Different Breeds for Different Uses

Certain breeds are better suited for certain uses than others. For example, you wouldn't enter a Shetland Pony in the Kentucky Derby with much hope of winning. Horse lovers typically favor a particular breed or two, usually due to the breed's physical appearance or the kind of horse-related activity or sport the person wants to undertake.

When deciding what breed to buy, consider what you want to do with the horse. If you're interested in dressage, consider one of several warmblood sport horse breeds that excel in this discipline, such as the Hanoverian or the Holsteiner. If you're interested in Western riding events, such as roping, cutting, or barrel racing, then an American Quarter Horse is probably more your speed. If you're looking for a mount for a child, size matters, so investigate the various pony breeds.

Some Popular Light Horse Breeds

Breeds used mostly for riding under saddle are known as light horses, as opposed to heavy workhorses, which are called draft horses. The next few sections highlight the more common light horse breeds.

What is a hand?

In tack room terms, a hand is the unit used to measure horse height. One hand equals four inches. Fractions of a hand are expressed in inches. Thus, a horse that is sixty-two inches tall is said to stand at 15.2 hands (fifteen hands, two inches). Horse height is measured from the ground to the highest point of the horse's withers.


Nonhorse people are most familiar with this breed because of its predominance on the racetrack. Thoroughbred ancestry, as well as that of many other breeds, can be traced back to the Arabian horse. The Thoroughbred's tall, lean conformation, good lung capacity, and competitive spirit make it a perfect racing candidate. In fact, this breed is capable of a single stride of over twenty feet and speeds of up to forty miles per hour. Thoroughbreds start their race training young, typically working mounted in their yearling year and then on to professional racing as two-year-olds. Unfortunately, this is also why many of them break down at so early an age, because their bones haven't finished growing.

The overall build and structure of the horse is known as its conformation. Few horses, if any, have perfect conformation. What is considered good conformation depends a great deal on what you plan to do with the horse.

By the time they are five years old, many Thoroughbreds are retired from racing — an age when most saddle horses are just starting their riding careers in earnest. The best of the best retired Thoroughbreds are used for breeding, and the rest are often sold at reasonable prices to equestrians looking for dressage, three-day event, or jumping prospects. A significant number are destroyed at a young age or sold to slaughter due to racetrack injuries that make them unfit for any other purpose.

Purchasing a retired racehorse requires considerable knowledge and horse savvy. Lameness is a pervasive issue, although it may not necessarily inhibit the animal's suitability as a pleasure mount. Retired racehorses must be retrained to ride safely, as about the only thing they've been taught to do is to break clean from the starting gate and run fast to the finish line.

American Quarter Horse

The American Quarter Horse, native to the United States, is thought of as the “cowboy's horse,” used for western rodeo-type events, roping, reining, and barrel racing. However, Quarter Horses also race. In fact, the colonists bred them for short-distance racing. The breed's propensity as sprinters — the “quarter” in their name allegedly comes from their quarter-mile racing prowess — is tested at tracks around the country.

Many celebrities have “secret” horse lives. Actor Patrick Swayze and his wife ride and raise Arabian horses on their farm outside Los Angeles. Ballplayer Nolan Ryan, golfer Hal Sutton, newscaster Tom Brokaw, actor William Shatner, former second lady Marilyn Quayle, and actresses Andie MacDowell and Bo Derek, among many others, also ride.


Because of its stunning beauty, the Arabian is perhaps one of the most photographed of all breeds. The breed originated in the desert regions of Arabia, and its well-deserved reputation for endurance makes it the horse of choice for the long-distance riding circuit.

President Ulysses S. Grant was responsible for bringing the Arabian horse to the United States. In 1873, he was given two stallions as a gift by the Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey while on a trip to the Middle East. Grant gave one of the stallions to Randolph Huntington, who imported two mares and two stallions from England in 1888, thereby creating the first Arabian breeding program in the United States.

Some Arabians have one fewer vertebrae in their lumbar spine than other horses. A shorter back, however, does not impair their ability to carry a rider. They are known to be late developers and are said to not be fully grown until they are around seven or eight years old.


As the tale goes, a Vermont gentleman named Justin Morgan brought us this compact breed of horse. His foundation stallion, originally named Figure, proved himself to be extraordinarily strong, fast, and versatile. He later shared his owner's name, known simply as “the Morgan.” When he was used at stud, he passed on his physical characteristics to all of his offspring. The demand for his stud service and the resulting offspring were so great that the army ultimately bought him.

Morgan horses have pronounced gaits characteristic of a “carriage” breed. They serve well in harness and are often taught to pull a wagon or cart. Because of their flashy gaits, they are most often ridden and shown as park horses in saddle seat equitation classes. They are very sturdy horses, usually small and with a tendency to have hardy feet, which is always a plus.

The story of Figure and the Morgan horse is told in a famous children's book, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, written by Marguerite Henry. The book details the adventures of Figure and the boy Morgan asks to help train him.


The Standardbred horse is another racing breed, although it is driven in harness instead of ridden by a jockey. Standardbreds race at the trot or pace instead of a gallop. The “pace” is a unique gait in which the front and back leg on the same side move in unison rather than the typical trot movement of alternating pairs — right front, left rear or left front, right rear. Standardbreds have an average height of fifteen hands, which usually makes them shorter than their flat-racing counterpart, the Thoroughbred.

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