History of the Canadien Horse
More than Three Centuries Old
The history of the Canadien Horse began
when King Louis XIV of France sent several shipments
of horses, totalling about
40, for his noblemen in the colony of New France (now
Quebec, Canada) in the years 1665 to 1670. For at least
the next hundred
years or so the horses reproduced with no outside influence.
In that time, they developed into a well-adapted, smaller,
sturdy breed noted for thriftiness and endurance, and
by 1850, they
numbered about one hundred and fifty thousand. The ancestors
may have been destined for nobility but the descendants
definitely developed working class skills, serving the
as plow horse and carriage horse. So in evidence in everyday
life in French Canada, the Canadien Horse appeared frequently
in paintings by the renowned artist Cornelius Krieghoff.
Well recognized paintings, such as Carting Ice, painted
and many others appear in a wonderful book entitled “Kreighoff
- Images of Canada” (Dennis Read, 1999).
Over time, the Canadien horse came to
influence other horse populations including the American
Saddlebred, the Standardbred,
and the Morgan. It is a standing story in Canadien horse
lore that many Canadians became ‘Morgans’ at the American
border. Recent DNA testing done at the University of Guelph
Equine Centre has proven that the Canadien bloodlines served
as a major influence on the Morgan breed. Given the foundation
stud’s reputation for being able to pull more per pound
than any other horse, it is highly likely that Justin Morgan
was largely, if not totally Canadien. After all, over the years
the Canadien has acquired the title of ‘Little Iron Horse’ for
its repeated demonstrations of strength and endurance.
The Canadien horse was used first used
in times of conflict during the American Revolution.
And later during the American
Civil War, thousands of Canadien horses found their way
into battle contributing to a severe decline in numbers.
losses and the new focus on the ‘heavy horse’ breeds,
there were genuine concerns about the breed’s demise,
so the Canadien breed book was opened in 1895. From 1913 until
1979, a breeding program was operated in Quebec, first by the
federal government and later by the province, to ensure that
the breed survived. Nevertheless, by the 1980’s, the numbers
of Canadiens had decreased to about 400 registered animals
so that the horse was placed on the endangered species
were Canadien horses in Quebec but many owners did not
bother to register them. So for a time, there was an open
permitted Canadien type mares to be bred to purebred Canadien
stallions. You will still find some horses with percentage
papers - in fact the Keewatin Farm has some.
Fortunately there has been a change
in fortunes for the ‘little
iron horse’. At the present time, a growing interest in
the breed means that there are now upwards of 4000 registered
Canadien horses - moving the horse from ‘endangered’ to ‘rare’ status.
In early 2003, the Canadien Horse received,
by the vote of the Parliament of Canada, the status
National Horse. It was a long time coming - three attempts
to get the
bill through the House of Commons, some Opposition dissension,
political grandstanding, debate in the media, and much
lobbying by many Canadien Horse breeders. However, after
all these years,
from its origins in New France (the province of Quebec)
to its becoming an official breed more than a hundred
years ago, to
now becoming the National Horse, the little horse has
finally the official recognition that it deserves.
A Horse by Any Other Name
Officially, in English, the horse is
called The Canadian Horse, and in French, it is Le Cheval
Canadien. However, you may note
that we refer to the ‘Canadien’ horse throughout
our website, even though the website is in English
It is seems logical to us. Most of the
has been French-speaking - it came from France and developed
as a breed in French Canada for more than three hundred years.
It was the horse which grew up among those settlers who were
the first to call themselves Canadien and their language was
French, it seems like a reasonable salute to the horse’s
history to refer to it as ‘Canadien’ even in English.
Furthermore, from a pragmatic point
of view, the use of the word ‘Canadien’ instead of the English ‘Canadian’,
distinguishes the horse from all the horses whose geographic
location is simply Canadian. You wouldn’t believe the
number of folks who quite understandably, who say, “yes,
I know your horse is Canadian, but what is the breed”.
So for us, the horse is the Canadien in either official language.
Anecdotes About The Canadien Horse
We have been collecting anecdotes about the Canadien Horse,
particularly in Western Canada. Everyone who speaks about their
knowledge of Canadiens has a wonderful story to relate of perserverence,
intelligence, endurance and friendly disposition.
Grant MacEwan and the Canadien
One of our favourites is a story told to us by the late
Grant MacEwan, a well-known western Canadian statesman,
academic, politician, historian and all-round interesting character.
In his book “Heavy Horses”, he has a chapter on
the Canadien in which it is apparent that he has a strong
personal interest in the breed.
We were intriqued and so we tracked Mr. MacEwan down in a nursing
home in Calgary in April of 1999. We spent a fascinating couple
of hours talking about Canadien Horses.
He related the story (as mentioned in his book), of
how, as a youngster near Melfort, Saskatchewan, he was
impressed by a little Canadien mare who alone struggled
out of an overturned railcar. MacEwan said that he was
struck by the courage of the breed and that every trip
he took to Quebec he would enquire about the horses.
Apparently his persistent interest was rewarded by a
gift in 1942 from the Quebec association - a young chestnut
stallion called Yamachiche.
MacEwan felt that Yamachiche could be the foundation of small,
sturdy chore horse for prairie farms but admits that his timing
was too late as farm mechanization was ever increasing. The
horse was transferred to a Manitoba farm in 1949 and MacEwan
lost track of him.
But MacEwan recalls vividly that he would ride the stallion
in his free time for several years, and remembers him as a high-spirited
horse who was always ready for more.
The stories of the Canadien’s
abilities are legendary.
The Last Race
A wonderful story came from a friend whose father owned
a Canadien back in the 1930’s-’40s. The father
was well known around his Saskatchewan prairie home for racing
all ‘takers’ with his ‘French Canadien horse’ -
not for speed, but for distance. Finally, most people
refused to bet with him because he always won. In a
new twist, he
and his twin brother said that they would race the freight
train from their town to the next one down the line.
The people doubted that a horse could outrace a train
for over 12 km
and so bet against the horse, but that durable little
Canadien horse won the race! Our friend relates that
his father said
the brothers made more in bets that day than from the
whole year of farming.
Logging in Northern Ontario
In November of 1999, while displaying our horses at the
Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, a very distinquished
looking gentleman with a British accent came up to talk with
us. He said that he was logging in Northern Ontario in the
1930s and that they used Canadiens to pull huge loads of logs
out from the bush. When we showed him the photo in our Rocky
Mountain Horse Association brochure of Canadiens doing just
that you could tell that he was enjoying the remembrance.
Over and over again, people come forward with their stories
of Canadiens who perform, sometimes under the most difficult
For more details on the Canadien Horse
“The Canadian Horse - A Pictorial History” by Gladys Mackey Beattie
Heavy Horses” by Grant MacEwan
“The Life of Horses” by Jane Holderness-Roddam
“Le Cheval Canadien” by Paul Bernier
Kreighoff, Images of Canada” by Dennis Read
Web sites :
Canadian Horse Breeders Association