The Canadian Horse
by Jacques Rainville of Casselman, ON
and Adriana Kievit of Woodlawn, ON
photos courtesy Donna Hoffman of Markdale, ON
Versatile in ability, usually small and compact in stature and black in color, with an intelligent head and a willing temperament, the Canadian Horse is a breed that originated in Canada. As of April, 2002, it is Canada’s National Horse. Although its numbers were dangerously low for a time in Canada, it is making a comeback as a pleasure horse.
I became interested in the Canadian horse because of the size and stature that I found useful for my needs. Personally, I used these horses for farm work, such a ploughing and hauling. My father often spoke of these horses, with their strong bodies, and the strength they possessed for their size. Their strength was second to none.
The ancestors of the Canadian Horse arrived in New France (Quebec) between 1647 and 1670. They were sent over by King Louis XIV of France to be distributed to noblemen whose stature entitled them to be transported in carriages pulled by horses rather than oxen. It is uncertain whether these horses came from the Royal stables, or whether they were transported directly from the ports of Normandy and Brittany.
After looking after their horses for three years, the nobility was allowed to start distributing them at first among those colonists who were the neediest in terms of clearing and cultivating the land. They were then also used for pulling the cutters and the carriages for driving the family to their various destinations. On Sundays and holidays, the settlers often raced their horses.
These horses that had come from France had to endure very harsh climatic conditions in Canada, often without shelter or adequate food. Consequently, they became smaller in stature and only the fittest among them were able to survive. Because the conditions under which they lived were so difficult, they became very hardy and are today still known for their sturdiness.
Because of the number of horses exported to the United States during the Civil War and for the purpose of improving existing American breeds, the Canadian Horse was in danger of becoming extinct. In 1885, a number of interested people began a campaign to save the breed. As a result, the first stud book was produced in 1886. In 1895 the Canadian Horse Breeders’ Association was started, and in 1913 the Federal Minister of Agriculture opened a breeding centre on the Experimental Farm at Cap Rouge, Quebec. One of the foundation studs, Albert de Cap Rouge, was bred there. The Centre then moved to St. Joachim near Quebec City, but the program was abandoned due to the start of the Second World War. The herd was sold to individual breeders. The most renowned of these breeders was Gilbert E. Arnold, who bred the founding stallion Arnoldwold Viger 3770.
However, the ministry of Agriculture of Quebec decided to establish a breeding program at La Gorgendière de Deschambault, and as of 1941, they started a selective breeding program with 17 horses.
Since then, thanks to committed breeders, the Canadian Horse has steadily increased in numbers.
In spite of their presence in Canada for almost 400 years, the Canadian still has the same characteristics of the original breed. In other words, the Canadian has not changed to any degree. Because of the second stud book established in 1907, the individual horses were more carefully inspected and the breed remained true to type. A debt of gratitude is owed to those breeders and to Quebec who have maintained this breed of horses. Thanks to them, we can continue to use this horse and it continues to exist.
The introduction of the Canadian Horse into Ontario and the rest of Canada was largely due to the efforts of the Association of Rare Breeds of Canada as well as individuals such as Alex Hayward of North Gower, Ontario and Don Prosperine of Woodlawn, Ontario. In the 1970’s only about 400 Canadian Horses were registered in Quebec. Alex and Don traveled throughout Quebec and came home with three horses of the prototype: two mares, Windsor Rosine and Windsor Michette, went to Woodlawn, and the stallion La Gorgendière Viger Duc went to North Gower. And thus was started the introduction of the Canadian Horse to the rest of Canada.
Upper Canada Village, a historical village on the St. Lawrence River at Morrisburg, also has a breeding program of Canadian Horses. Visitors to the village are invited to see how the settlers lived and how the horse was used at that time.
The paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff (a Canadian painter, 1815-1872, who lived in Quebec with his French-Canadian wife for a period of time) often depict life in Quebec as it was at that time. Many of his paintings included the Canadian Horse. Its versatility is evident.
However, since tractors were starting to be used instead of horses in the fields, and since people were beginning to enjoy more leisure time, the versatility of the Canadian has resulted in its being seen in the dressage, equitation, hunter and driving classes in the show ring. Being neither a draft horse nor a light horse, the Canadian belongs to both groups, or to neither. And it is starting to again be used as a draft and all-round horse on hobby farms where it will till the land as well as serve as carriage horse and riding horse. Today’s usage of the Canadian Horse has prompted some breeders to delicately change the standard in order to create a horse that they believe to be more suitable for modern purposes.
Characteristics of the Canadian Horse
Typically, the Canadian Horse stands 14 – 16 hands high and weighs 900 – 1100 lbs. The predominant color is black, but they are also bay, brown and chestnut in color. They usually have arched necks and wavy manes and tails, with a head that shows intelligence and spirit. The muzzle is fine and the ears are delicate and alert. The neck is strong and the chest is wide and deep. The mane and tail are heavy and wavy. While sturdy, the body is long and deep with a heavily muscled and well-rounded croup. The legs are sturdy with short cannon bones often exceeding 9” in circumference. The feet are quite tough, generally requiring minimal care.
Being strong physically, with a friendly nature, the Canadian horse is known as a general purpose animal; it can be used as a riding or working animal.
The French Connection: The Merens
While the origin of the breed is French, perhaps from the Royal stable, perhaps from the ports of North-Eastern France, the Mérens, a horse still found in the Pyrénée Mountains of France (see Small Farmers Journal Summer 1999), has a great similarity to the Canadian Horse breed. It is similar in size, stature, temperament and ability. It would seem a likely possibility that the Canadian horse’s ancestry lies with the Mérens. One has only to look at the pictures of this French horse from the Pyrénées to see its resemblance to the Canadian. While we can continue to consider the possible origins of this breed, it needs to be noted that, because of the wars in Europe at the time, many records of the first shipment were lost, and the resemblance of the Mérens to the Canadian is too strong to not be considered. The Spanish used this horse to cross the Alps, giving credence to its robustness and hardiness. The Mérens spend their lives outside, much as the Canadian horse did when the first settlers owned them.
Today the Canadian is found all across Canada and in a number of states in the United States. Its versatility makes it a desirable horse for many people to have. But it is still not a well-known breed and many local associations are in existence to help promote the breed.
Beattie, Gladys Mackey: The Canadian Horse, 1981 published by Gladys Mackey Beattie in North Hatley, Quebec. ISBN 0-9685473-0-3
MacMillan, Mary F.: “The Canadian Horse,” in “Horse Source,” January 1998
Drouin, Joanne: La Race Chevaline Canadienne, Ministry of Agriculture, Quebec, 1998