The Canadian Horse is a little known national treasure of Canada. In April of 2002, the Parliament of Canada passed a bill establishing the Canadian Horse as Canada’s National Horse, recognizing the breed’s contribution to building this great nation. This hardy breed descended from horses originally sent to the “New World” by King Louis XIV of France in the late 1600’s. These horses came from the king’s stables and were thought to be of Norman, Breton and Andalusian bloodlines – traits of which can still be recognized in the Canadian Horse today.
For hundreds of years, the French horses bred with little influence from outside breeds. They eventually developed into their own distinct breed – the Canadian Horse or Cheval Canadien. Because they evolved under the adverse conditions of harsh weather, scarce food, and hard work, the Canadian Horse remains the sturdiest and most acclimatized horse in Canada today. They are tough, strong horses, tolerant of inclement weather conditions, and are extremely “easy keepers”. Because of these traits, the Canadian Horse is often referred to as “The Little Iron Horse”.
In the mid-1800’s, the Canadian Horse could be found throughout Canada and the United States. The Canadian was used for crossbreeding to improve the strength and hardiness of other breeds, and helped to found such North American breeds such as the Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, Standardbred, and the American Saddlebred. Increasingly, Canadian Horses were exported out of Canada for the Boer war, for working the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and to the United States for use on the stage lines and for the American Civil War. The number of horses in Canada began to dwindle rapidly. With the advent of mechanized farm machinery, the Canadian Horse almost became extinct.
Under the leadership of Dr. J.A. Couture, DVM, a few concerned admirers of “The Little Iron Horse” banded together to try and preserve what remained of the breed. Their efforts produced a first stud book in 1886. Progress was slow however, and it was not until 1895, when the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was formed that any real expansion took place. In 1907, under the leadership of Dr. J.G. Rutherford, the Canadian Government livestock commissioner, a new stud book was started with improved standards.
In 1913, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture set up a breeding program at Cap Rouge, Quebec, where Albert De Cap Rouge, one of the foundation studs was bred. There were other breeding programs set up in Quebec at St. Joachim and La Gorgendiere that continued to breed the Canadian Horse until 1981.
During the 1960-70’s, there were fewer than 400 Canadian Horses in existence and 20 or less registrations recorded per year. By the late 1970’s, the peril of Canada’s national breed was finally recognized, and efforts were made by diligent breeders to try to bring the Canadian Horse back from the verge of extinction. Now, the breed is slowly gaining in popularity and currently numbers just over 5000 horses in existence.
The Canadian Horse can be called an all-purpose animal. From the very beginning of New France it was valuable not only for plowing, but also as a carriage and riding horse. Breeders appreciated the qualities of strength, willingness, and small food requirements. The breed is long-lived and still useful at an advanced age. The mares are extraordinarily fertile, and reproduce regularly until the age of 20 or older.
The historian Taillon depicts the Canadian Horse as follows:
“Small, but robust, hocks of steel, thick mane floating in the wind, bright and lively eyes, pricking its sensitive ears at the least noise, going along day and night with the same courage, wide awake beneath its harness; spirited, good gentle, affectionate, following his road with the finest instinct to come surely home to his own stable. Such were the horses of our fathers.”
The Canadian Horse typically stands 14-16 hh and weighs 1000-1400 lbs. Although most frequently black, they may also be dark brown, bay or chestnut. They are characterized by their finely chiseled heads, arched necks, and thick, long wavy manes and tails – all reminiscent of their Andalusian ancestry. They have strong, sturdy legs and short cannon bones often exceeding 9″ in circumference. Their feet are exceptionally well formed and tough, and generally require little more than routine trimming. Best of all, Canadian Horses are renowned for their kind, sensible sociable natures, intelligence and willingness to please.