In 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?
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
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.
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 an Appaloosa, 1895
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.
Mirage, an Arabian stallion (photo by Trescastillos)
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.
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 colt (photo by Laura Behning)
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.
Mustangs in Nevada (Bureau of Land Management photo)
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.)
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
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 (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.
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.)