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Canadian Horse
North America

Breed Organization Information

Canadian Horse Breeders Association/
Societe des Eleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens
200 Rang St-Joseph est
St-Alban, QC
Phone: (418) 268-3443
Fax: (418) 268-3599

About the Breed

For generations the Canadian Horse played a vital role in the lives of the early settlers, not only in Canada, but in the United States as well. Today, however, few North Americans are aware of its existence and very little information can be found on this once extremely popular breed. Listed as "critical" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy the Canadian Horse numbers approximately 2500 head, the majority of these being in eastern Canada. Recently there has been a resurgence in the breed's popularity and more horse enthusiasts are becoming aware of the special qualities of "the little iron horse" as it was affectionately nicknamed by the early inhabitants.

The Canadian Horse traces its ancestry to the foundation stock brought to Acadia and New France in the 17th century. The first horses were ultimately caught and carried off in 1616 by Samuel Argall's marauding expedition from Virginia. This was the first introduction of French Canadian blood to America's eastern shores. The effective introduction of French horses in to New France came in 1665 when Louis XIV sent two stallions and twenty mares from the royal stables to the colony. On the voyage eight of the mares were lost, but the King sent additional shipments; in 1667 fourteen or fifteen horses, and in 1670 a stallion and eleven mares. These horses formed the basis of the French Canadian horse of the Old Regime. The horses from the Royal stables came from Normandy and Brittany, at that time the two most renowned horse breeding provinces of France. The Breton horse, although small, was noted for its soundness and vigor. The Norman horse closely resembled the Breton, but gave more evidence of infusion of oriental blood. This strain came from Andalusian sires brought in to Normandy and La Perch (habitat of the Percheron breed) for breeding purposes, some direct from Spain and others, between the latter part of the 16th century and the end of the War of Spanish Succession, from the Spanish Netherlands. Influence of the Dutch Friesian is apparent in the notable trotting ability of the Canadian, the feathered legs, abundance of mane and tail, and general appearance.

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was no standard type in either the Norman or Breton breeds but rather several types in each, being bred with one another in their home province according to the features popular at the moment. Among the horses brought from France in to Canada there were various types; some were distinctively draft in type; others were just as distinctively trotters, a type of horse for which France had enjoyed a reputation for generations. Still others were pacers, not descending from the Narragansett Pacers as is often implied, but coming from France with that talent. A gross error is made by those who attribute all of the credit for the American trotters to the horses of England.

Although the Canadian horse exhibited several types due to varied breeding practices of the time, there was no other blood infused in to the breed for nearly 150 years. Many owners bred for the lighter, more refined type, and it is said that the pure breed as it existed in 1850 was scarcely altered from its prototype of a hundred years before.

Canadian Horses cleared and worked the land, carried children to school, pulled the cutters and carriages and provided great entertainment for their masters in the form of racing. They endured many hardships - from brutally cold winters to hoards of mosquitoes and flies during the summer, poor feed and long hours of work with little rest. They survived it all, but became smaller in size - thus the title: Little Iron Horse. They gained quite a reputation for their hardiness and stamina and many stories were told of their courage and ability. One such story was told in the Breeders Gazette of Chicago in 1914: A wood merchant, owner of a Canadian Horse weighing approximately 1050 pounds harnessed it on the same pole beside another horse, two hundred pounds heavier. The Canadian Horse has always kept his harness traces well stretched and never showed as much fatigue as his heavier mate. After two years of common work, the heavy horse died. Questioned on the cause of death, the driver answered, "It is the Canadian Horse that made him die of overwork"! Another heavy horse teamed with the same Canadian Horse died after a year and the Canadian was still in perfect condition.

Little wonder that with such a reputation the British settlers would start to demand the Canadian for use in crossbreeding with their own horses. Canadians had the quality of breeding up in size as well as giving the foals their pluck, vigor and iron constitution. They were described as being long-lived, easily kept, and capable of great endurance - heavy enough for the purposes of the farmer or as a roadster while also being a good riding horse. The breed produced both trotters and pacers. Thus Canadian Horses found a ready market in the United States and were also shipped in great quantities to the West Indies.

Very little care was given to the early Canadian breed, and it is a testimony to their hardiness that they survived. In summer, when the horses were little used, they ran loose in the woods, where they were tormented by flies against which they had no defense due to the French practice of docking the tails. In the winter they were usually given no shelter at all, especially the young stock which were not in use. The inhabitants cured no hay so their horses existed mostly on straw. They seldom received enough grain but were required to work hard. When the owners took to the road they thought nothing of driving the horses as fast as they would go for a dozen miles or more, then leaving them to stand uncovered for hours in blizzard conditions. It was their opinion that harsh exposure was an excellent way to toughen an animal.

New France furnished the horses taken to the western settlements at Detroit and in the Illinois area. Many of these horses were allowed to run loose in large herds and were only brought in when needed for work. Great numbers are known to have escaped to run with the mustangs of the American plains - an ancestor never mentioned in writings of the American Mustang.

After the war of 1812, the trade in French Canadian horses grew rapidly. American dealers collected droves each year, mostly at Montreal and Quebec City. In 1830 it was reported that most of the trotters then in the northern United States were of French Canadian origin. Beneficial result of crossing the Canadian on the ordinary stock of the adjacent states was universally admitted.

The popularity of the crossbred horses of northern New England among the stagecoach drivers of Boston is legend. The stallions brought from Lower Canada were not entirely responsible, however, for the infusion of Canadian blood in to the horses of the United States. Part of it came from both purebred and part bred Canadian mares, which were mated to American horses. The Canadian Pacer was a horse bred from the Narragansett Pacer and the old strains of French-Canadian. This breed then returned to the United States and contributed greatly to development of the famous American Standardbred.

Many purebred French Canadian horses were entered in to the early studbooks of the Morgan, Standardbred, and American Saddlebred. Foundation sires of these breeds were often pure Canadian or were mated to Canadian mares. The Tennessee Walking Horse and Missouri Foxtrotter can also claim Canadian ancestry.

So great was the drain in to the United States of the pure Canadian horse, particularly during the Civil War, that numbers at home were reduced alarmingly. Another factor involved in the demise of the breed was the importation of heavy draft horses for farm work. The Canadian was never considered a work horse although it was worked hard, and it also never qualified as a light breed, being a more medium type (a description also given of the Morgan). By the end of the nineteenth century the breed was in extreme danger of extinction. 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 federal government livestock commissioner, a new studbook 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. The operation was later moved east of Quebec City at St. Joachim. During this period the Canadian was bred into a taller more refined animal, suitable as a hunter or jumper. When the federal government, occupied with the war, closed down the operation in 1940 and sold off the breeding stock, the Quebec government reestablished the stud under the provincial department of agriculture at Deschambault, Quebec. The balance of the St. Joachim horses were sold to private breeders. In 1979 the Deschambault herd was sold at auction and the Canadian was once again threatened with extinction numbering less than 400 registered horses. However, thanks to the efforts of committed breeders all across Canada, the breed struggles on and at present (1997) numbers approximately 2500 registered horses.

Breed Characteristics
The Canadian Horse can be called a general utility animal. The mares are extraordinarily fertile and reproduce regularly until the age of 20 or older. Generally the Canadian Horse is black, but colors also range from bay to light chestnut. Stallions should weigh from 1050 to 1350 pounds and mares 1000 to 1250. Desired height is 14 to 16 hands. As a general purpose animal, the Canadian shows a well-proportioned body, good setting of limbs, high quality of bones, and good feet. The forearm and gaskin are especially well muscled. The mane and tail are thick, long and usually wavy. The head shows intelligence, spirit, and no excess of nervousness. The animal is generally very easy to handle. The Canadian's strength and docility make it ideal for farm work, ranch work, driving, hunter/jumping, packing and endurance riding. True to its heritage the Canadian demonstrates its versatility by performing superbly in all equestrian disciplines. Willingness, adaptability, and an even temperament make the Canadian ideal for use in competition, for working, or as a family horse.