Humans have relied on domesticated horse breeds for millenia – to hunt food, farm, travel, wage war, and simply for recreation or companionship.
So it’s hardly surprising that there are well over 500 distinct breeds of horse today , each with their own registries and loyal fans.
In this article we take a look at 10 of the most popular and recognizable horse breeds:
- Tennessee Walker
- American Quarter Horse
- American Paint
The Origins Of Different Horse Breeds
Domestication of horses began 6,000 years ago in the Eurasian Steppe – a vast belt of land spanning from modern day Bulgaria to Mongolia.
From there they spread all over the world, and hundreds of local horse breeds were refined to meet the needs of the people keeping them.
Some of those breeds were then traded internationally, and went on to become worldwide equine superstars, or contribute to the development of different horse breeds.
The Arabian, or Arab, is one of the oldest horse breeds in the world.
Arabian horses were first domesticated by Bedouin tribes, and there are many competing myths and legends surrounding their origin.
In some stories, the Arabian horse breed was founded by the prophet Muhammed, or even created by Allah himself – which shows how incredibly important these horses were to the people who relied upon them.
Arabian horses are 14.1 to 15.1 hands tall – which is only just above the cut off height for a pony, and therefore relatively small relative to other horse breeds.
Their coats can be bay, chestnut, gray and black. They can also have spotted patterns called sabino or rabicano.
Since the Arabian horse breed started out in the harsh deserts of the Middle East and Arabian Penninsula, they had to be tough to survive.
They also needed to be fearless in battle, but trustworthy and gentle enough to sleep inside the tent where they couldn’t be stolen or escape.
And the modern day Arabian is still a great all rounder.
The Appaloosa horse is immediately recognizable for its beautiful spots, and striped hooves.
The Appaloosa breed was founded by the Nez Perce people of the Columbia Plateau in the 18th century.
Appaloosas’ fortunes have waxed and waned since then, but today they are a popular American horse breed, and the state horse of Idaho.
Appaloosas’ most distinguishing feature is their striking pattern, which can cover their whole body, or be restricted as far as just subtle skin mottling at the muzzle, eyes and undercarriage.
The most crisp and distinct, desirable spotting pattern is caused by a gene called the Leopard Complex gene.
The Leopard Complex gene is also linked to an increased risk of eye diseases. Appaloosa horses are eight times more likely to experience inflammation of the eye and night blindness than any other breed.
Since the Appaloosa’s pattern is considered their most important characteristic, an unusual amount of variation is allowed for body shape and overall size, compared to other horse breeds.
The Morgan horse is another state horse. In fact, it was the very first horse breed to be awarded state horse status, in Vermont, where it is also the state animal.
Since 1970, it has also been the state horse of Massachusetts.
Such recognition is hardly surprising when you consider the contribution Morgan horses have made to American history.
During the American Civil War, Morgans were used as cavalry horses by both Union and Confederacy forces.
Horses are rarely used in modern combat, and so Morgans have also moved on.
Today, this breed is admired by horse lovers for its beauty and refined looks. Most Morgans are handsome shades of black and bay, and stand up to 16 hands tall.
4. Tennessee Walking Horse
The Tennessee Walking horse (a.k.a. the Tennessee Walker) is so called because they are a naturally gaited breed.
That means they are genetically better able to move at a pace in between walking and running, which is comfortable to ride on.
The Tennessee Walker started out in Tennessee and other southern states, working on farms and plantations.
It’s a big breed – they can reach a remarkable 17 hands tall!
In the 21st century, the Tennessee Walker’s unique ability still makes them a popular trail riding horse.
Besides classic equine colors like chestnut and bay, the Tennessee Walker breed standard permits a wide range of dilute colors and patterns.
Even a white coat is allowed, although it is very rare.
5. American Quarter Horse
The American Quarter horse is the most popular breed in the United States.
They come in two distinct body types:
- Stock type, which is shorter, stockier, and powerful looking.
- And halter type, which is taller and leaner, and more closely resembles their Thoroughbred forefathers.
They started out as the result of crossbreeding Thoroughbreds from the United Kingdom and horses developed by Native Americans in the 17th century.
Those early cross breeds were originally bred to work, but their owners quickly started racing them along short quarter-mile tracks for fun as well.
Which is how they came to get the name Quarter horse!
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the American Quarter Horse Association (AHQA) formed to register Quarter horses and hold them accountable to an ideal standard.
Today the AHQA is the biggest horse registry in the U.S., has a big museum in Texas, and promotes American Quarter horses for all kinds of past times including racing, trail riding, shows and timed events.
6. American Paint
Paint horses are the second most popular type of horse in America after the American Quarter horse.
In fact, they started out as horses which were excluded from the American Quarter Horse registry, when it was begun in 1941.
They were excluded for their white markings, which were considered out of keeping with the traditional qualities of a Quarter horse.
Today, Paint horses’ bold splashy patterns in black, bay, brown, chestnut and sorrel are their proudest feature. But they also come with more subtle spots in dilute colors like silver, champagne or dun.
And foals with a solid coat color can still be entered on the Paint registry if they have paint parents.
American Paint horses are closely associated with western riding and events.
Thoroughbred horses are a quintessentially British race horse breed.
But even though the Thoroughbred horse breed was developed in England as a racing horse, it was founded from horses from all over the world, including the Arabian horse.
Thoroughbreds have chiselled features, a lean body, and long legs. They are usually between 15 and 17 hands tall.
The Thoroughbred horse breed is in a league of its own – record breakingly so!
Thoroughbreds hold the world records for:
- most expensive horse ($70 million)
- fastest horse (up to 70kmph)
- highest jumpers (they can leap over 8 feet)
- and bizarrely, being able to recognize the most numbers in a minute (17, since you ask!).
Despite their iconic reputation, or perhaps because of it, Thoroughbred horses are best left to experienced horse handlers and riders.
There are small horse breeds like the Arabian, and then there are Miniature horses!
For many years, horses under 14 hands tall were classified as ponies.
But over time, horses below that threshold began to diverge into ponies with their own distinct looks and temperament, and individuals which still looked and behaved exactly like scaled-down horses.
Ultimately this led to the formation of dedicated Miniature horse breed registries.
Miniature horse typically stand less than 8.5 or 9.5 hands tall, depending on the registry they belong to.
They should look so much like a scaled down horse that if you took a photograph of one without something in the frame for reference, you wouldn’t be able to tell they’re miniature at all.
A Miniature horse should be “intelligent, curious, gentle, sensible, willing to cooperate and easy to train”.
The Hanoverian horse breed had a very auspicious start – their breeding program was begun by King George II of England.
Hanoverians are a popular horse breed for competitive events such as show jumping and dressage.
In fact they’re a popular choice with many Olympic athletes!
Hanoverians are elegant and powerful. The average height for this horse breed is 16 hands.
There are strict rules about which colors they can be registered in, so that most are chestnut, bay, black, or gray.
There are also strict medical requirements Hanoverians have to meet to join the breed’s official studbook.
So many of the best known and most popular horse breeds are racy, athletic, hot blooded breeds.
But it would be wrong not to include one of the best-loved cold blooded breeds in this article.
Of course, when applied to a horse, ‘cold blooded’ doesn’t mean the same as a cold blooded reptile! It means a large horse, with a placid and gentle disposition.
In other words, the draft horse breeds.
Clydesdales are an old Scottish breed from the U.K., and their popularity hasn’t always been secure.
Their numbers are still small, making them one of the best known among the technically rare horse breeds
Historically Clydesdales have worked on farms and pulling carriages. Today they’re a popular choice for parade horses.
And when you see horses in the Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl? Those are Budwesier’s very own Clydesdales!
Just like the Budweisers Clydesdales, most horses of this breed have bay coloring with white markings on their feet and face.
They’re a whopping 16 to 18 hands tall, and weigh up to 2,200lbs!
Summary Of Horse Breeds
So there you have it, 10 of the horse breeds we think are the most noteworthy.
But which horse breed holds your heart?
Which do you think we should add to our list?
Let us know in the comments box down below!
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Warmuth et al, Reconstructing the origin and spread of horse domestication in the Eurasian steppe, PNAS, 2012.
Glazewska, Speculations on the origin of the Arabian horse breed, Livestock Science, 2010.
Fritz et al, Genetic risk factors for insidious equine recurrent uveitis in A ppaloosa horses, Animal Genetics, 2014.
Staiger et al, Loci impacting polymorphic gait in the Tennessee Walking Horse, Journal of Animal Science, 2016.