The unique American quarter horse has evolved from a quarter-mile racer into the most diversified horse in the world. Although its origin can be traced to the colonial era, the American quarter horse gained a reputation as a faithful mount during the Texas open range era, particularly during cattle drives to northern railroads. The breed began in the Virginia and Carolina colonies, when colonists bred their stallions, which were a mixture of Galloway and Hobby breeds tracing back to the Spanish Barb, to the Chickasaw Indians' mares. These Chickasaw horses were also descendants of the Spanish Barb, mounts of early Spanish explorers. The hybrid resulted in the "Celebrated Quarter of a Mile Running Horse," a quick, powerful, compact sprinter. These speedy horses soon gained fame racing down the streets of colonial towns in quarter-mile races, a favorite pastime of American forefathers. As America prepared to battle for its independence, equine breeding was also experiencing a revolution. The Godolphin Arabian, which arrived in England around 1728 and is considered one of the three foundation sires of the thoroughbred breed, revitalized English horses by adding refinement and speed. His grandson, Janus, foaled in 1746 and imported to colonial Virginia, had a pronounced effect on colonial stock. Described as muscular and compact, with great bone and speed, Janus's genetic legacy came to be used to plow fields, pull wagons, and carry travelers in the development of the frontier. It was this utility that distinguished the thoroughbred from the quarter horse.
As Texas was settled, the American quarter horse became part of the developing open range cattle industry. The transition of the American quarter horse from a sprinter to a cow horse began after the Civil War. South Texas was rich in cattle that had been left unattended during the war. Money was scarce and cattle were cheap. With Reconstruction underway, the demand for beef in the east prompted entrepreneurs to gather cattle and drive them north to railheads in Kansas, Missouri, and elsewhere. It was during this period that American quarter horse stallions were mated with mustang mares used on the Texas range. The results were strong, agile mounts of adequate height, capable of enduring the harsh climate. Gathering wild cattle in South Texas required a mount with speed and strength. These traits were useful for cowboys in gathering, roping, branding, and other activities on the open range and subsequently on the great ranches established after the trail driving era, such as the King Ranch, the Waggoner Ranch, the Four Sixes, the JA, and the XIT.
The most influential sire on the Texas strain of the American quarter horse was the legendary racer Steel Dust. Foaled in Kentucky around 1843 and brought to Texas a year later, Steel Dust gained a reputation as a quarter-mile match racer. Steel Dust cemented his fame when he was matched against another Kentucky-bred horse named Monmouth at a race in Collin County, near McKinney. High wagers were set on the hometown favorite Monmouth, but Steel Dust won the race. He also won several other highly-publicized races before an injury ended his racing career. The legend of this stallion's racing capabilities resulted in a demand for his progeny. Steel Dust descendants were valued for their speed and were sought by cowboys for use on ranches. Thus, cow horses were often called "Steeldusts." Another horse to influence the Texas strain of American quarter horses was Shiloh. Foaled in Tennessee in 1844 and brought to Texas in 1849, Shiloh helped establish many great Texas American quarter horse bloodlines. Shiloh was a descendant of Sir Archy, a thoroughbred stallion that had great influence on the American quarter horse breed between 1800 and 1850. Also widely known in Texas was Gen. Sam Houston's stallion Copper Bottom, also sired by Sir Archy and brought by General Houston to Texas in 1839. His progeny were famous racers along the Texas coast. Other American quarter horse stallions proliferating the breed during the early part of the twentieth century, were Billy, who founded the Billy strain of horses, Traveler, Dan Tucker, and Peter McCue.
Although some written breeding records had been kept, there was no formal registry for the American quarter horse in the early twentieth century. William Anson, an Englishman by birth and Texas rancher by choice, began researching the breed in the late 1800s. Anson settled in Christoval in 1893 and is credited with tracing the origin of the American quarter horse to colonial times. He preserved history and pedigrees of the breed. More research on the American quarter horse and its claim to being a distinct breed was done by Robert Denhardt. After accepting a teaching position at Texas A&M University, Denhardt began to research Steeldust horses. Both Anson and Denhardt provided research that formed the basis for a registry. In March 1939, at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show, Denhardt met with several breeders and presented his idea for a breed association. During the next year Denhardt wrote more articles on the American quarter horse and visited with people involved with the breed. On March 14, 1940, a group of interested livestock industry leaders gathered in Fort Worth for another meeting that led to the formation of the American Quarter Horse Association. Hosting the meeting in their home were Mr. and Mrs. James Goodwin Hall (see TANDY, ANNE VALIANT BURNETT). Mrs. Hall was the daughter of Thomas L. Burnett and the granddaughter of Samuel Burk Burnett, who founded the Four Sixes ranch. Some of those on hand for the meeting were Robert J. Kleberg, George A. Clegg, Dan and Jack Casement, W. B. Warren, Walter Hudgins, J. H. Minnick, and Denhardt. The next evening, March 15, 1940, seventy-five people gathered for a third meeting, where a charter for the organization was presented by Denhardt, stock was sold, directors were elected, and by-laws were adopted. Included in the by-laws was the mission statement: "The purpose of this Association shall be to collect, record and preserve the pedigrees of Quarter Horses in America, to publish a stud book and registry, and to stimulate any and all other matters such as may pertain to the history, breeding, exhibiting, publicity, sale, or improvements of this breed in America."
The first elected AQHA officers were: W. B. Warren, president; Jack Hutchins, first vice president; Lee Underwood, second vice president; Jim Hall, treasurer; and Bob Denhardt, secretary. Denhardt worked out of his home and so did subsequent executive secretaries until association offices were set up in Fort Worth in 1946 and permanently moved to Amarillo later that year. The by-laws also called for registration requirements based on conformation, pedigree, and performance in both show arenas and races. The first AQHA-approved show was held in July 1940 during the Texas Cowboy Reunion at Stamford. Serving as judge was J. H. Minnick, an AQHA director. Another milestone was set during the 1941 Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, when the King Ranch-bred Wimpy, by virtue of being named the grand champion stallion, was designated as P-1 in the AQHA Stud Book. Conformation standards, pedigrees, and performance have been the mainstay of present American quarter horses. Today, the American quarter horse has a small head and medium-length neck blending with a powerful chest and hind quarters. Heights range from 14.3 to 15.1 hands and weights from 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. AQHA recognizes thirteen colors, five leg markings, and seven face markings of registered horses. Breeding for arena events, as well as races, strengthened the athleticism and disposition of the American quarter horse, making it the world's most versatile breed. AQHA maintains pedigrees of 3.1 million registered American quarter horses, making the breed the world's largest. The association sanctions 2,300 AQHA-approved shows and American quarter horse races at 110 racetracks in North America.