The American cowboy and his horse have become icons of the wild west. While most people will never step foot on a ranch let alone ride a horse or work a cow, the ranch horse is still a very valuable team member for farms and ranches throughout the United States. Whether you are running cattle, farming sheep or even just raising horses, a good ranch horse can help you speed through a day’s work.
There are some breeds of horses that lend themselves more naturally to ranch work than others. You need your horse to be safe and sane, quick enough to chase after a cow if need be, strong enough to hold the end of the rope if you need to doctor a cow and have enough stamina to do these tasks all day long.
Let’s have a look at some of the horse breeds that are best suited to being ranch horses.
The Quarter Horse has secured its place in American history as the iconic symbol of the old west. While other breeds certainly excel at being ranch horses, the Quarter Horse breed was formed in America by ranchers who wanted to bring the best horses together.
The Quarter Horse excels at all of the tasks a rancher needs on a day to day basis. They can work cows, hold the end of a rope and chase after livestock when asked. They are can be quiet enough for the youngest cowboys to ride and quick enough to get things done in a hurry when need be.
Over time, different lines developed for different purposes. The foundation-bred Quarter Horses are most popular for ranch work on many true working ranches in the United States.
American Paint Horse
The American Paint Horse has a story not too different from the Quarter Horse. The AQHA was formed for solid horses whereas the founding members of the APHA valued color and performance. The horses themselves have a similar origin, working ranch horses.
Today, you can even find horses that are registered with both registries. The American Paint Horse excels at any task you might need on a ranch. One thing is for sure, if you are doing your ranch work on an American Paint Horse, he’ll get noticed!
You may not have thought of a mustang as a good ranch horse. The fact is, many wild mustang herds were formed from ranchers turning out excess stock. Different herds may vary in type depending on what kind of stallions were turned loose in the area, but ranch-type horses are very common.
Mustangs have two great qualities, the ability to navigate rough terrain and the experience traveling long distances on a day to day basis. In the wild, mustangs frequently have to travel long distances between food and water. This helps them to grow accustomed to navigating difficult footing. Surefootedness is definitely a great quality to have in a ranch horse!
One of the best ranch horses I ever knew was a purebred Appaloosa stallion. This horse could work a gate and hold a cow like no other horse I have ever ridden. The Appaloosa horse was prized by the Native Americans. In fact, when you have time read my post with 19 facts about the Appaloosa horse.
Appaloosas can have varying different body types. The American Quarter Horse is an approved outcross though so, it is possible to find registered Appaloosa’s with high percentage Quarter Horse blood. Foundation Appaloosas, as well as those Appaloosas crossed with Quarter Horses, should naturally excel at ranch work.
The Morgan Horse is a breed bred for versatility. This horse needed to be versatile enough to do ranch chores by day and pull a buggy by night if he was asked to. The Morgan horse was the second breed to be started in America and the founding sire was Justin Morgan’s horse, Figure.
There are different bloodlines of Morgan horses that excel in different disciplines. The “Working Western Family” (also referred to as 2WF) is comprised of Morgan horses that excel particularly in ranch work. (source)
While not a “breed” of horse, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the use of mules on the ranch. While not every horseman can properly train a mule, their intelligence, sturdiness, and agility make them excellent for use on a working ranch.
Mules can work a rope or cut a cow just as good as any other ranch horse. Some of it depends on their breeding, of course. If the mule has a draft horse as a mother, it may be too heavy to be a saddle mule. If, on the other hand, mom is a Quarter Horse or Paint Horse, you may be lucky enough to wind up with a super hardy partner.
Common Tasks for Ranch Horses
When you are trying to decide which breed of horse would excel at being a ranch horse, you need to look at the tasks you need the horse to perform. The job you and your horse do will vary depending on the type of ranch you operate. Do you run a cow/calf operation? If so your horse will probably need to learn how to do tasks like these:
- Rope a cow or calf.
- Hold a cow or calf for doctoring
- Drag a calf to the branding fire
- Ground tie while the rancher mends a fence.
- Hobble when needed.
- Pony young horses
- Cut a cow from the herd
- Round up cattle (cattle drives)
Any horse that can perform the routine tasks needed to be done on a ranch is a great ranch horse. While I have listed some common breeds above that are known to make great ranch horses, that doesn’t mean that your horse can’t get the task done with the right training.
It all comes down to what you want to accomplish and how much time you are willing to put into training your horse to do those tasks. With the right temperament and willingness to learn, any horse of any breed can learn to do basic ranch tasks. A Tennessee Walker may not make the best cutting horse but he can learn how to cut a cow and hold a rope on occasion if you wanted to teach him.