What to Know About Quarter Horses

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 05, 2023
6 min read

The quarter horse is a distinctly American breed. They’re likely the first true breed of horses that people exclusively developed in the U.S. If you’ve ever seen a horse performing at a rodeo or cowboys on horseback in a western then you’ve likely seen a modern example of the quarter horse.

These horses are great for work, sport, and recreation. But, like all horses, quarter horses require a lot of care and commitment to keep them at their best. Make sure you thoroughly understand this animal’s unique needs before choosing to buy one for yourself or your family.

Quarter horses are one of many hundreds of breeds of domesticated horses. All horses are members of the same species — Equus caballus

The quarter horse breed wasn’t officially established until the 1940s, when enthusiasts created the American Quarter Horse Association. Before then, the term "quarter horse" loosely referred to a broad category of horses and not an established breed. 

This means that there’s actually a lot of debate surrounding the history of the quarter horse’s genetic ancestry. Some experts argue that this breed can trace its origins back to early colonial America, where multiple European lines were combined to create sturdy, short-distance racing horses. Others say that the quarter horse’s ancestors didn’t fully develop until cowboys needed unique horses for life in the Midwest. 

By the 1800s, quarter horses were an established category within the species. Many of their early famous sires are shared with thoroughbred lines. One sire, named Steel Dust, was so popular that a lot of quarter horses were referred to as steel dust horses until the association officially established the quarter horse name.  

Since the American association was established, the term quarter horse — or American quarter horse — has referred to a very specific set of standards. New ponies are registered by the American Quarter Horse Association. They need to have either two registered quarter horse parents or one quarter horse parent and one thoroughbred.

Compared to other horse breeds, quarter horses are relatively short, heavily muscled animals.

The average quarter horse size is meant to be a bit smaller than other breeds of horses. One of the most famous early sires of quarter horses was about 15 hands high at the shoulder and weighed around 1,200 pounds. 

They come in a wide variety of colors, including: 

  • Sorrel, or reddish-brown
  • Black 
  • Brown
  • Gray
  • Chestnut
  • Red roan
  • Blue roan

Unlike other breeds, quarter horses are only allowed to have white markings on their faces and below their knees.   

This breed is composed of fantastic sprinters that do well in races. In fact, the name quarter horse refers to their incredibly fast pace during a quarter-mile race. 

They’re versatile creatures that can be adapted to succeed in a number of different physical competitions. This includes: 

  • Rodeo roping
  • Barrel racing
  • Dressage
  • Show jumping

The exact quarter horse lifespan varies from one individual to the next. In general, horses can live for an average of 25 to 30 years in captivity. But there is one reported case of a horse living to the age of 61 years old.

People value quarter horses for their personalities as well as their physical abilities. They have mild, even temperaments and a fantastic “cow sense”. This ability lets them anticipate how cows are going to move and react in different situations. 

This particular combination of traits means that the quarter horse is a fantastic companion when you need to handle cattle in all manner of environments. But these days many people value them for the simple pleasure of a calm ride. In this case, the quarter horse can be a gentle and affectionate friend.

All horses have rather sensitive stomachs. They're herbivores — or plant eaters — that need to slowly graze throughout the day. They’ll become ill if you force them to consume all of their calories in one or two big meals. 

Make sure that your horse has access to a near-constant supply of grass and good-quality hay. This means that the hay is free from mold and debris. 

Also keep a supply of fresh, clean water available at all times. They can get other important nutrients by licking a salt block that contains trace minerals. 

In general, the average horse will eat about 20 pounds of food a day and drink around 8 gallons of water.

Quarter horses require a lot of resources in order to maintain them. In fact, the initial cost of buying your horse will likely be much less than the amount of money that you’ll need to care for and house your new pet

Before buying a horse, you need to make sure that you have a place to put it — like a stable of your own or a stall in someone else’s stable. It’s also best to give them plenty of space to roam around outdoors and other horses to socialize with. You’ll find that some enjoy a combination of pasture and stable, while others are OK with only pasture boarding.

You need to regularly maintain your horse’s teeth and hooves. A horse’s teeth never stop growing, which can lead to all sorts of dental issues. A veterinarian should check their teeth once or twice a year. They may need to file down teeth that have grown too long. Keep an eye out for any signs of dental problems like difficulty chewing and bad breath. 

A horse's hooves also continue to grow on a regular basis. You’ll need to have them trimmed by a professional farrier every six to eight weeks. This expert can also give you the best advice on whether or not your horse needs shoes.  

Your horse will have additional care needs if you live in areas with extreme temperature fluctuations. They’ll need special attention in both very hot and cold weather. This kind of care is region-specific — talk to experts in your area for the best advice on extreme weather care.

Like any pet, quarter horses can be born with a variety of health problems. They can also develop certain diseases and conditions throughout their lifetimes.  

If you think that your horse is sick, you should find a veterinarian that specializes in horses and large animal care. Luckily, many veterinarians are trained to work with large animals, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an expert in your area. 

You also need to get them vaccinated and dewormed on a regular basis. Your veterinarian can recommend the best schedule for your pet.

Furthermore, if you intend to use your horse for breeding, there are many different genetic conditions that your horse should be tested for. Some genetic problems that people have found in quarter horses include: 

  • Glycogen branching enzyme deficiency (GBED). This is a fatal condition that creates stillborn horses and causes living foals to weaken, collapse, and die. 
  • Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). This is a serious condition that can cause your horse's muscles to tremble, shake, and become weak. It can often be treated if it’s detected in time. 
  • Hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia (HERDA). This condition weakens your horse's skin and leads to an abnormal amount of cuts, tears, and scarring. They can only heal from injuries at a very slow rate. Many horses with this condition need to be euthanized.  
  • Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). This condition affects your horse's muscles and causes excessive cramping, soreness, and weakness. It can be managed with proper treatment, and your horse can go on to have a successful career. 

This list is not exhaustive. Always talk to a professional if you have any questions or concerns about your horse’s health, grooming, or any other aspects of their care.