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Breed History

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 habitant farmer 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 in 1850, 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. With those 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 list. There were Canadien horses in Quebec but many owners did not bother to register them. So for a time, there was an open book which 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.

Canada’s National Horse

In early 2003, the Canadien Horse received, by the vote of the Parliament of Canada, the status of Canada’s 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 horse’s history 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 conditions!

For more details on the Canadien Horse

Books :
“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 :
Historical Description
Breed Description

Other Websites
Canadian Horse Breeders Association