A look at the first 50 years of the largest equine breed registry in the world. 

Although the American Quarter Horse Association was not the first equine breed association established in America, it soon was the fastest-growing, and ultimately became highly successful. On March 15, 1940, about 75 men and women gathered in Fort Worth to formally establish the AQHA. When the first stud book was issued the following year, it listed 537 horses-all of whom had been inspected and approved as to recognized Quarter Horse type and ancestry.

The AQHA headquarters: a $5.3 million complex in Amarillo, Texas. The association has more than 240 full-time employees.

As of January 1, 1990, a total of 2,682,844 horses had been registered, and membership stood at 250,000.

It has been well chronicled that the Quarter Horse dates back to colonial times, although he was not known by that name until much later. Horse racing was popular in the East during the 1600s and 1700s. But because the colonies seldom had tracks per se, and long, straight stretches of road were scarce, most races were run for a short distance down ” main street.” Seldom did this distance exceed a quarter of a mile. As a result, these horses were referred to as short horses, or quarter-of-a-mile running horses.

As settlers headed west, these horses went with them. Gradually, different families of these horses became known-families such as Steel Dust, Billy, Rondo, Cold Deck, Peter McCue, and Joe Bailey, plus others.

These horses became extremely popular with ranchers because of their speed and cow sense-and for racing at short distances. Yet, while ranchers were breeding their own Quarter Horses, there was no systematic record. And there was another problem, explained by Mac French in his article, “Beginnings of the Quarter Horse Stud Book” (WH, July-August ’41)

“Breeders of Quarter Horses during the years had grown increasingly restive as other recognized breeds, by virtue of registrations and adherence to rigid requirements, became known and accepted by the public as pure bred. The result was that the sale, the showing, and the stud services of such breeds was a matter of publicized record . . . while the Quarter Horse breeder, unrecognized in any way, could give only his word as to his horses’ breeding . . . .

“Furthermore, the advantages of selective breeding, followed by other breeds in the improvement of their animals, was almost a closed avenue to the Quarter Horse breeder by reasons of his ignorance of other strains besides his own. And lastly, there was a sentimental desire to preserve for future generations the lineage and descent of some of the great horses of the past.

“These, perhaps, were the chief reasons for the desire of Quarter Horse breeders to establish an association-a desire which manifested itself as a result of the recent publicity which the breed has been given.” (French was referring to articles being written by Bob Denhardt and Jack Casement.)

Since the people interested in forming an association were scattered all over the West, it was difficult to have them all attend a special meeting. Therefore it was decided to call for the organizational meeting during the 1940 Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth.

A 1949 the American Quarter Horse Association pamphlet titled ” Ride a Quarter Horse” tells best what happened in the next few years:

“It was during this meeting that it was decided to issue the first registration number in the first stud book to the stallion winning (the championship) at the above-mentioned show (Fort Worth) the following year. This award went to Wimpy, owned by the King Ranch of Kingsville, Texas. (Officers elected at that meeting were W.B. Warren, president; J . F. Hutchins, first vice-president; R. Lee Underwood, second vice-president; J. Goodwin Hall, treasurer; and Bob Denhardt, secretary.)

“The first office of the association was located in College Station, Tex., where the first secretary, Robert M. Denhardt, was a faculty member of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. It was here that ‘Bob’ laid much of the foundation work of the association. During the first year he registered 347 horses and devoted most of his efforts to research work. In 1941 he registered 452 horses and published the No. 1 Stud Book and Registry. In 1942 there were 308 horses registered.

“In 1943, the office was moved to Eagle Pass, Tex., and Mrs. M.G. Michaelis continued the work on the research of the old-time Quarter Horse sires and dams, both in this country and in old Mexico. During 1943, the No.2 Stud Book and Registry was published and 411 horses were registered. Activity of the association was greatly curtailed during 1944 and ’45 due to the warring conditions. Registrations were at a minimum due to rationing of gasoline, photographic supplies, and the combined efforts of all to win a war. However, during 1944, there were 644 horses registered and in 1945 there were 715 horses registered. The No. 3 Stud Book and Registry was also published.

“In 1946 the office was moved to Fort Worth, and John C. Burns was elected executive secretary. The backlog of applications which had accumulated in the years of the war were given immediate attention. Registration requirements were geared to the times, which eliminated the picture requirements, and additional inspectors were sent into the field. In September 1946, the office was moved to Amarillo, when Raymond D. Hollingsworth succeeded John C. Burns. With the year 1946 ending, there was a total of 3,817 horses registered.

“At the annual meeting in Fort Worth in March 1947, the Permanent Stud Book was officially opened. This was the long-awaited takeoff on a long-range registration program of horses from proven bloodlines and conformation, that would expedite registration. During the year 1947, there were 5,214 horses registered in the Tentative Stud Book.

“The year 1948 was a banner year for the association. The Permanent Stud Book requirements were adjusted to allow the get from a permanently registered sire and a permanently registered dam to be registered directly into the Permanent Stud Book at birth without inspection. In September, the first issue of The Quarter Horse Journal was presented to the breeders as the official publication of the association, and in October the No. 4 Stud Book and Registry was released, carrying the registrations through 12,000. The year 1948 was climaxed by registering 3,804 horses in the Tentative Registry, 300 directly in the Permanent Registry, and 883 horses by means of transfer into the Permanent Registry.”

Those early years of the association were not without their problems. One of the biggest was that horses would not be accepted for registration unless they had acceptable bloodlines, and passed inspection. The person who took a lot of flak for turning down horses was Helen Michaelis, who served as AQHA secretary from 1942 through 1946. Helen was the wife of a rancher, Mac Michaelis, and a lifelong horsewoman. In an article titled “Helen Michaelis, Second Secretary, AQHA” (The Quarter Horse Journal, September 1960), Bob Denhardt wrote:

“No doubt the biggest problem Helen had to face grew out of the rule adopted by the association that in order to be registered, a horse must qualify on bloodlines. Had Helen known less about bloodlines, the task might have been easier. Everyone who had a horse turned down on bloodlines, after the inspector had passed it on performance and conformation, felt he was personally insulted. The very idea of having his horse turned down by some ‘woman who never even saw the horse.’

“Ignoring indignant protests and appeals, Helen continued registering horses strictly according to the rules and regulations. The good of the breed prohibited any exceptions, for each and every case was exceptional to the owner of the turned-down horse. The war years and the requirement for pictures also contributed considerably to the unrest . . .

“It should be mentioned here that she was not the only officer that was on the receiving end. The executive committee, composed of the officers, voted on each horse turned down, and were equally responsible with Helen.

“When you turned down someone’s favorite horse, and we had to turn down more than we took, you soon had a group, restless and unhappy. So the National Quarter Horse Association was formed, and California, sparked by Lisle Sheldon, was about to form a third group. We were receiving ultimatums on all sides. Lee Underwood was president, R.A. Brown and I were vice-presidents, and of course, Helen, secretary-treasurer.

wimpy0889 Denhardtphoto webWimpy, No. 1 in the AQHA Stud Book, was sired by Solis, by Old Sorrel by Kickory Bill; and was out of Panda, by Old Sorrel by Hickory Bill. Foaled in 1935, he was bred and owned by the King Ranch. This is photo is by Bob Denhardt from the WH photo archives.

“We had a private meeting and decided that we would all retire in March of 1946 and let a clean slate of officers take over. Then old grudges would be gone, and a new start could be made, with a greater chance of bringing the discordant groups into the fold. It worked out and before long, by giving a little here and there, the groups were once more united. Melville Haskell and Albert Mitchell deserve most of the credit for bringing all the groups together into one Quarter Horse association.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, the association enjoyed unprecedented growth. Tens of thousands of horses were being registered every year. And it seemed as if almost every town of any size was holding an approved AQHA show every year. This gradually began to include the Midwest, East, and deep South, as the popularity of this talented horse spread.

In 1974, the first World Championship Quarter Horse Show was held in Louisville, Ky., and saw 692 entries. Since 1976, the show has been held in Oklahoma City, and the ’89 edition saw 2,063 entries.

The American Junior Quarter Horse Association was formed in 1970, and since 1972, its annual championship show has been held in Tulsa. AJQHA membership currently totals about 8,700.

The Quarter racing industry boomed right along with the show industry, and the purse money to be won became phenomenal. The All-American Futurity, for 2-year-olds, every Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, pays $1 million to the winner.

Stud fees for racing, halter, and performance sires spiraled ever upwards. Fees of $5,000 to $10,000 were common in the 1970s and early ’80s.

But, in the mid-1980s, the unprecedented growth began dropping. This coincided with the slump in the oil economy. And the Quarter Horse was not the only breed affected. The Thoroughbred and Arabian industries have experienced similar slumps. But it’s not necessarily all bad. Many breeders feel that, in the long run, the Quarter Horse industry will benefit because many horses, particularly mares, that should never have been used for breeding have been culled. Pruning weak branches makes for a stronger tree.

The AQHA has also instituted programs to boost interest in owning Quarter Horses. Chief among them are establishment of the amateur program, Incentive Fund, a monthly television program called America’s Horse, and novice youth and novice amateur classes.

As interest in Quarter Horses spread worldwide, the AQHA established an International Affairs Department in 1988. This includes marketing programs and educational events for members in more than 60 foreign countries. Undoubtedly the foreign market will play an ever-increasing role in the next 50 years of the American Quarter Horse Association.”


Legends Volume 1 cover

Interesed in learning about Wimpy and other legendary horses, we invite you to read through Western Horsemans Legends Volume 1. It provides exclusive detailed profiles, photographs, pedigrees and performance summaries of the great legend horses that played significant key roles in the Quarter Horse industry. The profiles include over 175 photos of the amazing horses and the people who helped make them famous.

Click here to purchase Legends: Volume 1 

This article was originally published in the March 1990 issue of Western Horseman.

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