December 16, 2011
Debating about type, this author remembers a “Steeldust” horse, bred for quick speed and cow sense.
Editor’s Note: In the early days of AQHA, there was much dissention among members as to what, exactly, was an American Quarter Horse. Some favored the short, stout cow ponies nicknamed “bulldog” horses (also known as “Billy” or “Steeldust” horses), while others were strongly in favor of the infusion of Thoroughbred blood to create a faster, leaner version of our breed. Let’s listen in to the debate as it raged in 1950. This article was first printed in the April 1950 edition of the Journal. Part 1 was featured on America’s Horse Daily last week.
A dark-complexioned, small but wiry man squatted on his boot heels, his back against the stone shed. A long whisp of meadow hay was between his teeth, and his eyes were squeezed shut at he laughed silently as the man standing before him.
Bill Williams was excited and on the verge of anger. His hands moved constantly as he talked. “I tell you, Ollie, this horse is a Thoroughbred, an’ there’s papers on him a mile long. He stands a full 16 hands or a little better and beats 1,200 (pounds).”
The small man’s eyes were still squeezed shut, and he still laughed soundlessly, causing everyone to grin a little, even Bill. He was leaning forward now, hands on his bowed knees.
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“Dad gum it, Ollie,” Bill said, “don’t just sit there an’ laugh. This stud can run these little horses off their feet in a mile, an’ then go on for another one.”
Bill was getting disgusted. “If you don’t want a share in him, that’s your business, but what can you see to laugh at in a horse like he is?”
Ollie’s face sobered a little, and he opened his eyes. “Don’t get sore now, Bill,” he said, “I ain’t laughin’ at your horse. I was just thinking how thin my cows would get if I run ’em a while to turn ’em.” A couple of the boys snorted, and Bill tried to grin a little. “Then again,” Ollie continued, “I was thinkin’ how plumb wore out I’d get climbin’ on and off such a tall scamp.”
He rose to his feet and walked over to pull the saddle from “Biscuit’s” back. Returning, he lowered it to the ground and seated himself upon it. With a bridle rein, he flicked one boot toe thoughtfully for a moment, then raised his eyes, looking seriously at the sorrel.
“No, Bill,” he said, “there ain’t nothing wrong with your big stud as a race horse goin’ a half (mile) or better, but for my business and yours, he’s plain no good. Biscuit there is the kind we need. He’s smart-headed, an’ his neck ain’t too long. It’s set on him so he can duck or dodge in close quarters. He’s got plenty of room for his breathin’ apparatus, an’ there’s a place for some extra hay and water. His back’s short an’ won’t play out. Them steep hips sets him under enough to leave any place in a hurry, an’ you’ll notice that them flat old legs are still smooth an’ sound at 10 years. He’s got plenty of weight, an’ he’s packin’ it close to enough to the ground to handle anything I ever tied to, plumb easy.”
Ollie turned his head to look at Bill. “As for racin’ – I’ll run you any day, muddy or dry, for a quarter.”
Bill didn’t say anything, and Ollie grinned at him.
“If you’re game, I’ll start south with you at sunup, not on a road, but cross country. You can set your own pace, an’ when the sun goes down, I’ll be down there some place south of the river, waitin’ for you.”
Bill was stumped. He knew that Ollie meant what he said, and he doubted that the big horse could out do Biscuit on either score. As a last resort, he asked, “But, Ollie, how is he bred? A stud has got to have top breeding, if you’re going to get good colts.”
Ollie looked again at the little sorrel. “I’ll tell you how he’s bred, Bill,” he said. “He’s a Billy or a Steeldust, an’ he’s bred to keep a cowpuncher a’ horseback. I ain’t got no paper to prove it, but I’ve rode too many like him to be mistaken.”
Ollie’s eyes were beginning to squint again, and I could tell he was enjoying himself. “How about that race, Bill?” he asked. “Saddle for saddle, mine against yours?”
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I was hoping that Bill would take the bait, but I knew he wouldn’t. I knew blam well that Dad and Biscuit could trim the Thoroughbred, and I think the others knew it, too.
As I said earlier, I hope that no one feels, from what I have said, that I am attempting to prod anyone personally, but with that little chestnut horse for a pattern and the words of my father, I formed my first conception of a Quarter Horse. I have never changed my mind, and I am supported in my belief by the words of another man, written several years ago, before there was much chance of his description being influenced by the “Type Setters.”
In case you are interested, you may read these words of Zoe A. Tilghman in Volume 17, Kansas Historical Collection, edited in 1926. Mr. Tilghman believed that the horses he knew were of Cold Deck and Steeldust blood, and he saw them raced against the Indians at the fork of the Big and Little Arkansas, near what is now Wichita, Kansas. His description of them fits the little sorrel that I have told you about.
From the words of Mr. Tilghman, you can see that there were some Quarter Horses in Kansas at that time, as well as in Texas, but I guess Texas is just so doggone big, that she makes a big splash of anything.