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What Kind of Horses Did Cowboys Ride In the Old West?

Last updated: July 14, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

There was a time when the American West was wild and lawless. Cowboys roamed the land, pushing cattle, and defending their territory. Their lives were rough, and they depended on their horses to help them survive. So, what kind of horses did cowboys ride in the old west?

The American Quarter Horse was the breed most commonly used by cowboys in the old west. However, they also rode horses of many different breeds. Other notable types were Appaloosa, American Saddlebred, Missouri Fox Trotter, Morgan, Mustangs, and even Arabian. 

Many people think that all cowboys rode quarter horses, but that’s not true. Cowboys actually rode many different types of horses, each with unique traits. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of horses that cowboys used and why some were better than others.

Picture of a horse, the kind cowboys ride.

What was the most common horse in the Old West?

The old west was a time of great hardships and expansion. One of the most important contributions to this period was the development of the working quarter horse. This sturdy and reliable breed was initially bred for quickness, hardiness, and versatility, quickly making them indispensable on the frontier.

Quarterhorses were the most common horse in the old west, and the most famous of all was Steel Dust, a quarterhorse stallion known for his intelligence, lightning speed, and strength.

Steel Dust’s remarkable abilities earned him a place in legend, and he is credited with establishing the ranch horse. His offspring were called “steel dust horses” and were prized by cowboys.

Times were tough in the old west, and cowboys needed tough horses to get the job done. Steel Dust horses were well-known for their hardiness, athletic ability, and quick learning, and they quickly became a favorite among cowboys.

These horses were often used for herding cattle, as their speed and agility made them perfect for rounding up strays. Steel Dust horses were also known for their stamina and could travel long distances without tiring, which was essential for long cattle drives.

American Quarterhorses have a compact and muscular frame that makes them versatile enough to be ideal for ranch and farm work. They could assist with plowing fields and performing other necessary farmwork while also having the quickness to chase down a cow that wandered from the pack.  

Quarter horses are great for many things and perform many tasks. They can pull wagons, cut cattle, and are very fast. In modern-day horse racing, quarterhorses race short distances, and they are a huge part of the horseracing industry. 

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.
Thoroughbred Stallion

Did cowboys ride stallions, geldings, or mares?

There has always been a debate among horse enthusiasts over which gender is better. Some people believe that mares are more intelligent and easier to train, while others find geldings to be more reliable and even-tempered. However, the truth is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both genders of horses.

In the old west, cowboys often didn’t have a choice and rode whatever kind of horse was available to them. However, I’m certain they had their preference just like we do today. While some cowboys preferred to ride mares others preferred geldings, and some even preferred to ride stallions.

There are a variety of factors that can influence a cowboy’s preference; the most common reason is simply that each type of horse has different strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the best horse for a cowboy is the one that best suits his or her needs.

What is a gelding?

Geldings are castrated males of the equine species. This is done to even out the temperament of the horse and make many things easier for training and handling horses. For example, if you’re on an overnight trail ride, you may have to keep your stallion separated from other horses.

As long as you do not plan to breed the horse, it is normally better for you and the horse to castrate it when it reaches the correct age. When a colt is born, it has not yet developed any stallion-like behaviors.

The owner may geld the male horse before one year old. Many people feel that if they wait until later down the road, after enough time has passed, then there will be less risk for behavior problems due to hormonal changes during puberty. I currently have two stallions we elected not to geld because they are pretty level-headed and well-bred.

Picture of a young thoroughbred stallion.
Two-year-old stallion.

What is a stallion?

Stallions are mature males that can reproduce. The word “stallion” comes from the Latin words for male and charger, which refer to its role as a breeding animal in horse racing.

When breeding, a stallion is also called a stud. Stallions can be difficult to control and may act aggressively toward other horses and humans. In order to gain a stallion’s trust, it is important to establish clear boundaries and provide plenty of positive reinforcement. Once clear roles are set and a bond is formed, a stallion will become a loyal and brave companion.

Stallions have thick necks and well-muscled bodies. These characteristics are often distinct in stallions but generally won’t be as prominent when it comes to mares or geldings. The mating season for horses usually runs from March through June; however, this can vary depending on location because weather plays an important role.

How were horses treated in the old west?

The cowboys of the old west would have never been able to thrive without their trusty companions: horses. However, Hollywood has romanticized the relationship between cowboys and their horses.

On big ranches, there were typically a lot of horses, and the cowboy chose a different horse based on their task. I am certain some ranch workers bonded with a horse, but it wouldn’t have been the rule.

In regards to how horses were cared for, I’m certain cowboys tried to keep them well-fed, hydrated, and their hoofs trimmed. If they didn’t provide basic care, their horse would die or be too weak to work. And a cowboy without a horse would be useless.

But in the old west, many people struggled to fend for themselves and their families, which in turn resulted in hard times for horses. Animals, including horses, often suffered and were primarily treated as tools, but without horses, the cowboys could not have survived. 

Picture of horses
Picture of horses at a western show.

Best horse breeds for western riding

The discipline of western riding includes many rodeo events such as barrel racing, cutting, reining, roping, western pleasure, and trail riding. These events typically require fast acceleration, intelligence, and athletic ability.

There are a variety of horse breeds that excel in western riding; however one dominates, the American Quarter Horse. These compact and muscular horses are known for their speed and agility, making them ideal for Barrel Racing and other western disciplines.

Another popular breed is the American Paint Horse. These beautiful animals are versatile and intelligent, able to excel in western riding disciplines. Most paint horses have quarterhorses in their pedigree and have similar physical traits.

If you’re looking for a horse with a bit more spunk and stamina, the Arabian breed is an excellent choice. There is an Arabian cutting horse training center not too far from me. The horse there are some of the best cutting horses around, often outshine quarterhorses in competitions.


In the old west, cowboys rode all kinds of different breeds, but some were more popular than others-quarterhorses were by far the favorite because of their speed, athletic ability, and hardiness.

Other common breeds included the Appaloosa, Morgan, and American Quarter Horse. If you want to experience life as a cowboy (or cowgirl), why not saddle up one of these classic Western horses?

Below is an interesting YouTube video about horses of the old west.


Did cowboys ride Thoroughbred horses?

Yes, some Thoroughbreds made excellent mounts for cowboys and many of the best western horses were appendix bred, which is a cross between a Thoroughbred and quarterhorse.

Did cowboys ride mares?

Yes, cowboys rode mares. Oftentimes cowboys didn’t have the luxury of choosing the sex of their horses. And generally, mares were not shunned by cowboys.