If you are interested in buying your first horse – or even if you are an experienced owner or rider and are looking to buy a new animal – one of the most important things to consider is the breed.
Many distinct breeds exist, and each has its own characteristics, both physically and in terms of personality and demeanor.
So to help you understand the difference between the various types of horse, here’s our guide to the most popular horse breeds to ensure you pick the one that’s most suitable for you.
The Most Popular Horse Breeds & Types of Horses
The Arabian Horse is one of the oldest breeds in the world and is descended from the horses bred in the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago.
Back then, Bedouin tribesmen would take their horses into their tents at night to keep them safe. This meant a cooperative temperament, an ability to form close bonds with humans and a willingness to live in close proximity with people were essential traits – and these characteristics also make them a popular choice today.
At the same time, these horses were bred for intertribal warfare and raids, so they are also intelligent and spirited animals, which means they are less recommended for inexperienced owners.
With its distinctive head shape and high tail carriage, the Arabian Horse is undeniably among the most elegant and handsome of all horses. They have exceptional stamina, and although they can be fast in a sprint, they come into their own when racing over longer distances.
The Thoroughbred has its origins in 17th– and 18th-century England and is a breed that is descended from the warhorses of the Medieval period.
At a time when horses no longer needed to carry knights in armor into battle, Arabian, Turkoman and Barb stallions were brought over to England to breed with local mares. This was done to create a lighter, faster and more agile mount.
All modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to three famous horses, the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian.
The Thoroughbred is known as one of the fastest breeds in the world and dominates in events of around 6-10 furlongs (0.75-1.25 miles 1.2-2km). The official holder of the record for the fastest horse of all time belongs to a Thoroughbred named Winning Brew that was clocked at a speed of 43.97mph.
Thoroughbreds are a hotblooded breed and have a lively, spirited personality, making them less suitable for novice owners. However, their prowess in racing ensures their place on the list of the most popular horses – and the fastest individuals are also counted among the world’s most valuable.
3. American Quarter Horse
Although the Thoroughbred is recognized as the fastest horse over distances of around a mile, the king of the short sprint is undeniably the American Quarter Horse. It gets its name from its ability to reach extreme speeds over the quarter mile, and they have been clocked galloping as fast as 55mph over short distances.
The American Quarter line includes a certain amount of Thoroughbred blood, but due to their capacity for acceleration and high speeds over limited distances, they are more prized for western riding disciplines such as barrel racing. They are also a common choice as a working ranch horse.
These horses are also popular for a range of other disciplines and equestrian activities, and with around three million currently registered, they comfortably take their place among the most popular breeds in the world.
4. American Paint Horse
The American Paint Horse is closely related to the American Quarter Horse, and a simplified version of its history is that some owners continued to breed these attractive animals when their distinctive patterns were declared as making them ineligible for registration as Quarter Horses.
This means they share many of the characteristics of American Quarters – as well as Thoroughbreds – but also have a coloring that is, to some people at least, highly attractive.
Like Quarters, they are popular as rodeo horses and are regularly used for western riding disciplines. Their bodies and temperament are similar to the Quarter Horse, and they are also commonly used as stock horses on ranches.
As a result of its physical prowess, its usefulness and its attractive appearance, it is unsurprising that this breed has gone on to become one of the most popular in North America.
The Friesian is officially a draft horse from the Netherlands, although for a working horse of this type, it has a relatively slight frame. It is an elegant and agile horse with a docile temperament, making it a versatile beast that has many uses, both in harness and under saddle.
Friesians are commonly found pulling carriages, both competitively and recreationally, but they also excel in competition, particularly dressage. Due to their handsome, charismatic appearance combined with their calm nature, they are also commonly used in TV and cinema. They have a suitably impressive look for the camera but are usually unflustered by the commotion commonly found on set.
For these reasons, they are a popular breed the world over – especially in the Netherlands, where they account for around seven percent of the country’s horses.
The Andalusian Horse, also known as the Pure Spanish Horse or the PRE, standing for pura raza española in Spanish, takes its name from the region of Andalusia in the south of Spain. It’s another ancient breed and is descended from the Spanish warhorses of the 15th century – and the modern horse is thought to have changed little in the intervening years.
It is an elegant, handsome breed with a long mane and tail, and they are docile and intelligent, making them relatively easy to keep and look after.
They are prized for their agility and responsiveness and are commonly encountered in disciplines such as dressage, showjumping and driving, in which they excel. Earlier uses for this breed include working as stock horses and as mounts for picadores in bullfighting.
Despite their many desirable traits and their attractive appearance, there are thought to be fewer than 200,000 Andalusians in the world, so while they are undoubtedly a popular horse, they are not counted among the most numerous.
7. Selle français
This breed from France was created in 1958 when the stud books of several other breeds were combined to make a “unified” sport horse. This was at a time when the traditional work done by horses was increasingly being taken over by machines, and more and more, horses were being kept for sporting purposes alone.
They share some of their bloodlines and ancestry with breeds like the Thoroughbred and the American Quarter Horse, although they can’t match either for pure speed. However, they perform exceptionally in disciplines where more finesse is required, and they are commonly used for events such as show jumping and dressage.
Several horses of this breed have been ridden to Olympic gold in various events, especially by riders from France. This kind of success is largely due to their lively demeanor and responsive disposition, character traits that also make them popular with private owners.
The Standardbred is best known as a horse that performs well in harness racing. This is because it is among the very fastest horses – if not the fastest – at a trot. Trotting Standardbreds have been clocked at speeds of up to 30mph.
As well as being pacy trotters, they also benefit from traits such as having a friendly nature, being highly versatile and being willing to learn, and as such, they are a popular horse in many other areas too. They are particularly suitable for beginners since they are a very easy horse to ride.
Appaloosas are among the most popular of North America’s horse breeds, and they are also one of the most distinctive. This is because they are one of the few breeds that can show leopard complex patterns, and many of these horses display attractive and unique combinations of spots.
This breed is descended from the horses brought over to the Americas by the Spanish. Those animals were then selectively bred by the Native American Nez Perce tribe to become a type of horse that was particularly well suited to hunting.
Nowadays, they are known for their strength, speed and stamina, and they are most commonly used for western riding disciplines as well as for trail riding.
10. Morgan Horse
The Morgan Horse is one of the oldest American breeds and dates back to a stallion named Figure, a horse that was owned by a breeder named Justin Morgan, hence the name.
Morgans are prized as one of the most versatile of all breeds and have been used for a wide range of tasks through the years. During the American Civil War, they were used as cavalry chargers by both sides, and they also make excellent coach horses, riding horses or horses for harness racing.
Although not the most numerous breed by global population – at probably fewer than 200,000 worldwide, they are comparable to Andalusians in this respect – they are nevertheless a popular and beloved horse in the US.
11. Shetland Pony
The Shetland Pony originated in the Shetland Isles to the northeast of mainland Scotland, where the often harsh climate helped create a strong and hardy animal. Small horses were kept in the Shetlands from the Bronze Age, and the modern Shetland Pony probably also shares some blood with Scandinavian and Celtic pony breeds.
Nowadays, they are known for their diminutive size, cute appearance, resilient nature and high degree of intelligence. They are suitable to be ridden by children up to around 16 years old, and they can become cherished pets. Due to their intelligence, they are also commonly trained as trick ponies.
There are thought to be around 100,000 purebred Shetlands in the world today, and they are a popular animal with practically everyone who comes into contact with them.
Few horses are as evocative of the old Wild West and the pioneer spirit as the Mustang. Although these horses are often thought of as wild, their ancestors were the horses brought over to the Americas by the Spanish, so as the descendants of domesticated horses, they are technical “feral”.
However, tame Mustangs can be adopted, and many of them are magnificent animals, making them a popular option.
As well as the blood of the original Spanish horses, Mustangs also contain a certain amount of Thoroughbred and American Quarter blood, although since they breed in the wild, there is considerable variation from horse to horse and herd to herd.
Mustangs usually possess impressive speed and stamina, and most are also friendly and calm. Thanks to the pressures of natural selection, most of them are also healthy and robust animals. However, since the breed is not controlled, some can be fiery and wild, so they might not always be the best option for rookie owners.
13. Belgian Horse
The Belgian Horse – or Belgian Draft – is closely related to the Brabant Horse, and the two breeds only diverged in the 1940s. Brabants were bred in Belgium, where a thicker, stockier stature was preferred – whereas in the US, they were bred to be taller and lighter.
This has led to a slightly confusing situation where the “Belgian” is actually an American breed while the Brabant is the breed from Belgium.
This aside, the Belgian has established itself as one of the most popular draft horses in America. They are still used as workhorses, but they are more commonly encountered in shows as well as being used for riding.
Like the Belgian, the Percheron is another draft horse with European origins, this time coming from France.
Like many larger breeds of horse, they are descended from the warhorses of the Middle Ages, and once big horses were no longer required to carry knights in armor into battle, they found new work as coach horses, in agriculture and pulling heavy goods.
In the 19th century, Arabian blood was added to the line, and before the start of the First World War, many were being sent to the US. The war saw an end to the export of Percherons, but they remained a popular breed in the States, making up around 70% of the American draft horse population by the 1930s.
Nowadays, there are far fewer Percherons than before, both in the US and in France, but they continue to be registered in both countries, and the breed is considered to be “recovering” after a previous decline.
Percherons can be ridden, but they are also an excellent choice of carriage horse. 30% of the horses at Disneyland in Paris are Percherons, where they are used to pull trams.
The Percheron is considered the most famous as well as the most numerous of the draft breeds from France.
15. Mongolian Horse
Although not a common horse outside of the country, over three million of these horses live in Mongolia – a greater number than the human population – so by the raw figures alone, this is one of the most popular, or at least the most common, horses in the world.
Mongolian horses are semi-wild, living outdoors year-round in a country where summer temperatures can exceed 86°F (30°C) and winter temperatures often dip to -40°F (-40°C).
Unsurprisingly, this kind of climate has made the Mongolian Horse an incredibly resilient breed, and it is also one with scarcely believable levels of stamina.
These horses are descended from those ridden by Genghis Khan and his warriors, and the modern-day version features in the Mongolian Derby, at 625 miles (1,000km) in length, the world’s longest horse race.
So all in all, a spectacular beast, even if you’ll probably have to travel to Mongolia to see one!
Hanoverians are strong, agile and elegant horses that are especially suited to riding disciplines such as show jumping, eventing and dressage. They have been ridden to gold medal placings in the Olympics in several different events.
The breed began in 1735 when King George II of England founded a stud in Lower Saxony in Germany. He bred the local mares with some of the best stallions from other breeds, eventually producing an animal that became established as one of the most sought-after coach horse breeds in Europe.
Hanoverians continued to develop, and at various times were also prized as military horses and animals for farm work.
They have among the most detailed records of any breed, and they generally have excellent health since genetic problems have been bred out. This is another factor that contributes to their popularity, although high-quality Hanoverians certainly don’t come cheap.
17. Tennessee Walker
The Tennessee Walker is best known for its unique four-beat running walk, which has the same footfall pattern as a regular walk but that allows the horse to move much faster.
The breed is a popular show horse, appearing in a wide range of events, and it is also commonly used for trail riding.
Aside from its success as a show horse, it is appreciated for its calm disposition, its smooth gait and its sure-footedness, all of which make it useful on a range of terrains as well as being a suitable horse for relative beginners.
This breed has its origins in the southern United States, hence the name, and was originally used on plantations and for farm work.
Possibly the oldest of the warmblood breeds, the Holsteiner originated in the Schleswig-Holstein region of northern Germany as far back as the 13th century. They were originally bred more as coach horses than for riding, but nowadays they are most prized for their performance in jumping competitions, in which they have had considerable success.
This breed doesn’t have a single easily defined temperament, and horses with a range of personalities can be found. This can also depend on the particular line within the Holstein breed.
In terms of population, these horses are not among the most numerous, but for their prowess as jumping horses, they are particularly sought-after. This makes them an extremely popular – albeit expensive – breed among riders involved in jumping events, although less so among the general riding public.
19. Miniature horse
The miniature horse is unique on our list because this term doesn’t refer to just one breed. Rather, it is a type of horse that encompasses several different breeds.
Miniature horses, as can be inferred from the name, are characterized by their diminutive size – they usually have a height of no more than about 34–38in (86–97cm) at the withers.
There is some confusion over the difference between miniature horses and ponies since ponies are also usually defined by their reduced stature. However, ponies are usually stockier, with shorter legs relative to their height and thicker bodies. Miniature horses, on the other hand, look just like full-sized horses in every other way – except they are just smaller.
This means they are usually registered as horses, even though their height would suggest they should be called ponies.
That said, there is some overlap, and the distinction between the two is blurred; some controversy remains over what constitutes a miniature horse and what should be classed as a pony.
Since they are too small to ride, miniature horses are usually kept as pets or companion animals and are also commonly kept as show animals. However, if you are looking for an animal to ride, even for small children, a miniature horse would not be the right choice.
A wide range of animals to suit any rider
As you can see from our list, many breeds of popular horses exist in a range of shapes and sizes and with varying temperaments and physical attributes that will suit almost any rider.
This means whether you need a horse for general riding, showjumping, racing or anything else, there’s sure to be a horse for you.
The best advice before choosing a horse is to think carefully about the attributes you value most and which type of riding you need it for and then to choose the best breed accordingly.