The horse is an animal that comes in many breeds. You have surely seen a number of colors, coat patterns, sizes, manes and general aesthetic styles of horses, even when just driving down the road. But of all the many different horse breeds in the world, which ones are the most popular? While some breeds are a rarer find, many others have become the favorites of equestrians from all over the world.
With origins back to the 1660s, quarter horses are referred to quite often as the quintessential “all-American horse”.
In fact, when it comes to talking about the most popular horse breeds, it only makes sense to start with the Quarter Horse as it is the most popular breed by far in America and among the top three most popular across the globe, with almost 3 million registered quarter horses in the world as of 2014, and around 74,000 new registrations being filed each year.
In Texas alone there are over 420,000 American Quarter Horses in that single state! They are often favored on ranches for their stamina and their speed – traits they were originally bred for, in fact, when they originated from Spanish stock in Virginia, back in the Colonial days.
Colonists very much enjoyed diversions from the toil of farming and settling a new land in the form of horse racing – racing thoroughbreds, specifically. Soon, the colonists began to trade with the Chickasaw Indians for a fast horse the Indians were breeding, one known as the Spanish Barb, thanks to their origins being in Spain before they were introduced to America by way of Florida.
The colonists bred their thoroughbred horses with these Spanish Barbs and, in the next 150 years, the “Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse” was born, called as such because “quarter” referred to the quarter of a mile that most Colonial races were. Some time later, the “celebrated” and “running” were dropped and the breed’s name was shortened to the American Quarter Horse.
The modern quarter horse is praised for its laid back temperament and general willingness. They are generally level-headed in new situations and considered adaptable to a variety of jobs and disciplines. Because of this, they are celebrated as a great choice for a family horse or a children’s horse.
American Paint Horse
The American Paint Horse is considered one of America’s first and truest breeds. Dating back to the 1500s when the first Spanish explorers came to North America, they brought with them “painted” (also known as two-toned horses) in the form of the Barb, Andalusian, and Arabian horses.
After running wild, these three breeds eventually formed many of the wild herds of mustangs out west.
Among those, the multicolored horses became known by the Spanish term pintado or “pinto”. Soon, those painted horses endeared themselves to Native Americans who recognized the strength and spirit of these equines, with many tribes even assigning magical qualities to the different markings and coats.
When the Thoroughbred was introduced to America, they were interbred with paints and often were some of the original quarter horses. In fact, the ties continued up until the 1940s when the AQHA was formed, excluded horses with “excessive white” (paint horses) from being considered true American Quarter Horses.
The American Paint Horse Association was formed shortly after and it boasts over 110,000 members worldwide. You might find all types of paints in the APHA, from the shorter and stockier workhorse types that share quarter horse genes to the ones more closely tied to thoroughbreds who exhibit flashier, slimmer, racier qualities.
The one consistent characteristic is a multicolored paint coat and a general hardiness and relatively longer lifespan (around 30 year old).
The Arabian horse has a long and storied ancestry. Being one of the oldest traceable purebred horses in the world, the Arabian even contributed to the creation of another very popular breed, the thoroughbred (see below).
Further, they have a flatter back when compared to many of their higher withered family. This shorter, straighter back leads to unique symmetry in their bodies and their strong legs and chests allow for balanced, assured movements.
Because of their graceful physicality, they have a long-standing association with royalty or nobility. This is echoed further in the Arabian’s famous “floating trot,” in which their movements are so graceful and fluid, it is almost as though they are floating over the ground.
The Arabian horse is thought to have originated in Egypt over 3,500 years ago, with nomadic tribes refining and selectively breeding the horse into its current day pedigree state. They took on this breeding to create the perfect desert warhorse.
At the time, what was needed was a speedy steed, a trusty mount and an animal that was hardy enough to be an easy keeper. Since surprise raids and long desert journeys were commonplace, the Arabian was bred to fit just that bill.
The desert is by no means a natural habitat for the horse but, over time, the Arabian evolved to adapt to scarce pasture, instead also eating other foods such as dates and requiring less food than other breeds to survive. Still to this day, Arabian horses are considered to be very healthy and they still require less feed than horses of a similar size to sustain.
Thoroughbreds are recognizable the world over, with just the mention of the breed name bringing to mind fast runners, long legs, strong hearts and feisty personalities. Whenever horse racing is mentioned, the first type pictured generally is the fast, flat racing of the thoroughbred.
When it comes to their physical appearance, the Thoroughbred horse boasts a deep chest, a lean body and long, flat muscles throughout. They are strong but toned, muscular but lean and a dichotomy of powerful grace.
Their backs are longer and narrow with high withers – a contrast to the rounded withers of the paint or quarter horse, as mentioned above. They are fast and light sprinters, thanks to strong hearts and lean but powerful haunches.
The Thoroughbred is the product of selective breeding and has been the subject of meticulous record keeping through the ages. Every registered Thoroughbred has genetic ties to all or one of three original horses: the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerly Turk.
These three stallions were bred in the 1600’s to 43 Royal Mares with their foals being the first of this new line: the English Thoroughbred.
While they are generally thought of as racing athletes, thoroughbreds are also being more and more recognized as ideal hunters and jumpers. Because of their natural athleticism, they can speed through courses and use their powerful haunches to launch them over jumps.
The Morgan horse is another uniquely American horse and one breed that carries on the name of its original horseman: Justin Morgan, a renaissance man in the New England area who, in 1789, became the owner of a bay colt named Figure who would become the founding sire for the entire Morgan breed.
While Figure’s own breed makeup is not known for sure, it is most likely that he was a combination of Arabian, Thoroughbred and possibly Welsh Cob.
Morgans are highly prized as the ultimate all-purpose horses with a determined ability to pull ahead of other horses. They have been just as suited for farm work as they are for harness racing, plowing and also saddlework.
Physically, Morgan horses are quite specific: short ears, chiseled, refined head, large eyes, a dishy face with a larger nose and a compact but graceful body. Their larger nostrils and wider throatlatch, too, mean that they can take in more oxygen than other breeds and can, ultimately, breathe easier. They have well-muscle chests with strong legs and a tail they cary high and straight, similar to the way an Arabian horse does.
When it comes to coat colors, Morgans are usually found in dark and solid colors (particularly bay, black, and chestnut), but they can over a wide spectrum, including pinto colorings, palomino, gray, roan and dun. Unlike, say the Amerian Paint Horse Association, there are no hard and fast rules around coat coloring for Morgan horses.
Morgan horses are prized for their friendly personalities and eagerness to please. They are known to have happy temperaments and have been called clever and intelligent by many in the equestrian industry. Morgans are very relationship-oriented and they choose to and want to bond with their humans.
The Friesian horse garners its breed name from its origin: Friesland in the Netherlands. It is one of western Europe’s oldest breeds and the only horse native to Holland.
Friesians are strikingly distinctive thanks to their shining black coats. That ebony hue is so important, too, that Friesians are only recognized by breed if they are solid black (with the one exception being the allowance of a small white star on the forehead).
They also tend to be larger than many other popular breeds, often standing tall right around 16 hands. Their manes and tails are thick and their necks arched, adding to their look of Spanish royalty.
Because of their unique and noteworthy looks, the Friesian is a natural show horse, commanding attention with ease. The shiny black coat combined with a mane and tail that fly high easily and powerful, high stepping legs, they are a tour de force.
When it comes to riding work, they are particularly well-suited for dressage. Their natural instinct for performance, gentleness and elegance makes them automatic fits for the precise, fluid movements of the dressage world.
Friesians also find success in harness racing and driving. They are balanced and strong, two qualities that are necessary for an excellent pulling horse. And when they lift their feathered feet in a trot, the visual is picturesque.
Friesians are naturally agreeable horses – strong and willing and energetic, but even-tempered and generally docile. Despite their more striking size, they are gentle (almost) giants.
Gypsy Vanners are a type of cob horse (small and solidly built) originating in Ireland – specifically, from the Gypsies of Ireland, bred with the vision of elegantly pulling a Gypsy caravan.
They are a newer recognized breed, not coming to North America until 1996, at which time the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society was formed. In fact, the breed was at that time going by a number of names but Gypsy Vanner Horse was chosen thanks to the breeding purpose of pulling a caravan.
They are typically on the smaller side, generally around 14 – 15 hands tall and usually have a paint coat and flowing manes.
Though there are no coat color requirements, most tend to be piebald or skewbald, though a few are solid colored. Their legs possess long feathering, adding to the striking effect of them pulling a wagon.
Despite their smaller stature, their hindquarters are quite strong, which has lead the breed to be thought of as a small draft horse. This is in fact because of the genetic origins they share with more recognizable draft horses such as the Clydesdale and shire horses.
The Gypsy Vanner also inherited the gentle spirit of a draft hose and are thought of as being perfect family pets and trail horses, thanks to their bombproof nature.
The Tennessee Walker (also called the Tennessee walking horse) is, obviously, native to Tennessee, with the latter part of its name being derived from its distinctive gait.
It is unique in the fact that it does a sort of running walk – that is, its legs move rapidly in a fast manner, but without the long, sweeping steps of a canter or a gallop nor the popping motion of a trot: the front foot lands on the ground just before its diagonal hind foot with a low, gliding action that results in the hind foot reaching farther than the foreleg by a bit.
The running walk is something a horse may improve upon but cannot learn fully unless they are born with a natural ability.
That gait was no accident in breeding, either, as the Tennessee Walker was brought about with the purpose of providing a smooth and safe ride for farmers as they traveled rougher terrain.
Because of this natural smoothness, they have made an easy transition from farm work to pleasure riding and competition, being at home in both English and Western disciplines.
Their registry, too, does not discriminate against certain coat colors but Tennessee Walkers are most often found in solid colors of chestnut, bay, black and buckskin.
Breeders may choose to specialize in certain coats, such as palominos or pinto markings. In fact, the very origins of the Tennessee walker are inclusive, with the breed being the product of mixing Narragansett Pacers, Canadian Pacers, Standardbreds, Thoroughbreds, Morgans and American Saddlebreds.
It almost goes without saying, but the Tennessee walker is the official state horse of Tennessee.
These spotted sweethearts are instantly distinctive. What often comes to mind is a picture of a horse with a dark, solid colored front half that fades into a back half that is with and covered in adorable spots.
However, appaloosas can skip the solid coat part altogether and be fully spotted from nose to tail, or even possess a solid head and a spotted coat the rest of the way. The only constants are that there is some amount of mottled skin, striped hooves and a white outer layer of their eyeballs.
Appaloosas have a wide variety of body types and can be leaner sprinters or stockier workhorses as a result of the multiple different origin breeds that went into making them.
These horses have strong ties to the American west and have a particular bond with the Native American people. In fact, certain geographic and demographic ties run so deep that the state of Idaho even named the Appaloosa the official state horse.
Appaloosas are adaptable to both English and Western riding, though they tend to be found more in the latter category. Their stature and disposition makes them naturally suited to Western events such as reining, cutting, barrel racing and pole bending. They have seen English discipline success, too, particularly in hunter/jumper and eventing classes.
Just hearing the word “mustang” arouses images of the wild west and feelings of power and freedom. Technically classified as a “feral horse”, they are found roaming wild in the western United States.
Originally solely Spanish horses, they have since interbred with many other horses, creating a complex gene pool that has been mixed to create something unique.
Because they are born in the wild, natural selection has created strong, hearty horses that are easy keepers and possess an intelligent spirit.
Though “mustang” is often used to describe any wild horse, there is often further clarification used to designate an animals origin. Federally protected mustangs are managed by the BLM. Other wild horse herds exist in the United States and are managed by other entities such as the United States Forest Service and Tribal Governments when on Native American land.
Since these horses are descendants of what were once domesticated horses, they are categorized as “wild” but are technically “feral”.
The mustang is generally a medium-sized horse, standing around 14 – 15 hands tall and weighing well under 1,000 pounds. Because of their multitude of breed origins, they come in many colors of coats, too, and can boast any number of patches, stars, stripes, blazes, spots, etc. In fact, check out the horse coat color guide I put together that features almost all mustangs!
When in their natural state, mustangs travel in large herds of one stallion, around eight mares and multiple young. Mustangs roam free on 34 million acres native grassland, with the Bureau of Land Management keeping a watchful eye and monitoring population growth and control.
Since 1971, the BLM has removed around 271,000 mustangs from private land. The BLM does yearly roundups of mustangs, at which time you can actually apply for and adopt your own wild mustang. It is important to remember that they will come as a wild animal with no training and so must be fully gentled.
Andalusians are known throughout the world as the Pure Spanish Horse, dating back to the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. They were bred specifically for their agility and speed and were used by fighters for close contact hand-to-hand combat in times of war.
Andalusians have an common ancestor in the Lipizzaner, which is famous for its showmanship and prowess at complicated dressage movements. Napoleon even admired the Andalusians so much that his army stole several as their crossed Europe.
The breed was exported to America in later years where they became well respected for their grace and ability to execute quick maneuvers – a stark contrast to the majority of American hoses at that time, being carriage horses. Andalusians are still used to this day as driving horses, but especially excel in the dressage arena.
Though they can come in shades of bay or black, the overwhelming majority of Andalusians are a light, almost white, gray color. They all have an arched neck and produce a consistent cadence to their gaits.
I hope you have enjoyed this look at 11 popular horse breeds. Each has its own unique characteristics but they all have one thing in common: they are loved by millions. Any one of these breeds would be a dream to own. Be sure to read the detailed breed profile I’ve completed for most of them!