DOC WEST – Steel Dusts

Illustration by Dave Elston.

Doc West returns with his sage advice for the lost and lonely gunsel.

Q. Doc, an old-timer friend sometimes refers to my Quarter Horse herd as a band of “Steel Dusts.” What does he mean by this term? 


A. There was a time where the horses that we call today, Quarter Horses, were known simply and generically as Steel Dusts. In the mid to late 1800’s most westerners referred to “speedy, low, stocky, well built, well-muscled, and high spirited” horses as Steel Dusts or Steel Dusters or Steel Dust horses. It was the horse everyone wanted when the West was still the West and the horse was still the horse. Steel Dusts were versatile, friendly, tough, cowy, and best of all, they were fast. They were as equally coveted by jockeys running a quarter mile on a dirt track outside of Dallas as they were by the cow puncher running a thousand longhorns up to the Canadian border. The genesis of the ‘steel dust’ prototype is said to trace its roots to the legendary stallion Steel Dust of which little is known, but sufficiently augmented by cowboy lore as to enjoy a prodigious and loyal following in the Quarter Horse world.

It is believed that Steel Dust was foaled in and around 1845 in Kentucky although Missouri, Tennessee and Texas are also possibilities. He was the son of Harry Bluff, the son of Short’s Whip by Big Nance – a Thoroughbred who traced her lineage back to the legendary Thoroughbred, Sir Archy. He was taken to Texas as a yearling or two-year-old and matured, by the most reliable accounts, into a blood bay stallion of 15 hands and 1,200 pounds, (although other sources reported he was as compact as 14.2 hands up to a rangy 16). The only point of minutia on Steel Dust of any consensus was his blinding speed – one old timer stated that Steel Dust could run a quarter of a mile in 22 seconds “any time” (keep in mind modern day racing Quarter Horses are running the 440 in about 21 seconds). Mares were brought in by prominent racing breeders from hundreds of miles away to breed to the equine phenomenon for a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.

Texas cowboys whose palate was not satisfied by riding hardy but ratty mustang types, brought in their cow pony mares to improve the stature of their stock. By the later part of the 1800s Steel Dust’s lineage was so ubiquitous in the then emerging Quarter Horse breed that many just referred to the “heavily muscled horse, marked with small ears, a big jaw, remarkable intelligence and lightening speed up to a quarter of a mile,” as Steel Dusts. By the early 1900s many great Quarter Horse sires would trace their bloodlines once if not several times to Steel Dust – the horse Peter McCue and his son Hickory Bill (the sire of the famous King Ranch foundation breeding stallion “Old Sorrel”) had significant Steel Dust lineage, as did many other bloodlines such as Billy, Cold Deck and Rondo. In fact, as recent as the 1930s so many lines of Quarter Horses were traceable to Steel Dust that breeder Jack Caseman wrote an article for the Western Horseman magazine titled “Why a Steel Dust Stud Book?” in support of the registry which would ultimately become the American Quarter Horse Association.

Today, with the passing of time, the moniker “Steel Dust” has fallen from common usage as the Quarter Horse has continued to mature as a breed. Competitive events such as reining, cutting and pleasure have further evolved (some might argue devolved) the Quarter Horse into a specialist that over time falls further and further away from that gritty, jack-of-all-trades which could cut a cow in the morning and run a race match after dinner. To your question, the reference to your herd as a band of “Steel Dusts” from an old timer can be nothing short of a compliment, an admiration of equine specimens built to the Steel Dust prototype – low, powerful and fast; and perhaps at the same time it’s a pining of sorts, for that West which existed once, where a man only had one horse but needed one horse – and that horse ran through time like Pegasus unshackled.

Have a question about western culture burning in your back pocket? We welcome you to direct it to Doc West at editorial@westernhorsereview.com.

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