The Canadian Horse is a true national hero. It is a heritage breed older than Canada itself, descending from the first horses to set hoof on the shores of New France in 1665. Like the habitants who depended on it for their survival, the Canadian Horse has struggled for its survival and identity in the face of mechanization, market forces and acculturation. Long ago dubbed “Le petit cheval de fer” or ‘the Little Iron Horse” because of its ability to out-pull pound for pound, any other kind of horse, the Canadian deserves to be respected, conserved and treasured as a living part of our nation’s history. In April 2002, the breed was recognized, by law, as the National Horse of Canada.

Just what kind of horse is the Canadian? Surviving books and artwork from the past tell us that the Canadian Horse was just like us – a spunky, tough breed unsurpassed for its ability to survive and flourish in harsh conditions. Eighteenth century historian Etienne Faillon, perhaps best captured the image of the breed with his words “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”.

Far from being our best kept secret, the Canadian Horse was well-known and respected throughout the North American colonies. Ironically, the Canadian’s reputation and popularity almost caused its demise as a distinct breed. In the 1800s, horse-trading between Quebec and New England flourished. The development of good roads south of the border created a demand for quick, stylish roadsters. The sport of harness racing, born on the ice near Montreal, attracted American sportsmen who came to Canada to purchase Canadian Horses, particularly stallions. Canadian Horses sold to the United States soon found their way in to the stud-books of the early American Saddlebred, Morgan, Standardbred, Tennessee Walker, and other breeds. The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) brought Union Army buyers to Canada to purchase horses by the thousands. Even today, as evidenced by a genetic similarity study conducted by the University of Guelph, Ontario, in the year 2000, the Canadian Horse and the Morgan are still close genetic cousins.

Beauport de Cap Rouge
Albert de Cap Rouge - One of the most influential sires of the breed.

As the 19th century drew to a close, Canadian Horse breeders began to realize the impact of losing their prize stock. Efforts began to find, conserve and record the pedigrees of the remaining horses and all exports were banned. Distinguished Quebec agronomist, Edouard A. Barnard, who had successfully championed the preservation of the Canadien cow, and Dr. J.A. Couture, turned their attention to saving the Canadian Horse from extinction.

In spite of dedicated efforts to find suitable foundation stock of the old type to replenish the breed, progress was slow. Successive generations of indiscriminate outcrossing with heavier, larger horses had taken their toll and few representatives of the horse that Faillon described could be found. The idea of a horse registry was fairly new and its purpose not well understood by horse-owners. Nevertheless, in 1886, the first registry was established, and Edouard Barnard’s stallion ‘Lion of Canada’ became #1 – the first registered Canadian Horse.

In 1895, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (La Société des Eleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens) was formed, but in following years, under pressure to crossbreed for big agriculture, the bright, lively, Canadian Horse once more succumbed to mongrelization. With the passing of the federal Livestock Pedigree Act in 1905, all breed associations in Canada were encouraged to incorporate under one umbrella, to standardize registration procedures, and scrutinize their existing herd books. Dr. Couture seized this opportunity to obtain support for the preservation of the old Canadian Horse and appealed to J.G. Rutherford, Canada’s first Veterinary Director General and Live Stock Commissioner. Dr. Rutherford agreed with Dr. Couture’s assertion that registration practices had been too lax in preceding years allowing too many foreign influences in to the Canadian breed. He called for dissolving the existing Canadian Horse stud book, and creating a new book of foundation stock. Only those horses that could pass inspection by a strict committee would be permitted entry, and height would be limited to no taller than 16 hands for exceptional individuals.

When questioned by the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture and Colonization in the House of Commons in 1909, on why the size of the Canadian Horse should be limited, Dr Rutherford replied. “ It is to discourage the almost universal tendency on the part of breeders to increase the size of horses. You keep on increasing the size until you get a horse which is altogether different from what you started out to get. “

Dr. Rutherford succeeded in impressing the government on the merits of the traditional Canadian Horse. In 1913, the federal government established a stud farm in Quebec at Cap Rouge, followed by a second at St. Joachim in 1919. For two decades, a large-scale breeding program continued, but by the end of 1940, Canada was heavily involved in WWII. The government lost interest in the project and the federally sponsored stud farms were disbanded.

The Quebec Department of Agriculture purchased some stock and continued with a smaller breeding program at Deschambeault research farm. The rest were sold to private breeders. As horses were replaced on the roads by cars and trucks, pressure to develop the breed as a medium draft for farm use set the Deschambeault farm on a course to produce larger heavier horses. No one then foresaw the role of the horse as a companion or pleasure animal. By the mid 1960s, the role of the general utility horse was finally recognized, and plans were undertaken to produce once again a light all-purpose horse suitable for driving and riding. However, with the rise of the pleasure horse market and the development of other popular light horse breeds, national awareness of our own unique Canadian breed declined. By the late 1970s only about 400 registered individuals remained.

In November 1981, the remaining forty-four Canadian Horses at Deschambeault (La Gorgendiere) farm were sold at an auction reserved for members of the Canadian Horse Breeders Association.

Today, the Canadian Horse has made a remarkable recovery and although still endangered, registered individuals exceed 4,000. Formerly found only in any numbers in eastern Canada, the breed has been rediscovered by horse enthusiasts across North America and can now be found in every province territory, and in the United States.

Rapid changes in demographic growth combined with past breeding trends have created new challenges, and left a legacy of differing opinions and goals among Canadian Horse breeders. Conflict between those intent on changing the Canadian Horse and its breed standards to fill the perceived needs of today’s sport-horse market, and those intent on preserving the Canadian as a distinct heritage breed came to a head in 2003, when the Ministry of Agriculture was called upon by concerned members to step in to assist in bringing democracy and representation for all breeders across Canada to the national association.

Today, with the assistance of a Ministry representative, the struggle to bring the national association above warring factions continues. Meanwhile, active provincial and regional groups have sprung up, each dedicated to the stewardship and conservation of this heritage breed, and to instilling pride in the Canadian public over what a unique national treasure we have. One such group, CHHAPS (the Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society) incorporated in the province of BC in 2002, now boasts a province-wide membership and holds competitive and educational events several times per year throughout the province. Featured events at CHHAPS competitions include regular classes that both showcase the breed as a worthy equine competitor, and breed specialty classes such as Heritage Costume and the Little Iron Horse competition ( riding, driving, ½ mile trot and a stoneboat pull) that exemplify the Canadian’s historical role.

True to its history, the Canadian remains “A People’s Horse”, sound, tough, enduring, capable of inspiring our greatest passion, pride, and determination. Increasing numbers of dedicated, conscientious Canadian breeders ensure that the remarkable Canadian Horse will live on not only in the words captured by Faillon’s pen, but in our barns, and in our pastures for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

(Article by Roxanne Salinas, 2004)

Tobacco Card circa 1890