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Dear Cowboy Bob,

What kinds of horses did cowboys use?

Thank you,

E. B.

That's a great question! If you asked most western folks today, they'd probably guess the Quarter Horse. The truth is, cowboys rode just about anything that was available -- including mules. (Before the Anglo saddles became available to Hispanic herders in the mid- to late-1850s, a vaquero often rode a mule with a simple pad strapped to its back and he prodded the cattle along with a long pole.)

A common cowboy boast was, "I can ride anything that has four legs and hair!" (I guess they didn't want to tackle four-legged hairless critters like lizards or alligators!) Some rode mustangs that were descended from the Spanish Barb, while those further north often rode the Indian horses that we now know as Appaloosas and Pintos. After the Civil War, many former Confederate soldiers who had been allowed to keep their mounts rode west on Saddlebreds and Thoroughbreds, among other long-legged breeds. Some westerners preferred the Morgan, with its calm disposition and a sturdy build that allowed it to do double duty as a light draft horse. If a rancher was very large and heavy, he might even ride a heavy draft horse.

Of course, most cow ponies were mixed breeds of no certain ancestry... what we now call "grade" horses

The question of what to ride was often dictated by the terrain and the work to be done. In rough country or at times when you would be doing a lot of fast turns, you wanted a horse with a lower center of gravity. If, on the other hand, you had a lot of ground to cover -- say, from St. Louis to Sacramento -- you might try to get something like a Thoroughbred with a gait that ate distances fairly quickly.

And, of course, there was the fellow who may have been the first American Cowboy -- the Reverend William Blaxton (or Blackstone). He settled on the neck of land that later became Boston, Massachusetts, and didn't ride a horse at all! He rode to town on a brindle steer that he had trained to the saddle! Even today, you'll occasionally come across western ranchers who own a saddle steer or two.

Rafter H Longhorns brindle riding steer
Photo of a riding steer courtesy of the Hardings at Rafter H Longhorns (

I hope this sheds a little light on what is really a very complex topic!

Click on thumbnail for larger view
Cowboy remuda
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Texas Cowboy
The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, [RUN06175], courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Chief Jim James shown riding a horse and leading another horse
Photo courtesy of Eastern Washington State Historical Society

Texas cowboy on horseback looking down at a herd of cattle
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Texas horse wrangler
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

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