It’s been widely reported in the past week that the Canadian Horse breed’s status is considered “critical” by the Livestock Conservancy and the breed is once again in danger of extinction. There’s been some confusion from the public on how the breed could be considered in trouble at a time when more Canadians than ever have been showing up on the show circuit and in a variety of equestrian disciplines. The Canadian’s increasing popularity as a riding horse has become both a blessing and a curse. Let us explain.
Some readers have the impression that the breed population is only around 2,000 head, but that figure actually represents the potential breeding population, not the actual number of horses alive today. At present, there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Canadian horses in existence, but what counts for the breed’s continued survival is how many of those horses are able to reproduce. Since 2008, yearly registrations of the Canadian Horse have declined drastically, to the point where the breed is currently hovering at around 200 registrations per year. With registration numbers this low, there are not enough foals being born to replace those horses that are being lost to illness, infirmity or old age.
Added to this is the fact that in recent years the typical ownership profile has changed. Prior to 2008, along with individuals who owned Canadians exclusively for riding or driving, and those who owned a riding horse but bred it to produce one or two foals, there were quite a few dedicated Canadian Horse breeders who maintained a breeding herd and regularly offered young stock for sale. Since the recession, many of the breeding farms have been forced out of business, victims of the economy and the rising costs of raising horses in a poor sales market. As important as breed preservation may have been to such farms, the economic reality is that it costs money to maintain a quality breeding herd and raise foals to maturity. Without being able to turn a profit or at least cover costs, which are higher than many buyers might think, breeders can’t continue to operate. In a few of the worst cases of financial hardship, purebred Canadians have been sent to auction, prompting some concerned CHHAPS members to found the Canadian Horse Rescue and Re-homing Society to help cash-strapped owners who have been unable to connect with suitable buyers.
With the changing ownership profile, most Canadian Horses are now kept exclusively as show or pleasure horses. This includes the vast majority of mares in the breed. Owners are understandably hesitant to put their primary riding horse out of commission for a season in order for it to carry and nurse a foal to weaning age. There are currently just over 3,000 Canadian Horse mares under the age of twenty and probably about a third of that number are either too old or too young to be bred. Recent surveys of horse ownership (all breeds) done in Quebec and BC indicate that nearly 50% of all mares are in homes where they are used as the primary riding horse and the owners have no plans to breed them. Applying this to the Canadian Horse, the current population of mares may be as few as 1,000 that have the immediate potential of contributing to the breed.
This lack of breeding mares coincides with declining stallion ownership. Using British Columbia as an example, prior to 2008, there were between 20 and 30 Canadian Horse stallions available as studs in BC. A more recent count indicates that there are now only about 10 Canadian Horse stallion owners left in the province who are currently breeding. Some stallions have passed away, some have been gelded, others are now too old to breed. Many of the remaining studs are located in remote areas of the province and do not offer shipped semen, making the stallions less accessible to the majority of mare owners. This means that currently in BC, there are maybe only 3 or 4 stallions that are centrally located and whose owners provide comprehensive breeding services to make them readily available to those wishing to breed their mares.
Unfortunately, this situation regarding breeding stock is echoed in other Canadian provinces. In spite of what appears to be the increasing popularity of Canadians as riding horses, there is no question that the breed is in serious trouble. Registrations are at their lowest since 1993, many breeders have been forced to curtail their breeding operations and sell off their breeding stock, and the vast majority of mares are in the hands of owners who have no plans to breed them or to preserve their lines in the breed gene pool.
Victoria Tollman of the Equus Survival Trust very eloquently summed up the solution in a message to CHHAPS members. “Every worthy mare should be in purebred production and contribute at least two foals (or more if you can support that) back to the gene pool. Every mare should also have a good daughter to replace her in the breeding program when the mare is retired.” She understands that raising a foal isn’t possible for everyone and says, “Still each person’s situation is their own, and they must act accordingly. Only you know what you can support. And if you can’t support any [foals] during the breeding life of your horses, I suggest you lease them out, trade them for a gelding or senior Canadian in need of a retirement home, or sell or gift them to breeders who can. You owe that to your breed. So, no … it’s not easy being a rare breed steward. The sacrifices are many. The challenges tough. The rewards? Priceless …”
Those of us concerned about the breed’s preservation urge all Canadian Horse mare owners to seriously consider Tollman’s suggestions before it’s too late to reverse the decline in breed population. To ensure that the breed continues, and that every mare’s genes contribute to a healthy gene pool, we hope that all mare owners will consider breeding their mares at least once or twice, choosing the best Canadian Horse stallion possible, and one that genetically complements the mare. Tollman also warned that, while it should definitely be the goal of breeders to produce high quality individuals in the next generation, it is just as important is to keep the gene pool diverse in order to keep the gene pool healthy. In order to make the breeding count, it’s not enough to choose a stallion based on convenience or the most affordable stud fee. It may require using shipped semen to achieve this, but it will help preserve Canada’s beloved National breed. It goes without saying that all foals should be registered before they are sold.
For anyone looking to purchase a Canadian Horse, due to their increasing popularity and the decline in registrations since 2008, the current selection of trained riding horses is limited, so it may be necessary to purchase a young and/or green horse. The best way to contribute to the breed’s preservation would be to do just that, as it will encourage those mare owners who undertake to breed their mares in order to contribute to the breed’s future gene pool.
If you are a Canadian Horse owner or even just a concerned fan of the breed, please consider becoming a member of the Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society or a regional Canadian Horse breed group. CHHAPS members around North America work hard on a volunteer basis to promote the breed. Your membership fees will go toward promotion materials and expenses, and all additional volunteer participation in the effort to ensure the survival of this beautiful and uniquely Canadian heritage breed will be greatly appreciated! Wherever a significant number of members can come together, we organize booths at horse fairs, put on breed demos and show off Canadians to the public in other ways.
For more information or to find out what you can do to help, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society page on Facebook.