Heritage and Heart: The Canadian Horse

Credit: Jim Hillsden

By Melanie Huggett

Though often unacknowledged, the Canadian Horse has nevertheless been an integral part of Canada’s history and development. Roxanne Salinas of Legacy Canadians in Mission, BC, thinks it’s important for people to know how “intertwined [Canadian Horses] are with Canadian history. They are part of our heritage. [They] go back to the founding families. They go back generations and generations.”

“They were the horses that helped our forefathers on the homesteads and were ridden in wars to keep us free,” said Carol Lanz of CanaLanz Canadians in Cedar, BC.

Canadian horses pulling sleighs in Montreal

Photo: Jackie Reedy
Trotting races began with Canadian horses pulling sleighs over Montreal’s ice. This led the Canadian to become the foundation for the Morgan and Standardbred trotting breeds.

Much like the first Canadian explorers and settlers, the breed’s ancestors travelled to the New World by ship. In 1665 on the ship Le Marie Therese, King Louis XIV of France sent 14 royal horses to be distributed among military officers, government officials, and religious orders in the colony of New France, now Quebec. Fifteen more horses were sent a year later, with similar shipments reported each year from 1668 to 1671. No one is sure what breeds made up these first shipments of horses, but it is thought that they were likely Norman, Breton, Arabian, Barb, Dutch, and Andalusian.

Strict breeding contracts and a closed and tough environment created a unique Canadian breed that was adapted to the harsh conditions of the New World. “They had to adapt to a cold frontier area where they didn’t have a lot of amenities,” said Salinas.

Working tirelessly for their owners, they hauled wood, worked the mills, ploughed the fields and brought in the harvest, and provided transportation. The tough, sturdy Canadian Horse became known as the “little iron horse” for its ability to outpull any other pound-for-pound.

Not only were Canadians surefooted and strong, but they were also quick, with an exceptional trotting ability. The sport of harness racing began with Canadian Horses that raced pulling sleighs over Montreal’s river ice.

General Montcalm Rides a Canadian Horse

Photo: A.H. Hider, National Archives of Canada
General Montcalm rides a Canadian Horse while rallying his men during the battle on the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759.

The Canadian soon earned an excellent reputation both in Canada and south of the border. During the late 1700s and 1800s, Canadians were used in various war campaigns, including the War of 1812 and the U.S. Civil War, where over 30,000 Canadian Horses were employed. In the 1820s, Canadians were also exported to the USA to become the foundation for the Morgan, Standardbred, American Saddlebred, and Tennessee Walker breeds.

Ironically, the popularity of the Canadian Horse almost caused its end. In the late 1800s, Canadian breeders began to realize that Canada had lost much of its best stock to the south. But thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts such as Dr. J.A. Couture, Edouard Barnard, and a few others, the breed was saved by slowly searching out, inspecting, and recording remaining pure Canadian Horses. In 1886, the first registry was opened and would contain 1800 horses in its two volumes.

In 1895, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (CHBA) was formed and took over the registration of Canadians. When the federal Livestock Pedigree Act was passed in 1905, the old books were dissolved in order to bring the registry up to the new standards; horses were re-inspected, with any off-type horses culled from the books. Out of 2528 horses, 969 were accepted as foundation stock into the new registry. Thanks to the lobbying of Dr. Couture, the government set up a stud farm in Cap Rouge, Quebec in 1913 and another at St. Joachim, Quebec in 1919.

Woodcutting of Canadian Horse in the 1850s

Photo: Courtesy of Eva Sablatnig
A woodcutting of the Canadian Horse from Ontario in the 1850s.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the stud farms and enthusiasts, the population of horses in Quebec eventually dropped again due to the mechanization of agriculture, transportation, and the military. The majority of the government stud farms closed and the stock was sold to private breeders and citizens.

Enthusiasts once again responded to the alarm and, in the early 1960s, temporarily reopened the studbook to mares that were of Canadian type but had no recorded ancestry. This continued throughout the 1970s, when the number of Canadians dropped to less than 400. In 1980, the studbook closed, meaning that all Canadians from that point on must have both parents registered with the CHBA in order to be registered themselves. In 1981, the last government farm at Deschambeault, Quebec closed, and the 44 horses there were sold to members of the CHBA, who now controlled the future of the Canadian Horse.

“While the Canadian Horse helped to write the history of Canada and indeed that of North America, few people knew the breed existed (in 1980),” said Gladys Mackey Beattie, author of the book The Canadian Horse: A Pictorial History.

In 1994, the movement to make the Canadian officially Canada’s National Horse began, though it was not without hurdles. In 1995, MP Ian Murray of Markdale, Ontario submitted the first private members bill to the House of Commons. Unfortunately, Bill C-329 was deemed not votable.

The second and third attempts to make the Canadian Horse Canada’s National Horse were made in 1998 and 1999 by MP Murray Calder (Dufferin Peel-Wellington-Grey), but both Bill C-454 and C-390 died after being blocked by the Bloc Quebecois and a federal election, respectively.

Popular for Hundreds of Years

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Anderson
Even at a young age, Canadian Horses show the qualities that have made them popular for hundreds of years. This charming foal is Diamond A Manhattan Willow, owned by Karen Anderson of Diamond A Canadians in Rumsey, Alberta.

But in 2001, urged by local Canadian breeders, Senator Lowell Murray introduced his own private members bill, Bill S-22, into the Senate. After briefings by groups and individuals from across the country, Bill S-22 passed the Senate vote on November 8, 2001. Calder then sponsored the bill to bring it to the House of Commons. Once again Canadian horse breeders and enthusiasts from across the country banded together to support the bill that would give the Canadian Horse the recognition it deserved. On April 23, 2002, Bill S-22 was approved in the House of Commons by a vote of 166 to 58; and on April 30, 2002, it received royal assent, making Canada’s National Horse officially the Canadian.

Since the 1980s, Canadian breeders have done an admirable job in growing the breed, which now numbers over 5000 horses. While the majority of Canadians still live in their ancestral home of Quebec, many have made their way to Ontario and the West, with numerous breeders being found in BC and Alberta. In the past few years their popularity has begun to rise elsewhere in the world too. “For three years we have succeeded in penetrating the European market, which is no mean feat,” said Cathleen Hall, President of the CHBA, in a message to the CHBA membership in 2009. “The exoticism which the Canadian horse represents for breeders overseas increases its power of attraction. I dare hope that the entire country will benefit from this infatuation.”

Canadian Horse breed standard

Photo: Courtesy of Julie Hickie
The Canadian Horse breed standard has been mostly unchanged for 200 years. They stand 14 to 16 hands high on average and should have a short back, good bone, strong hindquarters, a deep girth, and a well set, arching neck. Pictured is Julie Hickie of Cache Canadians in Alberta with her stallion, Delavoye Heros Phenom.

Canadian Body
The breed standard has remained mostly unchanged since the formation of the first registry over 200 years ago. Perhaps one of the most noticeable things about a Canadian is their ample mane and tail, which is often wavy. While the majority of Canadians are black or brown, occasionally bay and chestnut horses are seen; there are also extremely rare champagne or red bay Canadians. They stand 14 to 16 hands high on average. The head should be wedge shaped, with small ears, a square nose, wide set eyes, and a wide brow. The back should be short, with a very deep girth, which gives them great strength per body weight. They should have good bone, short cannon bones, large, solid feet, and powerful hindquarters.

Competing in Western Events Reining Gymkhana Trail & Western pleasure

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Canadians are extremely versatile and can also be seen competing in Western events such as reining, gymkhana, trail, and Western pleasure.

“They are built more like a baroque horse,” said Salinas. “As a dressage horse, they would excel in collected movements because they are short coupled and powerful.” Salinas’s stallion, Swallowfield Eno Kelbeck, competes at the second level in dressage, having multiple wins at Gold level shows.

Canadians are extremely versatile thanks to their good bone, endurance, and strong work ethic. “The Canadian Horse is very versatile and can be used for so many riding styles,” said Glynis Boggs-O’Shea of Nanaimo, BC.

English Pleasure Hack & Hunter Classes

Photo: Courtesy of Glynis Boggs-O’Shea
Canadians do well in English pleasure, hack, and hunter classes due to their good gaits and calm mind. Shown is Woodmont Lawrence Premier, owned by Glynis Boggs-O’Shea, at a show in June, 2009.

Today Canadians can be found in practically every discipline. While the majority enjoy being partners for recreational and trail riders, given the proper training, they can be very competitive in the show ring. Dressage, driving, jumping, trail and performance classes, Western pleasure, English hack and hunter classes, reining, competitive trail riding, and eventing are just a few of the disciplines that Canadians participate in today. A great many have also become prized among outfitters and backcountry riders for their strength, hardiness, and good feet.

Combined Driving Competitons

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Canadians make excellent driving horses and can be regularly seen competing in combined driving competitions.

“You can have an English saddle on them one day, a Western saddle the next day, and then go up into the mountains,” said Betty Baxter, Chairperson of the Canadian Horse Heritage and Preservation Society and owner of Five Winds Farm Canadians in Roberts Creek, BC.

But while they are very versatile, with strength, good gaits, and flowing movement, “they’re not ever going to be super fast,” said Yvonne Hillsden of Cherry Creek Canadians in Kamloops, BC. “They’ve got good endurance, but were bred to trot forever, not gallop forever like a Thoroughbred.” Hillsden describes them as an energy conserving horse — not lazy, but only wanting to expend as much energy as is necessary to get the job done.

For those wanting a Canadian horse with a little more “go,” a Canadian cross, such as those crossed with a Thoroughbred or Warmblood, may be what you are looking for.

Canadian Mind
Ask Canadian Horse breeders to name their favourite thing about the breed and most will say it’s the exceptionally calm temperament.

“A beautiful, athletic horse is worth a lot less if it is dangerous to handle. Luckily most Canadians have outstanding temperaments,” said John and Amber Jeglum of Leeward Canadians in Lake Cowichan, BC.
“The Canadian Horse has a docile temperament, full of vigour and spirit, but without being nervous,” said Hall. “The mind of the Canadian horse is its strength.”

“They are not a horse who is a flight animal. But they are not like a draft — they are still a light horse,” said Baxter. “If you have a well trained Canadian that trusts you, they will bring you home from anything. Even if they’ve been off for three weeks, you can go tack them up, check in with them, then toss a rookie on them and go off on a trail ride for two hours.”

“They’re so unflappable. If you’re going to go into a dressage test, you don’t have to worry about them being upset with the surroundings,” said Salinas.

Breed Intelligence

Photo: Courtesy of Alana Hilton
Canadians tend to think before they react, and will try hard for their owners and handlers.

“They’re a horse that thinks about something before they react,” said Hillsden.

Not only will a Canadian think before he reacts, but Canadians put a lot of thought into their training too, which is where their intelligence really shines.

“Their ability to figure things out and learn has been unmatched by my other horses,” said Linda Luckett of Brayton Stables in Ladysmith, BC. “This makes them extremely trainable and they advance very quickly in any chosen discipline.”

“I previously trained Thoroughbreds for the show ring, and these horses (Canadians) are much different. They are keen to learn, very smart, and really want to work hard and please their owner or trainer,” said Boggs-O’Shea.

Because of their intelligence and thinking nature, Canadians will get bored doing the same exercise over and over. “Because they’re engaged mentally, they get bored,” said Baxter. “You have to change up your training and do different things — but it’s a heck of a lot of fun!”

Canadian horses are also very social animals, wanting to interact regularly with their human herd. “When I have visitors at the farm, they are always lined up at the fence,” said Baxter.

Strength & Evolving in Harsh Conditions

Photo: Courtesy of Joy Conway
Canadians are typically easy keepers due to evolving to survive in harsh conditions, and are prized among backcountry riders for their strength, hardiness, and good feet. Mares at Dreams Reach Farms in McBride, BC enjoy a pasture in the shadow of a snowy mountain.

“My favourite thing… is introducing people to the Canadian, watching their faces as the whole herd comes when they see them at the fence or in the field; seeing the nervous relax as they pet a horse that stands quietly under their hands and soaks in the attention,” said Joy Conway of Dreams Reach Farms in McBride, BC. “These horses love people, and it’s easy to love them back.”

The breed’s calm demeanor and social nature has led many inexperienced horse people to purchase young Canadian horses. But breeders warn that this is not a good mix due to the Canadian’s intelligence.

“Because they are smart, they end up being the leader,” says Baxter. “‘Dominant’ is very common in the breed.”

“They will try and be the boss if they get the chance,” said Salinas. “They are bold and will try and challenge their owners.”

Hillsden agrees. “They can definitely try and take advantage of them (inexperienced owners). You need to make the horse respect your personal boundaries. With Canadians, ‘give an inch, take a mile’.”

But, says Baxter, if you get a well trained, well started Canadian that knows he has to be respectful and follow his leader, “you can’t get a better family horse. You can get your grandma to ride him, or your daughter who is six or seven.”

But, said Salinas, “they’re not just a family horse. They are capable of being very athletic, competitive horses as well as being good family horses.”

Capable of being Very Athletic

Photo: Courtesy of Julie Hickie
Many Canadians are excellent jumpers. In fact, on the old government breeding farms, Canadians were shown in jumping and dressage.

The breed may have been best captured by the words of Etienne Faillon, an 18th century historian: “Small but robust, hocks of steel, thick mane floating in the wind, bright and lively eyes, pricking sensitive ears at the least noise, going along day or night with the same courage, wide awake beneath its harness, spirited, good, gentle, affectionate, following his road with finest instinct to come surely to his own stable.”

The Canadian’s strength, endurance, good nature, and heart have made it an irreplaceable partner to man throughout the history of Canada and North America. These same qualities are helping secure the breed as a part of Canada’s future as well.

Main article photo: Jim Hillsden - Dressed to drive Canada’s national horse, Yvonne Hillsden competes her 1996 Canadian mare, Roval Xno Fancy, at The Ranch combined driving event in Pritchard, BC.

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