After a long spring and an even longer winter, I finally decided the green grass was high enough for the horses to safely eat. I let our little herd graze for an afternoon and, to prevent founder, called them in during my evening chores. I filled the grain bucket and whistled. The five geldings were about a half-mile away. I saw the first head jerk up. One of the horses, probably chowhound Tuff, heard the call. Soon, all five were headed in at a dead run.
From the house, my wife walked briskly out to watch. Despite coming from a family of sailors, she has never recovered from the horse-bug bite she suffered as a child. My daughter sprinted, sans shoes, over the gravel and across the yard to watch. My son, sensing the approaching power, rode his bike madly from the driveway.
At a quarter mile, the sound of the horse’s hooves on the moist, spring sod became audible. A little closer and I could hear their lungs forcing the air in and out. Coming into focus, their outstretched necks leaned forward, and the setting sun highlighted their muscular frames. As they arrived, snorts of distrust, prancing, and a chaotic swirl of hard-breathing horseflesh circled the pen. But they soon dropped the mustang act, walked placidly in, and began devouring their grain, as I scratched dead hair from their coats. There’s just no other breed quite like the American Quarter Horse.
In 2007, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) registered its 5 millionth horse, and today, registrations just passed 5.4 million. It’s the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization. Cutting horses, ranch horses, race horses, reining horses, halter horses, barrel horses, rope horses, pleasure horses, trail horses, pasture ornaments, and a thousand other kinds of horses have had AQHA “papers” attached to their lives. But until recently, I had no idea that almost all these horses can trace their lineage back to just 11 foundation sires. A visit to the Legends of the Breed: Bloodlines of the American Quarter Horse (which opened March 2012 and runs through July 21) at the AQHA Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas, rectified that oversight.
Jim Jennings worked for the AQHA for 37 years and retired as the executive director of publications. He’s working on a book chronicling the history of the association from 1990–2014 to commemorate the association’s 75th anniversary in 2015. He’s also the association’s de facto historian and tour guide. The day we met in Amarillo, he cut the perfect image of a 21st century West-Texas Quarter Horse man—pressed jeans, starched shirt, and a sharp crease in his hat. He was friendly, unassuming, and a wealth of information.
“My family has literally had Quarter Horses all my life,” he told me. “And it was my father who instilled in me a love of the Quarter Horse. I’m not sure who was happier when I went to work for The Quarter Horse Journal back in 1971, him or me. And all these years later, I’m still amazed at what this wonderful horse can do.”
We walked into the Grand Hall of the museum—immediately my eye is drawn to 12-foot diameter bronze medallion depicting the Quarter Horse at the end of the 50-foot long hall. Along the walls, framed by towering stone pillars, are the legends of the breed—both human and horse. At my feet is the original Foundation Bloodlines family tree, in a 20-foot square etched in the stone floor. It’s an impressive space, though I was more drawn to the adjoining Scharbauer Gallery, where the entire AQHA Foundation Bloodlines are displayed in a giant diagram format, crisscrossing the walls, connecting mares and studs to each other and back again. Jim guided me through the maze.
“The exhibit and the display focuses around the bloodlines of 11 of the foundation horses,” he said. “You see not only how these 11 foundation sires are bred, but it also shows many of their famous Quarter Horse descendants. It truly is a wall of legends.”
While there is some fossil evidence of horse-like creatures on the American continents, horses as we know them did not appear in North America until the 15th century with the Columbus expeditions. Centuries of mixed breeding later, what we recognize as the Quarter Horse finally emerged, but the breed’s strongest roots can be traced across the pond to England. A stallion called The Godolphin Arabian imported in 1728 from Tunisia via France revolutionized horse racing in England. That horse (along with two others) is recognized as the father of the Thoroughbred. In 1752, John Randolph of Virginia imported Janus, a grandson of The Godolphin Arabian, to the American colonies, where horse racing was very popular, among both the colonists and Native American cultures, specifically the Chickasaw Tribe of the Mississippi Valley.
In those days, races were generally held along the main streets of small villages. And due to undulating terrain and thick forests, open paths were limited to about a quarter mile. Most races were informal, though important cultural events, and there were no set standards. Soon the horses that could win at these short distances became referred to as “Quarter Pathers.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, this format drove breeders to produce the predecessors of the American Quarter Horse. Randolph crossed Janus with the Chickasaw mares, and his colts began to clean up on the racetrack.
Bob Denhardt, who was instrumental in founding the AQHA, calls Janus “the forefather of the American Quarter Horse.” Though he’s not among the 11 official “Foundation sires,” his grandson, Printer, is.
After the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the Thoroughbred and what became the American Quarter Horse began to diverge. The English and more affluent Americans focused on horses inclined to run longer distances on manicured tracks. While the common man, the farmer, the frontiersman, and the Native continued to match his horse against his neighbor’s on short tracks. He’d work his horse all week before running him on the weekend. These horses were stout and more compact and muscular than their long-distance counterparts.
The ancestors of the Quarter Horse were known for having a reliable disposition and for being tough, hardworking, and quick. As the pioneers moved westward, so did their horses. Along the way, these horses mixed with Indian ponies and mustangs, and as cattle became more and more important to the West, the “Quarter Pathers” proved perfect for cow work. The versatility of the breed was unparalleled. This was the horse that broke the sod of the Midwest, carried the buffalo hunters across the plains, and made up the cavvy of countless ranches and trail drives from Texas to the railheads.
The AQHA did not form until 1940, and it was only in retrospect that the 11 “Foundation Sires” were identified. During their lifetimes in the 1800s and early 1900s, these horses were regionally famous and sought after as sires. However, there was no registry and little record keeping for their feats. These were simply good, fast horses. And taken as a herd, they demonstrate the remarkable diversity of the breed.
Traveler, for instance, was thought to have been born in upstate New York, shipped in a boxcar to Texas in the early 1880s, where he was hitched to a dirt scraper. His railroad contractor owner decided, however, that he’d rather have a mule, so he traded Traveler to a man named Triggerfoot Self, who went on to race the horse against a well-known mare in central Texas. Despite having no known pedigree, Traveler won the race and is recognized as one of the breed’s preeminent sires, with offspring including fellow Foundation stud Little Joe.
It’s said that Old Billy’s owner chained him to a tree before going off to fight in the Civil War (which was only expected to last a few days at the time). Old Billy stood tied to that tree for the length of the war, and when it ended, his feet had to be trimmed with an axe. Who fed and watered him for those four years remains a mystery. Old Billy sired several colts, one of which was born in 1868 on a night when his owner was making a killing at a poker table with a “cold” (or stacked) deck of cards. That colt was named Old Cold Deck, and he went on to run the legs off of everything in Missouri and Arkansas. Both horses are among the Foundation sires.
Peter McCue was foaled in 1895 and was such a good runner that his original owner, Sam Watkins, registered him as a son of a Thoroughbred horse, so he could run in recognized races. Watkins later amended his story and claimed the horse’s sire was actually Dan Tucker, a Quarter Pather. Regardless, the Peter McCue’s influence in the Quarter Horse world is undeniable, having sired Badger, Hickory Bill, Old Sorrel, and Joe Hancock.
The consolidation of these horses began in the 1930s, when Denhardt was a student at UC Berkeley, spending every minute of his spare time at Paul Albert’s nearby Tarantula Ranch. Albert was in the process of starting Western Horseman magazine, and his ranch was a gathering place for young men to talk horses until all hours of the night. One of the enthusiasts was Francis Haines, who later became instrumental in the organization of the Appaloosa Horse Association. Dick Halliday created the first Palomino Horse Association, and Luis Ortega became one of the country’s premier rawhide braiders. And many of them wrote for Albert’s fledgling magazine “for fun.”
During their all-night bull sessions, the topic of Steeldust horses would occasionally bubble up. The term “Steeldusts” came from the prolific sire Steel Dust, who was born in 1843 in Kentucky and later brought to Texas. Denhardt would call Steel Dust, “the first of the legendary heroes of the modern Quarter Horse.” Regardless of pedigree, however, the cowy, quick, stout horses of Texas became known as “Steeldusts.”
Fascinated by the Steeldusts, Bob Denhardt researched the horses and wrote several articles for Albert. His work and connections in with the best Texas breeders of the Steeldust kind instantly made him the point of contact for anyone interested in the Quarter Horse. Within a year of his first article, Denhardt moved to create an association that represented the Quarter Horse. He was instrumental in writing the charter, breed conformation standards, and stud book for what would become the AQHA. He also served as the first secretary for the association and went on to write several books about the breed. At the outset, the founders (including Steeldust breeders Coke Roberds, Ott Adams, George Clegg, Dan Casement, and Helen and Maxie Michaelis) were motivated to preserve what they thought was a nearly extinct line of horses, figuring there were fewer than 1,000 horses in the nation that would qualify.
It was agreed the horse’s distinguishing characteristics would be—in order of importance—conformation, performance, and bloodlines. Conformation requirements boiled down to short, stocky, bulldog-type horses (see sidebar). Performance was determined as a better-than-average cow horse by its ability to cut and rope and speed at 200–300 yards. Bloodlines were less rigid, though. If the horse had 50 percent recognized Quarter Horse blood, and showed the right conformation and performance, it would be registered.
In 1940, the fledgling association held its first show at the Texas Cowboy Reunion in Stamford. The next year, at the Fort Worth Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show, it was agreed that the winner of the Quarter Horse stallion class would receive the “Permanent 1” number in the upcoming stud book. The King Ranch’s Wimpy won it and went on to sire 174 colts, dying at the age of 22. Despite the euphoria over the fledgling association, there were early splinter groups and intense controversy. Disciplines warred each other (racing vs. cow horse); regions had dust-ups (Arizona vs. Texas); and socio-economic status chaffed (rich, oil-owning Texas ranchers vs. the common horse breeder). Charges of double standards and suspect registration policies threatened to sink the organization, and the contentions over registration standards boiled over at the 1946 annual meeting in Eagle Pass, Texas. Outgoing President Lee Underwood even suffered a heart attack and had to be helped from the room.
Throughout its history, the primary internal struggle within the AQHA has been between racehorse men and cowboys. Balancing the influence of Thoroughbred blood has given the association’s leadership plenty of heartburn, but by the end of the 1960s the organization managed to keep all the interested parties under one roof. And by the 1970s, the association started to boom. In 1974, AQHA surpassed registration number 1 million but did not assign the number to a horse. It was reserved to honor the men and women who helped build the association. In 1983, registration number 2 million was given to a mare named Two Million, owned by the King Ranch of Kingsville, Texas. Eight years later in 1991, Three Million Cash, owned by the Phillips Ranch of Frisco, Texas, was given registration number 3 million. Ten years after that, in 2001, registration number 4 million was given to Shinelikefourmillion owned by Carol Rose of Gainesville, Texas. Shelly Nielson of Alberta, Canada, purchased the rights through an online auction to registration number 5 million in 2007.
Current AQHA Executive Vice President Don Treadway says: “[The Quarter Horse] is so dependable. We never let a single activity dominate all the others. Versatile, versatile, versatile. He was a working horse all week and then fun on the weekend. He’s not a one-dimensional horse, that’s why he’s so popular. And he’s got a good disposition.”
Back home, I can trace the ancestry of my little remuda further than my own—thanks to the AQHA. My latest purchase, Amarillo Slim (a son of Smart Little Lena registered as Hesjanaroll) traces back to Peter McCue, and he can cut and rope as good as any, but his running genetics show through in his long face and flatter croup. My wife’s horse, Deuce (Two Peps), goes back to Old Billy. He’s as bulldog-looking as they get anymore, and he can hold a cow. I’ve doctored many a yearling in the pasture on him. My daughter’s horse, Tuff (Tuff Peppy’s Playboy), goes back to Old Cold Deck. My son’s horse, Vernon, a son of Little Peppy named Zoyas Tee Cross, at 19 could probably still win a halter class. He was the first horse I ever started on my own, and now my son rides him.
For as much as has been written about the majesty of the horse—the freeing spirit and trusting nature—a horse is also a vital link to the past. And every evening when mine come charging in for feed, I see them move my children’s souls. I know that as long as they have a horse, they’ll feel a connection to me, too.