If one were to ask the average person what breed of horse they thought was one of the most influential in the history of North America, the chances would be slim-to-none that the Canadian horse would be brought up in that conversation. Few people outside of the equine world know of this breed’s existence, much less its origin or characteristics.
The Canadian horse is listed as a critical breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. There are about 2,500 horses of this breed currently living, with most of them calling Canada their home.
It is a breed that has seen a recent surge in its popularity, however, and preservation programs have been implemented to ensure the continued survival of the Canadian horse. This breed has special qualities, a unique history, and it doesn’t take a horse enthusiast to recognize them.
What is the Origin of the Canadian Horse?
Like almost every breed in North America, the Canadian horse can trace its history and lineage to the colonial era. Settlers that came to settle New France and Acadia in the 17th century required work horses to create their homesteads. Those horses came from foundation stock that was imported from Europe, with the first of the population arriving as early as 1616.
French horses were introduced to the region by 1665 when 22 horses, including two stallions, were sent to the colony by Louis XIV from his royal stables. Eight mares were killed on this initial voyage, but the royal stables continued to ship horses overseas to the establishing colonies.
Over the next 5 years, a herd of nearly 50 horses was present in what would become Canada. This would form the foundation of the Canadian horse.
Several different breeds were part of this import process. In the Canadian horse, you will find Friesian, Norman, and Breton genetics. Many of the horses used as foundation horses in the colonial days were of various types, including trotters, draft horses, and pacers, which would be infused into the breed foundation as well.
A complete record of the various breeds that were used to establish the Canadian horse in the 17th century does not exist. Through DNA studies, Barbs, Arabians, and Andalusians bloodlines were known to be added at some point to this breed after the days of its earliest establishment.
The horses would then be leased to religious groups or qualifying farmers. Payment could be made directly or through the exchange of a foal. The early horses would remain the property of the king of France for a minimum of 3 years. This helped the colony be able to sustain itself.
Once the breed was formalized by the end of the 18th century, no other bloodlines were infused into the Canadian horse. Breeders were working toward a horse that was more refined, a bit lighter, and had the characteristics of a pure breed. This would allow them to have the hard-working horse that had the stamina and strength that was desired from the first days of the colonies being formed in Canada.
As the breed became more popular, owners began to experiment with their horses to see their full capabilities. For those in Quebec, that meant taking their horses out for races. The events became so popular that they had to be moved to prevent interference from those who were going to church. They would race along the frozen St. Lawrence River and some would go to influence other North American breeds, such as the Saddlebred.
When the population for this breed began to decline, it would be the owners and breeders in Quebec that would help to preserve the Canadian horse. Today, the Canadian horse is formally recognized as being the national breed and has been an official animal symbol for the country sine 2002.
What Are the Characteristics of the Canadian Horse?
The Canadian horse is one of the most versatile breeds in the equine world today. It offers a variety of traits and gaits that allow it to adapt to virtually any circumstance, environmental condition, or task.
Most of the horses in this breed have a darker coat color. Brown, bay, or black is very common. Chestnut coats are possible because of a cream gene that was present in one of the foundation stallions. Gray is also possible, but considered to be extremely rare.
The height of a Canadian horse is typically between 14-16 hands. Stallions of the breed may weigh up to 1,400 pounds, while mares are typically under 1,250 pounds.
This breed has a head that is set high, with a broad forehead, but shorter length. The neck offers a classic, curved line with a arch that is gracefully beautiful. The muscular body stands out to the eye, with definition pronounced along the chest and loins. There is a bit of a slope to the shoulders, while the tail is set high.
When one looks at a Canadian horse, the impression is that there is agility and strength present within the animal.
Most Canadian horses have a trot that is energetic, animated, and somewhat flashy. They are incredibly hardy and have a stamina to match. In many ways, this breed is the epitome of what it means for a horse to be an easy keeper.
Although they were bred as a working horse, those traits have been funneled into a good recreational horse. Canadian horses tend to be friendly, willing, and extremely intelligent. They are particularly talented when jumping and driving, finding success in virtually every type of competitive discipline.
How Threatened is the Canadian Horse?
Although the population numbers of the horse have risen above 2,500 today, the Canadian horse was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s. Between 1970-1974, there were fewer than 30 total new registrations with the breed association. The total global population for the breed was estimated to be around 400.
That would begin to change in 1987, when a team of Canadian horses won the North American Driving Championships. The existing preservation programs saw more interest from breeders who were interested in keeping the breed and that helped the population begin to take off.
About 80% of the global population for this breed resides in Canada. A majority of the other 20% resides in the United States.
Because of the low population levels, the three main types of Canadian horses have all become extinct. In the past, there was a heavy draft-type horse, a pacer-type order, and one that was called the “Frencher,” which came about from an infusion of Thoroughbred bloodlines.
Although there is still much work to do to preserve this unique breed, Canadian horses have the stamina and strength to make it through. Their unique look and versatility makes them one of the most coveted horse breeds from North America today.