By Deborah Donohue Photographed by Yvonne Hillsden
The dashing, agile, tough as nails Canadian Horse, often referred to as “The Little Iron Horse,” has some historians convinced it was instrumental in America’s history, namely in the North winning the Civil War. Yet few people know about this rugged, multi-purpose equine with its dramatic good looks.
The Canadian Horse, or Cheval Canadian, as it is also called, has a French pedigree. It most likely originated in Brittany and Normandy, France’s illustrious horse breeding regions, perhaps from the Royal Stud farms or Royal stables. What is known is that in 1665, France’s Louis XIV set sail a shipment of twenty mares and two stallions to Quebec, his new colony in North America—an area of Canada known then as New France. Unfortunately, only twelve mares lived through the arduous ocean journey. More shipments followed in 1667 and 1670, including a mix of mares and stallions with a variety of bloodlines (the Breton and Norman horses had been influenced by Arabians, Andalusians and Spanish Barbs).
Once in New France, the surviving horses were more or less isolated in unforgiving terrain, encountering minimal influence from other breeds for over a century. The harsh Canadian climate, a scarcity of nourishing food, and strenuous physical labor in the farming and logging industries contributed to their development into sturdy, resilient animals with a great ability to acclimatize to adverse environments. The horses numbers steadily grew and eventually, they were exported from Canada for various purposes. According to the Department of Animal Science, these purposes included “the Boer War, working on sugar plantations in the West Indies, and importation to the United States for use on stage coach routes, as well as for use in the Civil War.” Strong, fast and versatile, the breed was also used to create, strengthen and improve other breeds, particularly the Morgan, Standardbred, and American Saddlebred. While the Canadian Horse may have enabled the North to win over the South, the Civil War decimated the breed’s numbers. Growing mechanization in the farm industry also deemed much of the breed’s work obsolete. With such great exportation and loss, the population of nearly 150,000 horses in mid century Canada became almost extinct by 1880. Fortunately, one of the breed’s avid proponents, Canada’s Dr. J.A. Couture, DVM, encouraged others to join him in preserving what was left of the regal French beauty whose scrappy survivalist instincts and “hooves of steel” had seen it through thus far. A studbook was started in 1886 and finally, in 1895, the Canadian Horse Breeder’s Association was established. The Canadian Horse was honored and designated the national breed of the country in 1909. (In 2002 a Parliamentary Act voted it an official symbol of Canada.)
A number of breeding programs enjoyed various degrees of success over the years, but many had to be abandoned during World War l and World War ll.
During the heyday of their popularity, several sub-types of the Canadian horse flourished. One of these sub-types, affectionately known as the “Canucks,” were fast and able ice racers, competing during Canada’s long winters on her frozen rivers, even catching the eye of Kentucky horse breeders. Still, by 1976, according to The Livestock Conservancy, “fewer than 400 horses remained.” Great efforts to preserve and promote the iconic breed were stepped up by a handful of breeders who recognized the beauty and worth of the dwindling Canadian Horse. Today, to the credit of that small group of enthusiastic breeders who refused to give up, the Livestock Conservancy classifies the Canadian Horse, Canada’s “national treasure” as “critical,” rather than “rare.”
It seems the Canadian Horse, though still not widely known or recognized, is loved by all whose path it crosses. It maintains that élan, the “liveliness, flash and panache” of its French heritage. It is often black or bay in color, with a flowing, lush, wavy mane and tail, (the Andalusian influence). Its elegant movements and flair belie its European ancestry. The horses display an arched aristocratic neck and small delicate ears, long sloping shoulders, and a strongly muscled body with good collection and a balanced conformation. Generally between 14-16 hands, a Canadian Horse usually weighs between 900-1400 pounds. One of the breed’s characteristics is the fertility of its mares well into their twenties.
The Canadian horse is well suited for driving and carriage work, though it excels in many categories and events, including dressage, jumping, and other riding disciplines.
Today, the Canadian horse is becoming better known again, increasingly recognized and coveted not only for its beauty, but also for its friendly temperament, intelligence, stamina, sturdiness, and quality of being “energetic without being nervous.” In the words of the experts at the Livestock Conservancy, “The future of the breed is looking brighter than at any time in the past century.”