A Horse is a Horse: Breeds Common in the Old West

Kathleen Rice Adams headerIn the Old West, a horse was a horse, right? As long as it had four hooves and a modicum of “horse sense,” nobody really cared about its pedigree, did they?

Wild horses in Arizona

wild horses in Arizona (photo by John Harwood)

Yes and no. Just as in the modern world, folks used different horse breeds for different purposes—and a broader spectrum of horse breeds and purposes existed than most people realize.

Without considering draft horses, ponies, and mules (which are fodder for other posts), here are some of the more common horse breeds found west of the Mississippi River. This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination—just an accounting of the breeds most folks would have recognized.

 

American Quarter Horse mare

Mara, an American Quarter Horse mare (photo by Derrick Coetzee)

American Quarter Horse

A truly American breed, the Quarter Horse was essential to life on the frontier for very good reasons: They could do almost everything. Heavily muscled, hardy, and acutely intelligent, Quarter Horses were the horses that won the West.

Steel Dust, the first recognized Quarter Horse, was foaled in Kentucky from stock developed in the Colonies by crossing English stock with animals left behind by the Spanish conquistadors. After his arrival in Texas in 1844, the breed came into its own. Originally called “Steeldusts,” the horses quickly became a favorite of Texas ranchers, who admired their “cow sense,” calm disposition, and the short-coupled bodies that made them maneuverable in a variety of terrain. Found in every remuda and pasture from the southern tip of Texas to Canada and from the East Coast to California, the horses worked cattle, broke sod, pulled wagons and buggies…and raced. Racing was as common in the old west as cattle drives and quilting bees. Quarter Horses came by their enduring breed name because on a straight, level quarter-mile track, they can outrun any other horse on the planet—including Thoroughbreds.

American Saddlebred yearling horses

American Saddlebred yearlings (photo by Heather Moreton)

American Saddlebred

A cross between the now-extinct Narragansett Pacer and Thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds were common by the time of the American Revolution, when they were called simply American horses. Tall and graceful like Thoroughbreds, they also exhibited the Pacer’s easy-to-ride gait. Known as Kentucky Saddlers by the early 1800s, owners and breeders prized the animals for their beauty, pleasant temperament, eagerness, strength, and stamina. Although used in the West primarily to pull carriages and provide snazzy mounts for the wealthy, they also did their share of hard work on ranches and farms.

Nez-Perce men with Appaloosa horse

Nez-Perce men with an Appaloosa, 1895

Appaloosa

The Appaloosa arose among the Nez-Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest. The Nez-Perce were skilled horse breeders, and by selecting the best animals from among the wild herds, they produced equines especially suited to war and hunting. The horses were practical, hardy, and versatile with the additional advantages of tractability, good sense, and almost endless stamina.

Unfortunately, the color pattern that made the horses distinctive also led to the downfall of their creators. To escape continuously broken treaties and the U.S. government’s Indian extermination policies, the Nez-Perce headed for Canada under relentless pursuit, only to surrender several miles from the border when starvation and ceaseless battle prevented their continued flight. The government confiscated their horses—a symbol of the people—and sold them to local settlers, hunting and killing the animals that got away. Today, the annual Chief Joseph ride, open only to Appaloosas, travels the last 100 miles of the Nez-Perce trail marking the battles of Chief Joseph’s band with the U.S. Cavalry nearly 140 years ago.

Arabian horse

Mirage, an Arabian stallion (photo by Trescastillos)

Arabian

Prior to the first Arabian’s arrival in the U.S. as a gift to President George Washington, the world’s oldest true breed enjoyed a long and storied history as prized mounts of royalty and European war horses. In 1877, the Sultan of Turkey presented a pair of stallions to General Ulysses S. Grant, who bred them to Arabian mares imported from England. Celebrated for their beauty, intelligence, loyalty, and stamina, a few were used as cavalry mounts in the Civil War but the majority saw lives of leisure among the wealthy in the Old West.

Missouri Fox Trotter Horse

Quick Trigger, a Missouri Fox Trotter (photo by Kayla Oakes)

Missouri Fox Trotter

Developed around 1821 in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, the Fox Trotting Horse comprised a mixture of Morgan, Thoroughbred, and Arabian bloodlines. The horses excelled at plowing, hauling logs, and working cattle in the rugged, rocky terrain. After adding Tennessee Walker and Standardbred blood, the horses became known as Missouri Fox Trotters and went West as stylish buggy and riding horses. Because of the breed’s ability to travel long distances at a speed of five to eight miles an hour, Missouri Fox Trotters quickly became a favorite of sheriffs and marshals, country doctors, and others who needed a quick, comfortable ride.

Known for their surefootedness, sweet nature, and comfortable seat, today Missouri Fox Trotters are the horse of choice for the National Park Service.

Morgan horse

Morgan colt (photo by Laura Behning)

Morgan

America’s first recognized horse breed descended from a two-year-old stallion of unknown ancestry acquired by a teacher in 1791 as settlement of a debt. The horse famously passed along his extraordinary traits, including sweet disposition, cobby and well-muscled body, and hardiness. Morgans were official cavalry mounts on both sides during the American Civil War. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and Union General Philip Sheridan both rode Morgans they personally owned.

Both before and after the war, Morgans served as draft horses, stock horses, and speedy, durable mounts, playing roles on farms and ranches, among the miners during the California Gold Rush, as favored mounts of the Pony Express, and racing horses. Morgan blood heavily influenced the development of Quarter Horses in Texas. Although the breed almost died out in the 1870s, a few diligent breeders revived the bloodlines that continue today.

Mustang horses in Nevada

Mustangs in Nevada (Bureau of Land Management photo)

Mustang

America’s feral horses are living history and an enduring reminder of the country’s Wild West past. Descended from escaped and abandoned horses brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s, Mustangs claim Barb, Sorraia, and Andalusian blood, along with traits inherited from all other American breeds. “Hot” horses (meaning they love to run), their intelligence and intuition made them notoriously difficult to catch, contain, and tame, but once domesticated, Mustangs became strong, loyal, reliable, and sturdy mounts and draft animals, performing all sorts of tasks in the American West.

In 1900, approximately 2 million Mustangs roamed 17 western states; by 1970, thanks to an extermination program undertaken by stockmen who considered the wild horses a threat to their range and purebred herds, fewer than 17,000 remained. The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 protects the animals now. Under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management, herds thrive on open rangeland in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, and several other western states. Without natural predators, herds can double in four years, so the BLM periodically conducts roundups and places the detainees up for adoption. Those not adopted are re-released. (The BLM program is controversial and way beyond the scope of this post.)

Paint Horse

Paints, also called pintos during the period, were favored by the Comanche Indians not only for their speed and endurance, but also because their “loud” color patterns gave the horses and their riders “magic” in battle. Reportedly brought to the New World by Hernando Cortés, the first “horses with white splotches” appeared on the American continent in 1519. Some escaped, others were left behind when the explorers returned to Spain, but eventually the animals interbred with other wild horses and produced entire herds with paint markings.

Similar to American Quarter Horses in body type, appearance, and versatility, modern Paints also are considered quintessential stock and rodeo horses.

Rocky Mountain Horse

Rocky Mountain Horse (photo by Heather Moreton)

Rocky Mountain Horse

Somewhat of a latecomer, the Rocky Mountain horse originated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Largely a secret outside that area until about 1880, the horses were surefooted, easy-gaited, and versatile. In the Old West, postmen, doctors, and traveling preachers favored the horses. Because the breed also is strong and tough, Rocky Mountain Horses were used to plow fields, herd cattle, and pull buggies and wagons.

Tennessee Walking Horse

Tennessee Walking Horse (photo by Jean)

Tennessee Walking Horse

Known today primarily for its “running walk” gait and flashy, high-stepping movement, the original Tennessee Walking Horses were developed in the American South for use on plantations in all sorts of capacities. The breed’s ancestors include Narrgansett Pacers, Canadian Pacers, and Spanish Mustangs from Texas. Today’s breed arose in the late 1800s after interbreeding with Morgan stock.

Primarily a pleasure-riding horse for well-to-do city dwellers, a few Tennessee Walkers were employed by Old West doctors and others who required a mount that wouldn’t jar all their bones loose during lengthy trips.

Canadian Horse

Canadian Horse (photo: Rare Breeds Canada)

Canadian Horse

One last breed deserves mention, not because people would have encountered it in the Old West, but because it contributed a great deal to other breeds. Descended from draft and riding horses imported to Canada in the late 1600s, the Canadian Horse became popular in the American Northeast during the late 1700s. Due to massive exportation to the U.S. and Caribbean, along with extensive and often fatal service during the American Civil War, the breed nearly became extinct in the mid-19th Century. In the mid-20th Century, a group of dedicated breeders began a repopulation program, but the horse remains a rare breed.

 

 

Are you especially fond of a particular horse breed? Which one? Why? Share with us in the comments, and you just might win a KINDLE copy of the four-novel boxed set A Cowboy’s Touch. The set includes Cheryl Pierson’s The Half-Breed’s Woman, Livia J. Washburn’s Spirit Catcher, Kit Prate’s Wild Texas Winds, and Kathleen Rice Adams’s Prodigal Gun. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)

 

Kathleen Rice Adams

A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s tales, even the good guys wear black hats.


Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.


Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang’s hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.


18 Comments

  1. This is probably the most I have ever learned about horses. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You’re quite welcome, Janine. 🙂

  2. Great post, Kathleen. I’m going to need to bookmark it for research purposes. 🙂 I have a pair of Shires that I’m featuring in an upcoming novel and sequel novella that pull my freighter’s wagon. Huge animals – black with white socks and blaze, they make a powerful pair. I had to give them august names of course, so they are Helios and Hermes. 🙂

    1. Shires are such magnificent animals, aren’t they? They’re HUGE! I remember something about the largest one ever recorded weighing 1.5 tons. HUGE!

      Love the names of your Shires. 🙂

  3. I like this Kathleen. I think I’ll do COWS next. They can be tricky, too.

    I’m always careful what horse I have my characters ride. I lean toward wild mustangs but then flash some characters up with a thoroughbred once in a while.

    I’m going to mark this post so I can have all your comments along with the types.

    1. Mary, do cows! Cows are very tricky. Don’t turn your back on ’em.

      Bookmark the post for the types. Ignore my comments. I make all of them up. 😉

  4. I did not know some of those breeds… I think all of them are beautiful!

    1. In my personal opinion, Colleen, ALL horse are beautiful. I have to admit to a fondness for quarter horses, though, bein’ as they’re a Texas breed. 😉

  5. painted will always be my favorite.

    1. Paints are flashy — they always stand out! I always wanted a paint horse when I was a kid. Never got one. 🙁

  6. Paints are always a favorite because of the random beautiful coats.

    1. I think paints’ coats must be like snowflakes, Susan: each one different. They’re gorgeous, aren’t they? 🙂

  7. I enjoyed this post, Kathleen! Very informative! I remember as a child watching Disney on Sunday nights with my family and (being a horse enthusiast) I always have remembered the one titled “Justin Morgan had a Horse” about the start of the Morgan breed. Some of the scenes are even branded in my memory 🙂

    1. I remember that Disney episode, too, Kathryn! That little unknown, unwanted, funny-looking little horse threw all of his best characteristics every time. We still see the effects of his genes today in almost every American breed. Kinda nice, huh?

  8. Thanks in part to the Budweiser horses, I’ve been a fan of draft horses (no specific breed from all of them, just all draft horses). However, we did have a Quarter Horse/Tennessee Walker mix for several years. And I did fall in love with a sweetheart (as long as you never tried to saddle her) of an Arabian that belonged to my daughter’s riding teacher.

    1. LOL! I’ve known horses you had to sneak up on with a saddle. Challenging, no?

      I think most people adore Clydesdales, even if they’ve never met one — thanks, in part, to Budweiser’s iconic Super Bowl commercials. I’m looking forward to this year’s.

      Thank goodness most draft horses and mules are gentle and friendly, because they’re enormous. Just imagine if something that big took a strong dislike to you!

      Thanks for commenting, Glenda. 🙂

  9. Thanks for another interesting article on Horses. There were several breeds I had never heard of. Thinking of the Narragansett Pacer and several others, how could they become extinct when they were being used and appreciated? I find it interesting that the Rocky Mountain Horse was developed in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Why the name? I don’t know much about horses and their configuration, but can notice some subtle differences between the breeds pictured here.
    I was not aware of the Canadian horse. I grew up in an area of NY adjacent to the Canadian province this breed likely first inhabited and thrived. I visited the Rare Breeds Canada site. Very interesting information on the number of endangered varieties of animals and how few there are. The fate of the Appaloosa is another thing we need to be ashamed of during our western expansion. I read somewhere that some cavalry soldiers cried while carrying out to shoot the appaloosas in the final battles with Chirf Joseph. The whole incident is a black spot on our history.

    1. All of your questions are good one, Patricia. Wish I knew the answers! I suspect Narragansett Pacers and other breeds became extinct because people decided they preferred the derivatives. Like the environment, animals weren’t always protected the way they are now. Sad, huh?

      I completely agree about the extermination policies the U.S. government adopted during the nineteenth century. I’ve heard the same thing about soldiers, in regard to both people and horses. Genocide is an ugly thing. 🙁

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