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What are the Differences Between a Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred?

By Leigh Mercer
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Essentially, a Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred are both light horses, which are defined as horses that are made for riding. However, there are a few differences between these two breeds of horses that need to be looked at when considering which horse is best suited to a rider's needs.

The American Quarter Horse got its name because of its ability to run a quarter of a mile faster than any other horse. This horse is smaller than the thoroughbred, stands at about 14-15 hands high (hh), and ranges in color from gray and black to various shades of brown. Hands high is the standard measuring system for horses; each hand equals 4 inches (about 10.2 cm).

The Quarter Horse is the most popular breed of horse in America today. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the largest breed registry in the world, was developed in Amarillo, Texas in 1940. Over 3 million Quarter Horses are registered with the AQHA today. The Quarter Horse is best known for its ability to perform in rodeos and horse shows, and is mostly used for Western riding events, such as barrel racing and calf roping.

The Quarter Horse first got its start when English colonists crossbred an English Thoroughbred with a Chickasaw, a Native American breed of horse. This new breed was called “The Quarter Mile Horse” or “The Quarter Miler.” From the middle of the 1700’s into the 1800’s, this new breed began to gain popularity. The breed is now noticed for its muscular body and broad chest; it is also nicknamed "America's horse" and "World's Fastest Athlete."

While the Quarter Horse can run a quarter-mile at speeds up to 55 mph (89 km/h), the Thoroughbred is considered the fastest breed of horse in the world. Thoroughbreds began to appear in America around the year 1730. People may use the word "Thoroughbred" to refer to any "pure-blooded" horse, but the word Thoroughbred is the actual name of the breed.

Thoroughbreds are usually 15.2 to 17.0 hh, which measures to about 64 inches (about 163 cm) tall. Typically, a Thoroughbred's coloring is chestnut, black, or gray. Thoroughbreds are best known for their well defined faces with long necks and broad chests. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) were formed in Lexington, Kentucky in 1961. TOBA’s main goal is to increase the pleasure of the sport for Thoroughbred breeders and owners across the world. TOBA is the voice of the Thoroughbred community.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key physical differences between a Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred?

Quarter Horses are typically stockier with a broad chest and powerful, muscular hindquarters, ideal for quick bursts of speed. They usually stand between 14.3 and 16 hands. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, are leaner and taller, ranging from 15.2 to 17 hands, with a more athletic build suited for endurance and speed over longer distances.

How do the temperaments of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds differ?

Quarter Horses are known for their calm and docile temperament, making them excellent choices for riders of all levels. They are versatile and easily trained. Thoroughbreds tend to be more spirited and energetic, reflecting their breeding for high-stakes competition and racing, which often requires a more experienced handler.

What are the historical uses of Quarter Horses compared to Thoroughbreds?

Historically, Quarter Horses were bred for work on ranches, excelling in tasks like herding cattle and short-distance racing, hence their name derived from the quarter-mile races. Thoroughbreds were developed primarily for racing over longer distances and are synonymous with the sport of kings, horse racing.

Can Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds compete in the same types of events?

While both breeds can compete in a variety of equestrian events, their strengths differ. Quarter Horses excel in western events like reining, cutting, and barrel racing, as well as short-distance sprinting. Thoroughbreds are more commonly found in English riding disciplines, including show jumping, dressage, and, most notably, flat racing and steeplechase events.

What is the difference in the racing aptitude of Quarter Horses versus Thoroughbreds?

Quarter Horses are bred for explosive speed over short distances, often dominating races up to a quarter-mile, with some reaching speeds up to 55 mph. Thoroughbreds, conversely, are distance runners, showcasing their stamina and speed in races that can exceed a mile, with top speeds around 40-45 mph.

How does the ancestry of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds differ?

Quarter Horses have a diverse ancestry with influences from Spanish, English, and Native American horses. They trace back to the early American colonies. Thoroughbreds have a more specific lineage, originating from three key stallions imported to England in the 17th and 18th centuries and bred with native mares to create the speed-oriented breed known today.

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Discussion Comments

By anon991545 — On Jun 28, 2015

@Anon 30246: Quarter horses as we know them today are crossed on thoroughbreds . I understand in colonial days when the breed actually began, that people would clear a short track in the forests to race on, and it was generally a quarter mile long and that was how quarter horse racing begin. At that time, all breeds were used and the fastest were generally bred to other racers, including Morgans, Thoroughbreds and Arabs.

During the westward movement, many of them were crossed on mustangs of Spanish origin. When Captain Richard King established the king ranch in the early 19th century. he imported a herd of Thoroughbred mares and really, that was the beginning of the quarter horse in Texas. So yes, the Quarter horse is a cross bred as is the Thoroughbred, also, but that is what makes them American. Most Americans can trace their family tree to different races.

By anon991544 — On Jun 28, 2015

You know little of the quarter horse breed. They are actually the fastest most versatile horse in the world. All quarter horses have a substantial amount of thoroughbred blood and most running quarter horses are mostly thoroughbred. Some people know nothing about horses, and are only parroting remarks they have heard made at a riding academy by people who have no experience with Quarter horses. Most people who ride thoroughbreds could not even sit on a hard-working cutting horse, or barrel horse for that matter.

There is a reason that quarter horses are the only horses seen in the major rodeos and ridden by ropers bull doggers and barrel racers. They are quick out of the chute and fast to the calf or steer, but stout enough to hold them and very fast around the barrels. Yes, other horses, including thoroughbreds, are sometimes used in rodeos, but not by the top professional cowboys in the top rodeos.

Personally, I like both breeds. I prefer a good deal of thoroughbred blood in my personal horses. There are over 30 trophy saddles in our tack room, all won barrel racing by my wife riding those so-called ugly, useless quarter horses.

Actually, I think of a quarter horse as a Thoroughbred that was bred in a different direction. They were bred for quickness, athletic ability and intelligence rather then just the ability to run down a graded track.

But as far as being a pampered horse, a racing quarter horse and horses shown at halter are about as pampered as any horse alive. How do I know all this? I have raised and trained our own horses for almost 50 years and have bred both Quarters and thoroughbreds, so this is experience speaking not the prattle of a child. By the way, some quarters are artificially bred and some are not and as a general rule, the average height of a quarter horse is somewhere between 15 and 16 hands -- some taller, some shorter.

I currently own two that are 16 hands and none under 15. So what is the best horse? I would say it is a matter of personal preference, but if you want a true athlete I would prefer the quarter. Didn't intend to make anyone angry. I only wanted to educate people.

By anon944659 — On Apr 08, 2014

I always thought that quarter horses were artificially inseminated, and thoroughbred were not. Is this true?

By anon343376 — On Jul 29, 2013

Thoroughbreds are the best horses. They can do anything you ask them. They are smart, kind and are useful. They are never spoiled at the track. If they disrespect anyone, they are disciplined.

The quarter horses are fat and the ugliest horses I've seen. Thoroughbreds can beat your dumb quarter horse any day doing anything. They are beautiful and want to please you.

By anon330179 — On Apr 14, 2013

Thanks for responding. I was referring to tb horses, not the kind cowboys ride. No, I don't imagine I could say such nasty things amongst horse people; thanks for countering my opinion. My main gripe is how doted over these top level racehorses are. Quarterhorses get fed and have their stalls cleaned out but that's it. They aren't annoying, and spoiled. They help people.

By anon329582 — On Apr 10, 2013

@anon325881: Please tell me you are joking? I'd like to see you tell a cowboy, or any equestrian for that matter, that their horses are dumb and brainless, and see where that gets you.

By anon325881 — On Mar 18, 2013

@Anon313657: Thanks for your comment. I wish I had gone to riding school. No, I just have this peculiar thing about thoroughbred racehorses. I can't explain it myself except maybe it's because they're spoiled as they train and breed, whereas quarter horses helped to drive cattle and pull wagons in days of yore and weren't spoiled.

Horses have tiny brains, and are very docile, obedient animals, in spite of being flighty. I think they're dumb as bricks and I enjoy getting horse lovers upset by saying things like their horse would have been good in "The Godfather."

I just think Thoroughbreds are too pretty and get too much credit. I don't believe they learn as much as quarter horses who work on farms and frankly, their whole lives are spent in servitude to horse people. They're either training, racing, breeding or being sent to the glue factory. I actually think it's right to get rid of them when their usefulness is up. I believe quarter horses were bred for transportation and pulling things and somehow that seems admirable, unlike the Thoroughbred. So I decided Thoroughbreds are the dumbest of them all.

I know horses are dumb because they follow you around in groups just like cattle do in a field. They're clueless. I've also watched enough races, training sessions and photo ops and concluded there's nothing going on behind the eyes of these horses. I make an exception for Secretariat and a few other greats, who at least had spirit and temperament and weren't docile, dumb pets being led around on a chain over their nose or through their mouth. Nope, Thoroughbreds are the absolute dummies of the horse world.

By anon313657 — On Jan 13, 2013

@anon309697: You disparage one of the most important breeds of animals on earth because someone told you your favorite horse to ride at the riding school is a Quarter Horse? Here's a tip: learn something about horses before you leave comments based on the fact someone with a Thoroughbred probably made fun of you.

By anon309697 — On Dec 18, 2012

Thoroughbreds are stupid, not nearly as smart as the far more useful quarter horse. Thoroughbreds also look more like donkeys when in the flush of a race, I've noticed. And frankly, they're not that impressive looking these days. No muscle or power. A lot of temperament and showiness and lightly raced these days because they're bred to breed, not race.

By anon290066 — On Sep 07, 2012

What are the differences and similarities in quarter horses and Clydesdales?

By myharley — On Apr 10, 2012

We have had horses for many years and have only owned Quarter Horses. We have gone to a few horse sales over the years, but have never bought any of our Quarter Horses at a sale.

We have raised most of them ourselves or bought them from private owners. One of my favorite horses to ride must have had some kind of racing blood in her.

This horse loved to run and when she really got going you felt like you were flying through the air. She had two speeds to her canter - one where she was running but not putting all of her effort into it.

When she started running as fast as she could, you could feel her step it up and she loved it as much as I did.

By bagley79 — On Apr 09, 2012

I always thought Thoroughbred horses were taller and faster than Quarter Horses. There is a race track a few miles from our house, and whenever we have gone to watch the races, they are usually Thoroughbreds.

I never get tired of watching these horses run. Someone once told me that Thoroughbreds also tend to be more high strung than Quarter Horses.

I suppose it depends on the temperament of the horse, but I can see how a horse that was high strung might make a better race horse.

By anon140777 — On Jan 08, 2011

They are a cross breed of the Thoroughbred and the Chickasaw horse.

By anon30246 — On Apr 15, 2009

Are Quarter Horses still considered pure-blooded? Or are they mixed with another breed? Kind of like a mut!

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