Ranch Horses

Quarter Horses Then and Now, Part 1

Steeldust Quarter horse stallion and mares

Steeldust was a scion of the oldest and most aristocratic of American families, the Quarter Horse, a race who, figuratively, could trace one side of the family to the Mayflower and the other to the conquistadores of Spain.

It was a happy day when the horse of the Cavalier in Virginia was crossed with the Spanish horse, because the result was the Quarter Horse; a horse which inherited from its Virginia sires speed and compactness, and from its Spanish dames endurance and cow-sense, a combination which was later to make him an ideal horse for the cattlemen of the Southwest. Speed for short distances, weight for the rope, endurance for work.

The Quarter Horse has distinct characteristics, and a horseman can tell an offspring bearing a half or quarter blood. Prepotency is one of the sure signs of long breeding. Types are not fixed in a few generations so that it is not surprising to find a long line of ancestors possessing like qualities behind the Quarter Horse. Typical Quarter Horse characteristics are small alert ears, sloping shoulder, short deep barrel, heavy muscles in thigh and forearms, legs not too long and firmly jointed with the knee and pasterns very close. All of these features but accentuate his peculiar abilities. Rarely does this horse exceed fourteen hands but due to his build, will sometimes reach 1100 pounds.

It is this fact which led Dan Casement, one of the best of present day authorities to say that here is more horse for the height than is found in any other breed. Steeldust is the most famous of all Quarter Horses, in the maze of legends which surround him. As in his grave if he knew how many “broomtails” were sold under his name. Every horse trader who has not recently joined a church will modestly admit that his horses are direct descendents of Steeldust. Where ever cattle are handled in the open and rodeos promoted by stockmen, Quarter Horse blood can be seen, whether they are called Steeldusts, Billy Horess, Printers, Copper-Bottoms, Kentucky-Whips, Cold-Decks, Londos, Blakes or any of the various names inherited from some famous sire, all are Quarter Horses.

Much of the origin of the Quarter Horse is lost, but a few facts are available.

Wood, Sandy’s and Gookin were the first to import English horses into Virginia about 1620. Soon thereafter, Governor Nicholson legalized horse racing which had immediately become popular. By 1690, large purses were being offered. For several reasons, among these the lack of tracks and straight stretches of road, it became the habit to run short races, generally along the main street of the town which was the only straight and cleared stretch available. J. F. D. Smith, who made a tour of the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, said, “They are much attached to quarter racing, which is always a match between two horses to run a quarter of a mile, straight out . . . and they have a breed which performs it with astounding velocity . . .” Horse racing was also popular in Rhode Island. William Robinson, one time Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, raised some of the best running horses in that colony.

His original sire, Old Snipe, according to an unsigned manuscript, was found in a drove of wild horses on Point Judith. Although Robinson did not realize it, Old Snipe’s ancestors were Arabians, probably bred in Andalusia or Cordoba in Spain. It was not long until Robinson horses were famous for their speed. An intercolonial match was arranged between the horses of Virginia and Rhode Island. So successful were the Spanish horses from Rhode Island that the Virginians obtained some of Old Snipe’s progeny to improve their horses. Now the Spanish blood was being crossed with the Anglo-American blood. The Quarter Horse was arriving.

Very likely the Virginia horses already had some infusion of Spanish blood as there were Spanish horses in the backwoods of the colony. This is borne out further by a description of the Virginia horse at this time. A traveler from England described them as, “Not very tall but hard, strong and fleet.” The wild Spanish horses did not come from De Soto’s experditions as has been commonly supposed, but from Spanish Guale. This district, composed of the South-eastern section of the present United States, had by 1650 seventy-nine missions, eight large towns and two royal ranches. The many attacks of the English and the Indians on the Spanish settlements spread their livestock far into the North. Soon most of the Southern English colonies had wild horses in the backwoods. Capturing wild horses was a favorite sport among the young colonials, especially in Virginia and Carolina. Wild cattle were also captured in “cow-pens” by the colonial “cowboys,” already so called in the eighteenth century, riding their fast Quarter Horses.

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