Horse and Mule Industry

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: October 31, 2019

Although many early settlers captured, trained, and used mustangs, Texans have also been leaders in the development of eastern saddle and work horses, thoroughbreds, Arabians, and the quarter horse. The eastern saddle horse came with the cult of superior riding horses that spread to Texas with settlement from states where much breeding had already been done to develop easy-gaited mounts. As the frontier moved west, some settlers rode hundreds of miles to their new destinations, and from the earliest days of settlement in Texas one finds mention in newspapers of fine saddle stallions at stud or for sale. Texas became one of the leading states in the propagation and training of the American saddle horse. Although most horses can walk, trot, and canter, the saddle horse has some additional gaits, including, for instance, the running walk, the stepping pace, and the fox trot, in addition to the rack or "single foot." These various comfortable riding gaits had much to do with the popularity of saddle horses when folks were forced to depend upon them almost entirely for transportation. Traversing large plantations in a supervisory capacity or following long mountain trails, riders constantly sought the easy gait as a requisite in a saddle horse. A typical good saddle horse has a beautiful head, expressive eyes, and a gracefully arched neck; it may be described as a "round-shouldered horse," with fairly high and refined withers, a short strong back well suited to the saddle, a long, rather level croup, and a high-set, arched tail. The body is round and the girth is small. In height the saddle horse varies from sixty to sixty-six inches. Bays, blacks, browns, and especially chestnuts predominate. Grays are sometimes seen, and white markings frequently occur.

The early settlers of Tennessee developed a saddle horse called the Tennessee Walking Horse that is now recognized as a distinct breed. Horse racing brought improvements in breeding because the best horses became popular in the stud and the poorer ones were discarded. In the evolution of the walking horse, speed on the track became subordinated to ease and comfort in riding. The walking horse has been called the plantation horse because it became popular for supervisory work on plantations, where owners and overseers were wont to spend five or six hours daily on horseback. The horses of easy gaits were also sought by country doctors. The walking horse possesses three normal gaits: the flat-foot or ordinary walk, the running walk, and the canter. The most characteristic, the running walk, is the gait that endeared this breed to the public and gave it its name. Even at the flat-foot walk, some mounts of this breed will carry their riders comfortably at four or five miles an hour. But it is the "nodding" walk with which plantation horses are gifted. Though walking horses may be of almost any color, the favorites are various shades of chestnut, black, brown, roan, pure white, and yellow with white mane and tail. The animals are usually of sober disposition and behave intelligently. A good walking horse stands from fifteen to sixteen hands (sixty to sixty-four inches) tall, is well ribbed up, has a short back, shows flat bone and good feet, and usually wears a number-two shoe. It weighs from 950 to 1,150 pounds. Outside of Tennessee, the Walking Horse is no more popular anywhere than in Texas, where the breed is especially popular at horse shows.

All the popular heavy draft breeds-Percheron, Belgian, Shire, Clydesdale, and Suffolk or Suffolk Punch-have been used and bred with varying degrees of success in Texas. As these breeds, however, are native to higher latitude and therefore cooler climates, they have not been used by Texas farmers as much as in northern states, where draft animals of great power and heavy weight can thrive. Nevertheless, draft horses have had a definite place in Texas, especially in the northern part of the state. For crossing purposes many farmers insisted that mares of draft blood were indispensable for the production of heavy mules in those regions where the soils are heavy or where, for some reason, draft mules of much size and great strength were required.

The thoroughbred horse, developed for speed and elegance, is bred primarily for racing, but it is also used in hunting and polo. A typical one stands about sixty-four inches high and weighs between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. Thoroughbreds usually have short and slim bodies and long, strong legs. Their colors include bay, chestnut, gray, roan, black, or brown. The breed was originally developed in England in the eighteenth century, when Oriental stallions were mated with English mares. The original English settlers of Virginia are believed to have brought the breed to America. The Texas Thoroughbred Breeders' Association was founded in 1955 by Dallas businessmen. Although in 1995 there were only 250 breeders of thoroughbreds in the state, the association had 3,200 members in 1995 and was thus one of the largest in the United States. The same year, there were 283 breeding, boarding, and training farms in the state. The popularity of Texas for thoroughbred breeding stems partly from the mild winters, which provide good off-season training, and the legalization of pari-mutuel betting by the state legislature in 1987. In 1993, Texas thoroughbreds earned close to $13 million for their owners. Harold Goodman's Two Altazano earned $664,485 in 1994. Along with Michael Rutherford's Lakeway, Two Altazano made the national list of top three-year-old fillies. The 1987 Eclipse Award champion sprinter, Groovy, was bred by Mickey and Marshall Robinson of Fort Worth. Alysheba, a Kentucky Derby winner and all-time leading money earner (over $6 million) is owned by the Scharbauer family of Midland. The Accredited Texas-Bred Program, approved by the legislature in 1991, has been instrumental in promoting thoroughbred breeding and racing in the state. The program provides for a percentage of bets at all pari-mutuel racetracks to go into an award system for Texas-bred horses that finish first, second, or third. The Accredited Texas-Bred Incentive Fund currently distributes Owner's Awards, Breeder's Awards, and Stallion Owner's Awards for winning horses. The association has estimated that if Texas could maintain three class-one tracks, the fund would award more than $9 million annually. Though seven tracks operated in the state in 1995, only two held class-one licenses, Retama Park in San Antonio and the Lone Star Jockey Club in Dallas. Accredited Texas-Bred awards are administered by the Texas Thoroughbred Association. The association sponsors the Texas Open Futurity Program and publishes Texas Thoroughbred Magazine, which reports on the industry in the state. It also sponsors two public auctions of thoroughbreds each year at the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth. At the 1994 summer auction yearlings sold for as much as $40,000.

Arabians are another popular breed in Texas, which is second among states in the nation in the number of registered Arabian horses. The Texas Arabian Breeders' Association reported 65,000 registered Arabians in Texas in 1995. Arabian breeders are primarily concerned with either showing or racing. Important races for Arabians include the Texas Oaks and Texas Derby for four-year-olds and the Lone Star Futurity for three-year-olds. The purse in these races has ranged between $20,000 and $25,000.

In 1920 there were 991,362 horses used in agriculture in Texas. The figure had dropped to 387,393 by 1950, and continued to decline thereafter. The great popularity of raising horses for racing and recreation, however, more than restored the number of horses in the state by the last decade of the twentieth century. Although by 1960 the total of horses and mules used on Texas farms was only 218,000, in 1995 the number of horses in the state was estimated at more than a million.

Mules were brought to Texas by early American settlers, and by 1860 the state was exporting them in considerable numbers. For several years Texas was listed as the first state in the United States in the number of mules. Many Texas mules were used in World War I. The state had its greatest number in 1926, when 1,240,000 mules were exported. Although to some extent mules were in demand in oilfields, where lack of paving made trucks impractical, mechanization on Texas farms brought a decline in the number of mules-to 400,000 in 1944, 160,000 (valued at $8,320,000) in 1949, and 75,000 in 1954. Subsequent interest in mule raising for nonagricultural purposes brought a revival in the industry, however, and by the 1990s mules had become common on Texas stock farms.

George Conn, The Arabian Horse in America (Woodstock, Vermont: Countryman Press, 1957). Robert Moorman Denhardt, The Quarter Horse (Fort Worth: American Quarter Horse Association, 1941; rpt., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Judith Forbis, The Classic Arabian Horse (New York: Liveright, 1976). Greener Pastures (Kerrville, Texas: Kerrville Horse Council, 1988).

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Business
  • Politics and Government
  • Horse and Mule Industry
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Horse Racing and Polo)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Anonymous, “Horse and Mule Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 31, 2019