Horses For Dummies
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
Hundreds of horse breeds exist in the world today, but only a handful of them are among the top ten most popular breeds in the United States. The reasons for the popularity of these breeds can be narrowed down to a couple of factors: Each breed has a strong registering organization that promotes it among the horse-owning public, and each breed has redeeming qualities that a large number of horse people have come to appreciate.

Owning or riding one of the top ten breeds has its benefits. Plenty of information and support is available on the animals that make up the breed. Horse shows for the breed also are common and so are an array of sources from which you can learn more about the breed. Additionally, if you want to buy a horse of one of these breeds, you won’t have too much trouble locating one. Fans of lesser-known breeds of horses don’t have these advantages and must fend for themselves in many respects.

As you read our breed descriptions, keep in mind that we speak in generalities when it comes to the personalities of different horse breeds. For example, we say that Arabians are friendly horses. However, you may meet one or two Arabians in your travels that are complete grouches. Remember that each horse is an individual, and as you get to know different horses, you’ll find horses that simply don’t match the personalities typically attributed to their breeds.

That said, we’re going to take a look at the top ten most popular breeds in the United States. Their popularity is determined by the number of horses that are registered in the breed each year. We list them here in alphabetical order.

Appaloosa

Appaloosa

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

The Appaloosa horse first was kept by the Nez Percé Indians of northern Idaho during the 1700s and 1800s. When the Nez Percé were forced onto reservations, the Appaloosa breed nearly died out. However, in the 1930s, a concerned group of horsemen gathered together to start a registry to save the breed. Since then, the Appaloosa horse has grown to considerable popularity.

The Appaloosa horse’s most distinguishing characteristic is its spotted coat, particularly the white rump with dark spots, which is characteristic to the breed. That said, the Appaloosa horse is represented in several different patterns, including:

  • Leopard — the popular white with dark spots over the body
  • Blanket with spots — a dark body color with white over the rump that’s covered with dark spots

Other physical traits include white sclera — the tissue that surrounds the pupil and gives the eye an almost human appearance, striped hooves, and mottled skin. Some Appaloosas also have thin manes and tails. The height range for an Appaloosa is 14.3 to 16 hands.

Appaloosas are known for their quiet and willing temperaments. They excel in western events, three-day eventing, and trail riding, and are known for being athletic and versatile. Appaloosas make excellent and colorful companions.

Arabian

Arabian

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

The Arabian is one of the oldest breeds of horse still in existence. Developed in the Middle East several hundred years ago, many experts consider the Arabian horse one of the finest and purest breeds alive. The Arabian also is the most influential: Throughout equine history, humans have used Arabians to improve the quality of other breeds. Some examples of half-Arabian breeds are the Anglo-Arab (half Thoroughbred, half Arabian), the Quarab (half Quarter Horse, half Arabian), the Morab (half Morgan, half Arabian) and the Ara-Appaloosa (half Appaloosa, half Arabian). The purpose of these matings is to create half-Arabians that possess the refinement of the Arabian breed with the traits of another breed.

Arabian horses are known for their elegant and graceful beauty. Arabians have small heads, and concave (or dished) faces, small ears that curve inward, and long and arched necks. Most Arabian horses have only five spinal vertebrae as opposed to the six vertebrae typically found in most other breeds. Having one less vertebra gives Arabians a shorter back than many other breeds. (Horses that are part Arabians can have either five or six vertebrae, depending on the horse.)

Arabians are small horses that rarely measure much more than 15 hands in height. You can find them in a number of different colors, particularly gray, chestnut, bay, and black. Arabians are friendly and inquisitive horses, but they can be high-spirited. They perform especially well in endurance competitions and are shown in western, hunt-seat, eventing, dressage, and saddle-seat classes. Half-Arabians usually make excellent pleasure and show horses.

Miniature Horse

Miniature Horse

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

Miniature Horses are the dwarfs of the equine world (smaller than ponies), and number one in the adorable category. They are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, even though they are too small to be ridden. The Miniature Horse has all the physical and psychological characteristics of a regular horse in a small package.

Miniature Horses were developed in the United States in the 1800s to pull carts in and out of coal mines. This job required a tiny horse because mine tunnels rarely accommodated normal-sized horses.

The Miniature Horse of today, which stands anywhere from 6 to 7 hands high, is kept primarily as a pet. Tiny tots can ride Miniature Horses, but anyone older than 4 years of age probably is too big to ride a Miniature Horse.

Despite their small size, Miniature Horses can easily pull a fully grown human in a light cart. Many Miniature Horses are used for pleasure driving, and you can see them at special Miniature Horse shows pulling light rigs in competition. They also are shown in halter classes and other special events.

Morgan

Morgan

Photo by: Sharon P. Fibelkorn

The Morgan horse is a quintessential American breed that was developed in Vermont during the 1700s from one horse, a little stallion named Justin Morgan. Named after the man who owned him, Justin Morgan achieved considerable fame for his astounding strength and willing disposition. The Morgan breed was developed by breeding a variety of different mares to Justin Morgan. These mares produced foals that looked almost exactly like Justin Morgan, and so the breed was born.

Morgans today have small, elegant heads and strong, highly arched necks. Just like their founding sire, Morgans tend to be smaller horses and rarely reach more than 15.2 hands in height. They’re typically seen mostly in bay, black, and chestnut, and like their founding sire, Morgans are eager to please and willing to do whatever is asked of them.

Most Morgans are ridden simply for pleasure and on the trail, although a good many are shown in saddle-seat, western, and hunt-seat classes. The breed also is popular as a light-carriage horse.

Paint Horse

Paint Horse

Photo by: Sharon P. Fibelkorn

The Paint Horse used to be considered an anomaly — a colorful but unwanted result of many Quarter Horse-to-Quarter Horse breedings. (See the following section for more about Quarter Horses.) Rejected by the Quarter Horse registry because of their coat markings, these patterned horses had no official recognition in the horse world. However, in the early 1960s, a group of horse lovers who appreciated the Paint for its unusual appearance created a registry for the breed that helped it survive and grow.

Paint Horse coats come in a variety of different patterns, most of which fall under the headings:

  • Tobiano — a white base with dark patches
  • Overo — a dark base with white patches

The breed’s conformation, or the way its horses are put together, is identical to that of the Quarter Horse, with a height range of 15 to 16 hands. Its temperament is much like that of the Quarter Horse too — mellow, easygoing, and eager to please.

The Paint Horse has become wildly popular during the last two decades and can be readily seen in stables and show arenas throughout the country. Most Paint Horses are shown in western classes, although an occasional Paint is seen in dressage, hunt-seat, and other English events. Paints also make excellent companions and trail horses.

Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

In the 1600s, American colonists bred horses kept by the Chickasaw Indian nation to horses they had imported from England. The result was the beginnings of the American Quarter Horse, a breed that later developed to its present state in the American West. Used to herd cattle and carry cowboys across the arid desert in the 1800s, the Quarter Horse has a rich and glamorous history. The breed earned its name as a result of its ability to run a quarter of a mile distance faster than any other breed, a feat it still accomplishes today.

The Quarter Horse is a sturdy horse with a small head and muscular neck. The breed’s hindquarters are powerful, and its legs are straight and solid. Quarter Horses come in a number of different colors, including sorrel, chestnut, bay, black, dun, grulla, palomino, roan, and gray (see the color section for photos showing various horse colors). They have a big height range, standing anywhere from 14.3 to 16 hands tall.

One of the Quarter Horse’s most outstanding features is its disposition. This quiet temperament is a big reason behind the Quarter Horse’s huge popularity. Well-known for its steady, easygoing personality, the Quarter Horse makes a good mount for beginning riders who need a quiet and forgiving horse to help them learn.

In the show ring, Quarter Horses prevail in western events; you see them most often in cattle-working competitions, western-pleasure classes, and gymkhana events. The Quarter Horse is the most popular breed of horse in the world, and numbers in the millions.

Saddlebred

Saddlebred

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

The American Saddlebred horse was developed in Kentucky in the early part of America’s history, using Morgans, Canadian horses, Narragansett Pacers (now extinct), and horses of Spanish breeding. The goal of the people who created the Saddlebred breed was to develop a horse that could comfortably carry riders across Eastern terrain.

The Saddlebred is a gaited horse, capable of performing a four-beat gait called a rack and a stepping pace in which the legs on each side move nearly in unison with each other, in addition to an animated walk, trot, and canter. Saddlebreds with these two extra gaits are called five-gaited Saddlebreds; they’re used in the show ring. Not all Saddlebreds are born with the ability to move at the rack-and-stepping pace. The ones that move only in the breed’s high-stepping walk, trot, and canter are referred to as three-gaited. Five-gaited Saddlebreds, while bred to have the ability to do the rack and stepping pace, have been trained to perform these gaits.

Saddlebreds typically have long, arched necks and fine heads that they carry rather high. The Saddlebred’s body is lithe and lean, almost like that of a human ballet dancer. Saddlebreds range in height from 15 hands to 17 hands high. The most common colors for this breed are bay, black, brown, chestnut, sorrel, and gray. Known for having spirited, but willing temperaments, Saddlebreds are easily trained, according to the people who ride them.

In the breed show ring, Saddlebreds are exhibited as either five-gaited or three-gaited and usually in saddle seat. Driving classes also are popular for this breed. Despite their innate penchant for being flashy, Saddlebreds also make good pleasure horses and are shown even in open-breed events like dressage and gymkhana.

Standardbred

Standardbred

Photo by: CliX Photography

If you’ve ever seen harness racing, then you’ve seen a Standardbred horse. Standardbreds originated during the early part of American history and were created specifically to race under harness at either the trot or the pace.

Standardbreds have an inborn ability to move at great speeds without galloping. Some members of the breed are natural born trotters and can trot at nearly 30 miles per hour. Others are bred and trained as pacers (where the legs on one side move in unison) and can attain the same speeds. The early training of prospective Standardbred racehorses fine-tunes these innate skills while discouraging the urge to gallop. However, Standardbreds are physically capable of galloping, as is evidenced by the many Standardbred pleasure horses that do so every day.

The Standardbred is closely related to the Thoroughbred, although the Standardbred is considerably more muscular. Standardbreds have rather large heads and powerful legs. They usually measure anywhere from 15 to 16 hands, and come in bay, chestnut, brown, gray, and black. The Standardbred’s disposition typically is gentle and trainable.

Although the majority of Standardbreds are used for harness racing, many retired racehorses are used as show horses and pleasure mounts. You can see them competing in a variety of different events including western classes and even dressage.

Tennessee Walking Horse

Tennessee Walking Horse

Photo by: Gemma Giannini

A group of American breeds was used to create the Tennessee Walking Horse in the early part of the 18th century. Southern plantation owners needed a mount that was capable of covering quite a bit of ground and doing so comfortably. Early Tennessee Walking Horses worked in the fields, carried their owners long distances, and pulled the family wagon on weekends.

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a gaited horse that can perform the walk, trot, and canter, in addition to the four-beat running walk for which it is famous. A well-gaited Tennessee Walking Horse gives its rider the impression of floating on air.

Tennessee Walking Horses have a straight head with larger-than-usual ears. The breed has a gracefully arched neck, prominent withers (or front shoulders), and large hooves. They come in just about any horse color. Ranging in height from 15 to 16 hands, Tennessee Walking Horses tend to be easygoing in personality.

Shows featuring the Tennessee Walking Horse emphasize the breed’s gaited aspects. However, in open shows where many breeds compete together, you find Tennessee Walking Horses in all kinds of varied events. Many Tennessee Walking Horses are used as trail horses, too.

Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred

Photo by: Sharon P. Fibelkorn

The Thoroughbred was developed in England in the 1700s strictly for the purpose of racing. The breed later was imported to the American colonies, where it ultimately influenced other breeds such as the Standardbred and Quarter Horse.

Thoroughbreds are the fastest horses in the world, and can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour on the racetrack. But racing isn’t their only talent. You typically see Thoroughbreds in the show ring, where they make terrific jumpers and dressage mounts.

The typical Thoroughbred has a straight head, high withers, and long, fine legs. Standing anywhere from 15 to 17 hands high, Thoroughbreds have a lean, lanky appearance that sets them apart from other breeds. The colors you most often see in this breed are bay, chestnut, black, brown, and gray.

Although Thoroughbreds are willing horses, they can be somewhat complicated in temperament, meaning they can be hard for some people to figure out. Beginning riders sometimes have trouble handling Thoroughbreds because of their spunky personalities.

The Thoroughbreds you most commonly see in stables and backyard pastures are retired racehorses and horses bred specifically for the show world. Most of the horses shown in hunt-seat competitions are Thoroughbreds, although this breed also does well in other English events, such as dressage, three-day eventing, and show jumping.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an awardwinning freelance writer specializing in equine subjects. She has authored articles on various equine topics in a number of horse publications, including Western Horseman, Horses USA, Thoroughbred Times, Appaloosa Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Veterinary Product News, and USDF Connection magazines. She has written five horse books besides Horse Health & Nutrition For Dummies, including Horses For Dummies, 2nd Edition (Wiley), Horseback Riding For Dummies (Wiley), and Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House).
In addition to her experience as an equine writer, she’s also a former Managing Editor of Dog Fancy magazine and a former Senior Editor of the American Kennel Club Gazette. She has authored more than 100 articles on the subject of animals and has written several books on various kinds of pets.
Audrey has been involved with horses since the age of 9. She has owned and cared for horses throughout her life, and has trained in both Western and English disciplines. She currently participates in competitive trail riding. Audrey resides in Norco, California.

Kate Gentry-Running, DVM, CVA, is a practicing veterinarian with 27 years of experience and an emphasis in equine integrative medicine. She has a particular passion for educating horse owners.
Dr. Running received her veterinary degree in 1980 from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. She was certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2001 and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine at the Chi Institute in Gainesville, Florida.
Dr. Running breeds and trains cutting horses at her ranch in Tolar, Texas.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

This article can be found in the category: