer from horseback and wrestling it to the ground, which can still be seen in modern day rodeos. The classical horses of Asia Minor eventually made their way to the Iberian Peninsula, where they continued to develop. Iberia soon became the breeding ground of Europe's finest horses.

These noble animals were taken to Italy by the Spaniards in the15th century to fight the wars in Naples. With these horses, they defeated the French cavalry and the Iberian horse became the most popular breed in Europe. It was used to improve other breeds and was considered the proper mount for kings and emperors. Today, almost all saddle horses have some Spanish blood. The Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, even the warmbloods can be said to be descendants of the Iberian horse.

The training of other breeds that lacked the Iberian horses' natural cadence, collection, and dressage ability required new methods of teaching and horsemanship, which gave rise to riding schools. Pluvinel, de la Gueriniere, the Duke of Newcastle, and the German Riedlinger learned from the Italians Grisone and Pignatelli (to name but a few) the newly rediscovered equestrian art, Greek General Xenophon's enduring legacy (circa 400 B.C.) In trying to combine classical Greek principles with the requirements of medieval mounted combat, each of these masters tells of the unequalled ability of the Spanish horse. The Lipizzaner breed was founded in 1580 by almost purely Spanish stock, and is the chosen horse of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna largely for this reason, The Spanish Riding School derived its name from the origin of its horses.

The wild horses of North America descended from the horses brought over by the Spaniards. The horses were driven north from the Spanish settlement of Guale, now Florida and Georgia, by raids conducted by the English and American Indians. The Native Americans, who domesticated these feral horses in the 17th and 18th centuries, profited from the Spanish horses' agility and "cow sense" while hunting buffalo. The horses had to be fast, alert, brave, and be able to turn on a dime. It was to such tough bovine-wise stock that the colonists added the blood of the English Thoroughbred to create the combination of speed, nimbleness, and "cow savvy" found in the Quarter Horse today.

The quick reflexes and great agility of the modern Quarter Horse traces back to their bullfighting counterparts of Iberia. Andalusians and Lusitanos trained for bullfighting seem to collect naturally and present a picture of elegance and harmony, as does a top cutting Quarter Horse. The horsemanship of riding a bullfighting mount and a cutting horse is very similar. In dressage, the rider relies on the horse's memory to learn and execute movements that are built on the language of the aids, but the Quarter Horse is capable of other intellectual demands. When cutting cattle, the horse must think for himself when dealing with an unpredictable animal. A well trained cutting horse can isolate a cow from the herd with little assistance from the rider, even without a rider, in some cases. This intelligence gives the dressage rider a competitive edge as Quarter Horses are known to be quick-learners, and are valued for their quick response to the aids.

In the colonies, the ancient Anglo-Saxon custom of "quarter pathing" suited the forested area well, so a quarter mile race horse was needed. The new horse was developed by crossing English imports with ponies from the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes (before 1740). William Robinson was said to have raised some of the best racehorses in the colony of Rhode Island. His original sire, Old Snipe, was found among the wild horses inhabiting the area. Old Snipe's ancestors were Arabian, bred in either Andalusia or Cordoba. An intercolonial agreement between Virginia and Rhode Island allowed Virginia to acquire some of Old Snipes' progeny, which they then crossed with imported English horses. The original English horses in Virginia, those imported between 1611 and 1620, were "colder," because they were brought over before large amounts of Arab blood was used to create the modern English Thoroughbred. As early as 1668 a native breed was established and the era of Quarter Horse racing had begun.

One of the foundation sires of the Quarter Horse breed was the English Thoroughbred racehorse Janus, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian. He was imported from England by Mr. Mordecai Booth of Gloucester, Virginia in the1750s to run in four mile heats. Janus was a solidly built chestnut, about 14 hands tall. Contemporaries claim him to have had the best conformation of any horse ever seen in Virginia, and one that showed great strength and power. His line of descendants exhibited the same compactness of form, agility and speed. On Janus' American Thoroughbred side is Regret, a filly who won the Kentucky Derby.

Southern gentleman rode runners in colonial times. Courage, muscular strength, endurance, agility and speed were valued above all in a mount. Born of a more refined culture than the Mustang, Quarter Horses gave their progeny a sleeker form and a kinder eye than that of the Mustang dam. However, the Spanish horse contributed the cow sense that could not have been imparted by horses originating on the East Coast. Thus, the qualities of a cool head, compact body, strong muscles, endurance and hardiness were contributed by Spanish dams, speed and elegance by the Thoroughbred sires.

The English Thoroughbred was developed by crossing Arab, Barb, and Turk stallions with the heavier native English horses, but even the native breed contained Spanish blood. Thoroughbreds are descended from the royal mares, which were of Spanish or Barb stock from Tangiers, a former Portuguese territory. British sportsmen had a passion for Spanish horses 500 years before the printing of the first General Stud Book at the end of the 18th century. In 1327, Edward III imported 19 Spanish race horses and 50 "Andalusans." In 1623, the Duke of Buckingham acquired 24 stallions in Spain for James I and 12 more for himself, along with many Andalusian mares and foals from the royal stud at Cordoba.

After the Civil War, Captain King of Oklahoma, an individual who was in the forefront as a breeder, used Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Morgan, and occasionally Arabian and American Saddlebred stallions to enhance the blood of his band of Spanish broodmares. In this way, he continued the development of the modern Quarter Horse in breeding practices that were copied on a large scale by others. The Quarter Horse is thus a melting pot of different breeds that have lent to it its unique characteristics and attributes.

The split personality of the Quarter Horse breed manifested itself between the Civil War and World War I, when breeding goals began to differ. On the one hand, the perfect working stock horse was the objective. On the other, speed in a short-distance race horse was the goal. Quarter Horses of Thoroughbred type are more suited to dressage than their stock horse counterparts. They have bigger, more elastic gaits and longer legs. Because of the driving power in the hindquarters -- the muscular thighs and haunches -- Quarter Horses can turn and stop easily while staying in balance. The hocks are naturally placed well underneath the body, which facilitates developing collection in the gaits. The upper-level movements requiring great degrees of collection -- passage, piaffe, pirouettes -- are then easier to produce because the horse can sit down well in the haunches. Quarter Horses are often built downhill, however, because most of the weight is centered almost directly over the forelegs. The Quarter Horse must support from one-third to one-half more weight per hand on his forelegs than does the Thoroughbred. This distribution of weight makes the horse very quick over short distances and especially handy because the stocky, muscular legs increase stability. Because the center of gravity is low, he can stop and turn at speeds other horses find impossible, The Thoroughbred, on the other hand, is lighter in front and, therefore, has less concussion on his forelegs, making sustained speed possible. The Thoroughbred, though, has decreased stability and maneuverability because of his long legs. His lighter weight in front lessens the shock and effort of each stride, but raises his line of thrust. This decreases speed, but allows for sustained momentum.

Regardless of the weight dispersion, the Quarter Horse is able to excel in dressage. Horses that prove this are Color Magic ridden by Sherry van't Riet, who placed second in USDF All-Breeds Awards at Grand Pix, and The Challenger ridden by Darcy Drije, who placed first. Brown About Town is an Appendix Quarter Horse successfully competing at Prix St. Georges and Intermediare I with Glenda Needles.

Their smaller size, 14.3 - 16 hands, is advantageous in the limited confines of a dressage arena. The calm, cooperative nature of the Quarter Horse is appreciated by riders who tire of flightier breeds spooking at flower boxes and judges' stands. The wideset eyes reflect the horse's intelligence and mental stability that facilitate the horse's dressage training. There are now almost 3,000 Quarter Horses and Quarter Horse crosses registered with the USDF.

The English Thoroughbred, an example of selective breeding attaining the goals of speed and superior conformation, passed his innate athleticism on to the Quarter Horse. The American Thoroughbred, in turn, profited from the mixing of these blood-lines.The American Studbook of the Thoroughbred Horse lists certain foundation sires as Quarter Horses, one example being "Cherokee - Quarter Horse."

Selective breeding for dressage is a definite possibility for the Quarter Horse. This could be done by breeding talented mares to Thoroughbred stallions who would enhance the breed's dressage ability (Cloned Steel, is an example). An individual to whom the Quarter Horse has added fullness, strength, and hardiness to the excellent conformation and gaits of the Thoroughbred would, in this case, be ideal. The Quarter Horse gives his progeny a strong back and loin, powerful musculature, good weight per hand, sturdy feet, and straight legs. The modern Thoroughbred will give better withers and a more sloping pastern to his Appendix Quarter Horse offspring. The high-strung Thoroughbred blood will be moderated by the level temperament of the Quarter Horse. The infusion of Thoroughbred genes could then produce a bigger, better moving dressage mount, who nonetheless retains the carrying power of the haunches and the steady temperament


D'Andrade, Fernando. A Short History of the Spanish Horse. Oficinas de S. Jose. Lisbon, 1973.

Denhardt, Bob. The Quarter Horse. Tx A&M University Press. College Station, 1941

Osborne, Walter D. The Quarter Horse. Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1967

© Cynthia Hodges
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