"The Book of Horses" describes a quarter horse as a horse that has a fairly long, flexible neck, sloping shoulders with well-defined withers, compact body with broad chest, deep girth, short back, well-sprung ribs, broad, deep, heavy, and well-muscled hindquarters with long, gently sloped croup, good limbs with short cannons, flat, low-set hock, muscular thighs and gaskins, medium-length pasterns and oblong feet with deep, open heels.
Why use QHs as an example? Well, since their registry was created in 1940, they've since become the LARGEST equine breed registry in existence.
However, the AQHA registers on bloodlines, not breed characteristics. This is a problem, as the Quarter horse (and "cow horse"-type) is probably the worst abused breed in existence, not physically but in the breeding "industry."
On one extreme you have AQHA farms pumping out hundreds of babies a year, and then on the other you have the senseless, barn-blind backyard breeders. That's the extreme we will visit today.
So where can you set your standards?
The first is to re-read the conformation guidelines I posted above. I agree with most of it except for the generally long neck... it's very hard to find even a good stud with a long neck nowadays.
However, that doesn't stop it from being appealing in the horse.
A few examples of good QHs for go by, that generally meet the conformation standards:
Look, I actually found one with a good, long neck! He's attractive and well-built and moreso well-presented. If someone showed me that picture and asked me what breed it was, I would, without hesitation, say QH. I would like to see a deeper haunch, but other than that this is a very attractive stallion.
Everyone knows this bloodline. Well, everyone into QHs... Peppy San Badger line, clearly a successful line of QHs. And you can see why. I would like a better neck and head on this stallion, but the haunch is very well-formed and and the body is solid, compact. He looks like he could go out and kick some ass rounding up cows all day. And that's what QHs are for!
I don't know who this is, but this is another attractive QH who doesn't look like he should be by an actual cow. I actually like the older QHs that didn't need to have all the ridiculous bulk on them. Deep haunches and short, solid limbs is what you want to look for, not grotesquely huge muscle mass. I would like to see a better croup on this horse, though, but other than that he's very attractive and bonus marks for being "colored," which is apparently more appealing to people these days (I, personally, have a soft spot for red bays...).
Unfortunately, the quarter horses we most often see nowadays are backyard bred and do not hold any of the breed characteristics. Any BYB horse that looks cow-ish is labeled as a QH, even though it's a walkapainterloosadbred. Of course, they can't be registered that way. With breed standards falling, however, QHs are looking crappier by the day.
For example, this horse is advertised for stud. Really? What breed characteristics do you see? I don't see a deep, thick haunch which is the FIRST thing I look for in a QH, the croup is slanted steeply, the shoulders are NOT well-sloped, the neck is crap and that is not a deep chest. Those pasterns are incredibly short, not medium, and all in all the horse does not in any way resemble a QH other than it looks backyard bred and should not be reproducing. Why would you breed something that looks NOTHING like what you want to produce?
The only thing that could be said is better about this mare is that she has better pasterns and a SLIGHTLY better shoulder. Everything else is the SAME PROBLEM. Is there a trend? MAYBE. (Though, in all fairness, I like her hind legs better.)
The problem also lies in cross-breeding QHs. "QH cross" is probably the most common term you'll here when you ask "what the heck is THAT?" There are the good QH crosses (I, personally, am a fan of a well-bred Quarab...) out there!
This is a Quarab. It has the flashy paint markings of a QH Paint, and the attractive, light body of an Arab while STILL having thicker qualities and a "cow horse" look about its head. Its body is a little thicker than your typical Arabian's but look at the attractive crest it adopted! I would like to see a deeper chest on this horse but all in all it is very attractive. And USEFUL. Once it gets older.
Here's another Quarab. Again, you see a thicker and bigger body than you'll find on an Arab, a more cow-horse type head and bigger haunches, but the same slender and arched look of an Arabian. It's a cute horse, and colored to boot.
Unfortunately, we most often see crap products such as this one, with terrible conformation, NO chest, a short neck, crap for shoulder, and some mutated in-between cross of an Arab and QH haunch. The only thing good I can think to say of him is "thank goodness he's a gelding!"
Again, if asked what breed that was, I would tell people it's a mutt. If asked about the buckskin paint above, I would confidently say Quarab, because it LOOKS like an Arabian crossed with a QH! It has the breed characteristics!
You want to breed something that is going to look like the breed. You want something useful, and that's why we pick breeds... to suit what we want to do. You don't go into endurance and buy a Quarter Horse... they're made for short, FAST sprinting and hard, low-to-the-ground work. You look at an Arabian because they're made for long-distance running on minimal hydration and food.
You don't go into barrel racing with a Warmblood any more than you would go into high-level dressage with a Quarter Horse!
It's a little different if you're just trail riding or having fun, then it's more a question if you ride Western or English, and what kind of movement and ride you're looking for, what kind of build you are, and what size would best suit you.
However, at the same time, you need to be able to plan for the horse's future, should you ever have to get rid of it for whatever reason. And things do happen! There's always a chance.
So you have to ensure that the horse is what other people would want as well, just in case something like that happens. People nowadays don't want a, ugly mutt, especially not in today's economy!
On an unrelated note, you halter QH people HAVE to stop breeding cows on toothpicks! THIS IS NOT ATTRACTIVE OUTSIDE OF YOUR ODDLY CLOUDED HEADS!
Seriously. How long do you think that horse is going to lead a sound, healthy, useful life on its TEENY feet? Which all halter QHs seem to have now on top of the disgusting mass of useless muscle and bulk. Selfish assholes... think of the animal, won't you?