A grade horse is any horse with unidentifiable or unknown parentage. These horses also include unregistered equines with mixed breeding. Grade horses don’t have a uniform breed type, and characteristics can vary significantly between individuals.

Their lack of registered pedigrees shouldn’t discourage potential owners. Many grade horses can make excellent equine partners, and their diverse ancestry also lowers their risk of genetic diseases.

However, knowing your grade horse’s ancestry can help you make better management decisions. When DNA testing isn’t available, and your horse doesn’t have a clear breed type, sticking to proven horse care basics can help keep your grade horse healthy.

This profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of grade horses. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for these equines.

Grade Horses

A grade horse’s history is often a mystery to their owners, presenting some advantages and disadvantages when buying or caring for these horses.

Most modern horses in North America can trace their history to a specific breed. Many of these horses belong to breed registries with managed studbooks and detailed pedigrees.

The term “grade horse” emerged alongside the development of modern breeds to describe any horse without a known pedigree or breed registry.

Some of these horses are purebreds that lost their papers, but the majority are mixed breeds. Many result from accidental breedings, but some breeders deliberately produce grade horses from stallions and mares with unknown parentage.

Some mixed-breed horses with known ancestry are eligible for registration. Examples include Anglo-Arabians and Appendix Quarter Horses. These crosses aren’t grade horses.

Rescue horses are typically considered grade horses if rescuers can’t verify their origins.


Grade horses typically descend from popular horse breeds. Quarter Horse bloodlines were the most common ancestry found in rescue horses, reflecting this breed’s status as the most popular breed in North America. [1]

However, there are regional variations observed in both breed populations and grade horse ancestry. For example, Thoroughbreds are prevalent on the East Coast, the Northeast has a high percentage of Draft horses, while the Southeast has the highest percentage of Tennessee Walking Horses. [2]

A 2015 USDA report calculated the percentage of resident horse breeds in the United States: [2]

  1. Quarter Horse: 42.1%
  2. Thoroughbred: 7.1%
  3. Paint: 6.8%
  4. Miniature Horse: 6.1%
  5. Draft: 4.7%
  6. Tennessee Walker: 4.5%
  7. Arabian: 3.9%
  8. Standardbred: 3.7%
  9. Warmblood: 3.2%
  10. Saddlebred: 2.5%
  11. Appaloosa: 1.9%
  12. Morgan: 1.4%
  13. Mustang: 1%


Other popular breeds in North America include Paso Finos, Friesians, Canadians, Haflingers, Gypsy Vanners, Fox Trotters, Rocky Mountain Horses, and Icelandic horses. The report found Grade Horses made up 4.1% of the U.S. horse population. [2]

Some grade horses have a recognizable breed type, but research suggests many owners incorrectly guess their grade horse’s ancestry based on physical appearance.

One study of rescue horses identified more than half with ancestry differing from their presumed breed. Genetic testing revealed horses presumed to be Quarter Horses had Thoroughbred, Appaloosa, Rocky Mountain Horse, Warmblood, Mustang, Morgan, and Welsh Pony blood. [1]

Advantages vs. Disadvantages

While registration papers increase a horse’s value, they don’t necessarily make purebred horses better than grade horses. There are advantages and disadvantages of grade horses for potential owners to consider.

Advantages of Grade Horses:

  • Typically less expensive than registered horses
  • Common genetic diseases are rare due to genetic variation
  • Ownership transfers don’t require fees or paperwork
  • Can combine desirable attributes from multiple breeds

Disadvantages of Grade Horses:

  • Ineligible to compete in breed-specific shows
  • More challenging to provide proof of ownership
  • Less predictable personality, physical traits, and discipline suitability
  • Lack of quality control in the selection of breeding horses