While traveling through Amarillo, TX it is nearly impossible to not notice the numerous travel-related establishments that line both sides of I-40. We know them well: the familiar brands of motels, gas stations, and restaurants interspersed with the occasional family run establishment seeking to compete with the big national brands. Breaking up this franchise-row monotony along the north side of the heavily traveled highway is a handsome, state-of-the-art building that houses the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum.
Opened in 1991 and constructed at a cost of $4.2 million, the then 36,500 square-foot facility was, in 2007, renovated and expanded at a cost of more than $7 million. Today the 45,000 square-foot facility relates the history of the quarter horse and explains the myriad activities that are still associated with this majestic animal.
The American Quarter Horse is quintessentially American. It gets its name from a tradition that began in Colonial-era Virginia and the Carolinas. Evidently, many people back then weren’t much different than most people are today in that they enjoyed their competitive sports. Horse owners who mainly used their horses as work animals would also use them for short-distance racing. The typical distance of the regularly held races was one-quarter mile. Hence the name American Quarter Horse. It’s hard to imagine, but some individual quarter horses have been clocked at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.
Given their origins, one is inclined to believe that these horses today serve one purpose–racing. It turns out that the horse is much more versatile than that. It is, among other things, a cutting horse, a pleasure and trail horse, a working cow horse, a barrel racing horse, a reining horse, an English class jumping horse, and an English pleasure driving horse.
Just after entering the main entrance, you will find yourself in the museum’s Grand Hall where you will see, carved into the floor, the breed’s foundational bloodlines. Considering the horses colonial roots, it is not surprising that nearly all of the quarter horse lineages in this country can be traced back to just a few horses. Unlike most halls of fame, this one is unique in that it enshrines the horses and the people important to the breed. Along the walls of the grand hall are the names and images of those same individuals.
To the right of the Grand Hall is the “The Stables.” Also called the Joni Hegel Education Gallery, it is filled with interactive exhibits that teach anyone, regardless of age, all about the quarter horse. From its history, versatility, care, anatomy, to its transportation, everything one could ever want to know about the breed is in this section of the museum.
Upstairs are the Timeline Exhibits and the Champions’ Gallery. In the Timeline Exhibits, where you will want to spend the better part of an hour, are displayed the artifacts and the inductees’ stories as well as the chronological history of the AQHA. A track starting gate, samples of the numerous saddle styles, the jockeys’ gear, a chuck wagon and many other articles related to the horse are displayed for you to see and learn about. In the Champion’s Gallery you will be able to watch highlights of the American Quarter Horse World Championship, as well as exciting American Quarter Horse racing.
Downstairs and to the left of the Grand Hall is the Kenneth Banks Theater where you can watch films about the quarter horse, while surrounded by spectacular artworks that depict famous American Quarter Horses. Mostly painted by the late Orren Mixer, the paintings are part of Mixer’s larger and well-known body of western artwork that include commissions by other horse breed associations.
For those unfamiliar with the American Quarter Horse, this is the place to learn and explore. For those involved with the breed in some way, and regardless of your level of involvement, you’ll feel the same as if you were a baseball player visiting Cooperstown. It really has that kind of atmosphere.
So if you are traveling along I-40 through Amarillo, look for the building that stands out from the franchise-row crowd, head in and stay awhile. You’ll feel right at home.