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Difference Between a Quarter Horse & Saddle Horse

| Updated September 26, 2017

Although the American Saddlebred and the American Quarter Horse are two equine breeds native to the United States, they are different in their history, conformation and usage. Although the saddlebred is primarily thought of as a high-stepping show horse and the quarter horse is usually pictured as a race horse or cow pony, both can be used in a variety of disciplines.


Both the American Saddlebred and the American Quarter Horses can be found in the early colonies. The saddlebred descended from Narragansett pacers crossed with early thoroughbreds imported from England. They were later crossed with Arabians and Morgans. The quarter horse, on the other hand, developed in Virginia and the Carolinas from horses raised by the Chickasaw tribe. They were also later crossed with thoroughbreds. While saddlebreds stayed primarily in the East, the quarter horse became well known in the American Southwest.


Primarily between 15 and 16 hands, the saddlebred comes in a variety of colors with bay, chestnut, brown and black the most common. The breed is known for its long arched neck, refined head, small ears and withers higher than its hips. It tends to be lightly muscled. Originally a very muscular horse of 14.1 to 15.1, the American Quarter horse is known for its refined head, large jowls and small fox-like ears. It comes in many colors, including sorrel, chestnut, bay, palomino, buckskin and dun. Today's quarter horse tends to be taller and more refined due to out-crossing to the thoroughbred.


The quarter horse possesses three natural gaits: the walk, trot and canter. It is known for its quick acceleration and ability to cover a 1/4-mile distance faster than any other breed. The saddlebred, while lacking in the quarter horse's early sprinting speed, is known for five natural gaits: walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack. The rack is a lateral gait — the legs on the same side move in unison with the hind leg striking the ground slightly ahead of the forefoot. Each foot hits the ground separately in the slow gait.

Uses Today

Best known as an elegant show horse, today's saddlebred can be found in a variety of events, including barrel racing, dressage, eventing and even driving. Its smooth gaits make it a natural for trail riding and field trials as well as all-around pleasure riding. While the quarter horse is still known for its racing ability over short distances, it is also well known for its prowess in handling cattle. The breed excels in a wide range of activities, including dressage, mounted shooting, reining, jumping and polo as well as pleasure riding.