The American Quarter is a race horse, pleasure horse, and cow horse (or a horse that is able to round up cattle) all wrapped into one. Once thought of as an exclusive short-distance racer, it has proven itself through the years as both multitalented and dependable.
The American Quarter Horse has a muscular neck, deep chest, sloping shoulders, and a relatively small head with wide eyes and pointed ears (which are always alert). Its legs are muscular and firm; however, the horse's feet have been described as too small for the animal's size. Because of this, the Quarter Horse -- standing between 14.3 and 16 hands high -- is said to look rather chunky. (A hand is a common unit of measurement for horses that is equal to four inches.)
The most common color for the Quarter Horse is sorrel (or chestnut). And although the Appaloosa and Pinto markings are not acceptable for the breed standard, it is quite normal to see white markings on the Quarter Horse's face or legs.
The American Quarter Horse breed is among America’s most popular and oldest breeds. In the 1600s, American colonials began to cross English Thoroughbred horses with "native" horses such as the Chickasaw, a breed developed and propagated by the Chickasaw Indians. One of the most famous examples of crossbreeding involved Janus, a Thoroughbred and grandson to Godolphin Arabian, one of the founding stallions of the modern Thoroughbred bloodstock. Janus was brought to Virginia in 1752 and his breeding resulted in a smaller, more robust and agile American Quarter Horse. (Interestingly, Thoroughbreds are still used today to improve Quarter Horse's stock and running ability.)
The American Quarter Horse would later become very popular in races, especially as it beat pure Thoroughbreds in short races, such as the quarter mile. Its predominance in quarter-mile races is actually the reason why it is called the Quarter Horse.
However, the breed would reach a low point in the early 1800s. While its ability to win short-distance races remained undisputed, the American Quarter horse lost favor due to its inferior stamina, which made it unsuitable for long-distance racing. As the Thoroughbred regained its place as the American racehorse, Quarter Horse owners would learn an undiscovered talent for the breed -- its ability as a cow horse. Not only was it able to work with cattle and pull wagons, but it was able to carry people over long distances. This resurrected its usefulness, especially for pioneers looking to head West.
The American Quarter Horse is best known today as a show horse, rodeo horse, and race horse, but is still considered a great all-around breed -- just as likely to round up your cattle as it is to win you a large purse in a quarter-mile race.