What are the Best Ranch Horse Breeds?
There are many things to get done on a ranch, and many of those jobs can be made easier with a good ranch horse. Any horse with the strength and endurance required for a life tending to livestock can make a good ranch horse, but some breeds do tend to feel more at home in the cattle pastures than others.
What breeds make the best ranch horses? A good ranch horse will be a willing and obedient partner, have a high level of stamina, and will have the natural quality referred to as “cow sense.” Ten of the best ranch horse breeds are:
- American Quarter Horse
- American Paint Horse
- Missouri Foxtrotter
Ranch Horse #1: American Quarter Horse
By and large, the American Quarter Horse is the #1 ranch horse in the United States. In fact, Quarter Horses are so synonymous with ranch horses that most of the biggest ranches in the US have breeding programs that produce top-quality Quarter Horses used not only on working ranches but also in Western competitions like reining, cutting, and roping.
The American Quarter Horse has the largest breed registry in the world, with over six million horses registered. These horses are dependable, calm, and willing to work. The fact that they tend to have level heads does not come at a sacrifice to athleticism – Quarter Horses are agile, strong, and have a high level of endurance. They are also fast – so fast that their name comes from their ability to outperform other breeds in races of a quarter mile or less, hence their popularity in the barrel racing arena.
Quarter Horses also have the innate “cow sense” required of a good ranch horse. This means that they have the ability to hone in on and “read” a cow’s body language, anticipating its next move before the cow has even taken a step.
Not only are Quarter Horses extremely versatile, but they can also be very level-headed and calm, being used for lessons and acting as family horses. To learn more about the calmest horse breeds, visit my article Top 10 Calm & Friendly Horse Breeds.
Ranch Horse #2: American Paint Horse
American Paint Horses are recognizable for their patterned, two-toned coats. To be a true Paint, a horse must have either a Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse in its lineage. Paints have a rich history as cattle horses, kept and bred by both Native Americans and settlers for their ranching abilities.
These horses are naturally calm, gentle, and highly trainable. They also have a high level of both stamina and strength, giving them the ability to carry a rider on the range and over a numerous natural obstacles all day. Many Paints, especially those with Quarter Horse blood, are also said to have the natural “cow sense” required to work with cattle. Every Paint I’ve ever met seems to love having a job and actually enjoys going out and being ridden and worked.
Ranch Horse #3: Mustang
Mustangs is not necessarily a breed, but rather the name used for the herds of feral horses in the Southwestern United States. Mustangs are found in the wild in states like Nevada, California, Montana, and Wyoming. There are so many of them that the Bureau of Land Management rounds them up on a regular basis to control the population. These horses are then auctioned off to the public, either after a brief 90-day breaking period or as un-gentled horses.
Because there is no breed, and thus no breed conformation, every Mustang will be unique, and good ranch prospects must have both the build and the mind for the job. That said, many Mustangs have gone on to excel in Western disciplines like roping and reining, both in the arena and on working ranches.
They are also naturally sure-footed and able to navigate a wide variety of terrain. Life in the wild also prepares these horses for the endurance needed for ranch work; a wild horse may travel up to 20 miles a day in search of water and forage. All that said, life in the wilderness gifts these horses with many qualities that can be passed on to ranch work.
Ranch Horse #4: Appaloosa
Appaloosas are easily recognized for their unique spotted coat. While a Paint Horse has large splashes of color, Appaloosas tend to have a more patterned coat, with popular markings being leopard spots and blankets. Some Appaloosas may not have any spots at all!
While not as commonly found as Quarter Horses and Paints, Appaloosas make excellent ranch horses and have won many Western discipline championships. They are hardy and versatile, they have stamina and strength, and they are generally friendly and willing partners. These qualities allow them to excel in both the arena and on working ranches.
Appaloosas also vary in build and body type. I’ve seen stocky Appaloosas that are built like Quarter Horses and excel in sorting cattle. I’ve also seen athletic slim Appaloosas that are excellent at barrel racing and pole bending. As I like to say, there’s an Appaloosa for everything!
To get a complete list of common horse markings and patterns, visit my article, 21 Common Horse Colors, Marking, & Patterns With Pictures.
While I am mainly an English rider, every now and then, I like to try my hand in a western saddle. You can see how it goes here:
Ranch Horse #5: Morgan
Before modern ranch breeds were developed, livestock still needed to be managed, and that was often done with the help of a Morgan. The Morgan is known as America’s oldest breed of horse and has a rich history with all sorts of farm and ranch work dating back to the late 1700s.
Morgans are versatile and hardy. They are considered a low-maintenance breed that has excellent feet, is efficient on feed, and has a lifespan longer than most other horses. They are highly trainable and eager to work, giving them the obedience necessary to work all day on the ranch or range.
Ranch Horse #6: Missouri Foxtrotter
While Quarter Horses hold the title as the ultimate ranch horse, Missouri Foxtrotters give them a run for their money! Just like Quarter Horses, Missouri Foxtrotters were bred for long days on the ranch. They originated in Missouri in the 1800s, created to survive the wilderness and terrain of the Ozark Mountains.
The unique thing about Missouri Foxtrotters is that they perform a gait called the “foxtrot.” During this gait, the horse leaves at least one hoof on the ground at all times. This movement enables the horse to move at faster speeds over a long period of time with little to no effort. Since the are gaited, these horses are also very comfortable to ride…definitely more comfortable than a Quarter Horse!
Ranch Horse #7: Arabian
You might be surprised to see the Arabian on this list, but this breed has several qualities that cause it to excel on the ranch. The first of these is their endurance; for centuries, Arabians have been known for their stamina. Though they are slight, they have a higher bone density than other breeds and a larger lung capacity. On top of the physical characteristics that give them an edge, they are also highly intelligent and tend to create strong bonds with their riders.
Originating in the Middle East, Arabians were used to cross miles and miles of desert. Their horses are rugged yet elegant, sensitive yet brave. Another bonus is that there are many Arabian horses in America that tend to be more reasonably priced to purchase. While these horses tend to get a bad rap, I have personally owned and worked with a few and cannot recommend them enough!
Ranch Horse #8: Percheron
There’s more to ranching than herding cattle, and the heavier draft breeds can make useful additions to the pastures when a little more muscle is needed. Percherons are a large draft breed, averaging around 1,900 pounds, that have been used for centuries on the farm and in logging.
While man-made machinery is now able to accomplish many of the same tasks that draft breeds once handled, horses are able to maneuver in heavily wooded lots that are not passable for tractors. They are also able to work in the snow, mud, and otherwise inhospitable terrain. Percherons are kind, gentle horses that are highly trainable and willing to work. They make excellent partners on any farm or ranch and typically work in pairs, doubling their “horsepower” for the heaviest of loads.
Ranch Horse #9: Clydesdale
Clydesdales make excellent additions to the ranch in the same way as Percherons. Clydesdales are another heavy and powerful draft breed, weighing, on average, 1,700-2,200 pounds at maturity. Because of their beautifully feathered feet, they are popular in parades, carriage pulling, and in media, but they were originally bred as a hardy breed used primarily for agriculture.
In addition to the strength required in many ranch settings, Clydesdales have the calm and gentle disposition that most draft breeds are known for. If you find yourself wondering about the strength of these breeds, just watch some of the videos online of draft horses pulling (stuck) tractor-trailers out of the snow!
Ranch Horse #10: Mule
Okay, mules aren’t technically considered “horses,” but these equines have certainly earned a spot on this list. Mules are crosses between horses and donkeys. They can bring a lot of value to the ranch, often having the best of each of their parents. Mules have the strength, size, and stamina of a horse (though admittedly lack the speed). They also have the intelligence, sure-footedness, and courage of the donkey.
Where a typical horse might spook, a mule often “freezes” at a new encounter before carrying on as if nothing happened. If one of the mule’s parents was a ranch horse, they may also have the cow sense needed to work with cattle. One of the best benefits to mules is their guardian nature. Mules make excellent livestock guardians for cows, sheep, and goats.
A mule is just one animal that makes a great livestock guardian. If you’re looking to protect your poultry or livestock, it’s good to know that you have a few options. To learn about the best livestock guardians, check out this article What are the Best Livestock Guardian Animals?
Other Good Ranch Horses
I’ve been around horses long enough to have learned that while some equines might lack the pedigree and breeding that excels in a discipline, some horses just have pure raw talent or the willingness to do the work. You can find a “cowy” grade horse that will excel on the ranch and in the Western arena, just like you can find a grade horse that will make an excellent jumper, a successful dressage competitor, or a solid lesson horse.
While you may have to hunt a bit more to find a grade horse sufficient for your reigning and cutting needs, you can almost guarantee that the horse you find will be significantly more affordable than a registered purebred.
Adding A Ranch Horse To Your Operation
If you’re looking for a horse to partner with you on the ranch, you won’t have to look far, considering some of the most popular breeds in the world have been bred to work cattle. That said, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a King Ranch-bred horse if you need a horse with cow sense – you can pick up a talented and loyal grade horse or a Mustang for very little money (and in the case of a Mustang, the BLM will often pay you to adopt an un-handled horse). It is important to remember that every horse is an individual, so any breed can succeed on the ranch so long as it has both the physical build and the willing mind necessary for the work.
Not only do most horses on this list make great ranch horses, but they also make adequate trail horses! To get the complete list of the best trail horses, visit my article Trail Riding Horse Breeds: Top Horse Breeds for Trail Riding.