In March of 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association was founded by a group of horsemen and women during the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas. Though dozens participated, Robert M. Denhardt is widely recognized as the man whose passion and vision led to the organization of breeders who preferred a certain kind of horse.
In the 1930s, Denhardt was a student at UC Berkeley and spent every minute of his spare time at Paul Albert’s nearby Tarantula Ranch. Albert was in the process of starting Western Horseman magazine, and his ranch was a gathering place for young men to talk horses until all hours of the night.
During their all-night bull sessions, the topic of Steel Dust horses would occasionally bubble up. The term ‘Steeldusts’ came from the prolific sire Steel Dust, who was born in 1843 in Kentucky and later brought to Texas. Denhardt would call Steel Dust, “the first of the legendary heroes of the modern Quarter Horse.” Regardless of pedigree, all the cowy, quick, stout horses of Texas became simply known as ‘Steeldusts.’
Denhardt graduated with a degree in history and landed a teaching job at Texas A&M, the heart of Steeldust country. In his spare time, his fascination with the horses led him to extensive travel, research, and networking with breeders.
He published articles on his findings and, because of his vast connections with like-minded breeders across the West, he became the de facto point of contact for anyone interested in the Quarter Horse. Within a year of his first article, he began work on creating an association to represent the Quarter Horse. He was instrumental in writing the charter, breed conformation standards, and stud book for what would become the AQHA. He served as the first secretary for the association and went on to write several books about the breed.
While many others carried the long-term administrative and financial duties of launching and sustaining an association, Denhardt was the man who brought them all together in Fort Worth.
It was agreed the horse’s distinguishing characteristics would be—in order of importance—conformation, performance, and bloodlines. Conformation requirements boiled down to short, stocky, bulldog-type horses. Performance was determined as a better-than-average cow horse. Bloodlines were less rigid. If the horse had 50 percent recognized Quarter Horse blood, and showed the right conformation and performance, it could be registered.
At the outset, the founders thought they were working to preserve a nearly extinct line of horses, figuring fewer than 1,000 horses in the nation would qualify. Seventy-five years later, the association has registered more than 5 million horses.
While Denhardt was not a breeder himself, his insatiable interest in the Quarter Horse resulted in his becoming the undisputed impetus of the association. He was among the first inductees into the AQHA Hall of Fame in 1982. Denhardt died in 1989 at the age of 77.