By Sandra Rowe, Breeding for a Champion certificate, course in Equine Genetics and Equine Studies diploma student

October 2013

Reviewed and commented by Dr. Dianne Winkelman-Sim, Geneticist

“Your article is very well written and I hope it will effectively get other breeders to seriously consider what they are doing when they select their breeding stock.

Selective Breeding, an act created by the human being to fill his need by domesticating animals!

The Canadian horse saw his beginnings during the colonization of New France in 1665. The horses that arrived were rustic horses with abundant energy, flexibility and power. Their numbers increased as they bred among themselves. Heralded for their quality, the numerous war years decimated the herd until it was nearly eliminated from the earth’s surface…a victim of its amazing qualities, its bravery and especially its heart! What about the Canadian horses today?

In 1886, the first Canadian horse genealogy book was opened….hooray! At last, we could finally say that the Canadian horse was an official breed. As a result, several breeding programs sprung up. No two programs used the same techniques. The first goal of Cap Rouge1 was to standardize the breed. And it was done!  After that, different fashions had an increasing impact.

My last 13 years of intensive research including two years at university studying genetics enable me to establish a global vision of the breed. One can notice an enormous diversity in the breed. And why? After 1981, the breeding was entrusted to the hands of individual breeders, that is to say it did not emanate from any governmental programs. The technology then was not yet very advanced to offer working tools to breeders. As soon as I began my study of the breed, I felt the need to take a census of the Canadian stallions and to collect their photos. This allowed me to observe and determine the hereditary traits according to their phenotype and also to study the possibilities that certain traits are dominant or recessive. These tools were very advantageous for my breeding program which, at that time, had not yet been established.

While continuing my research on the lineages to which the breeders seemed to attach a great deal of importance, I focused on the calculation of genetic relatedness to the following stallions: Brio de la Victoire, Thomas de Viger, La Gorgendiere Royal, Sainte Anne Marquis de Becancour, Henryville Prince, Lou, Pitro and Major II. Finally, the non- registered horse (S) (at the opening of the books in the years from 1940-84) and the ancestors were considered. These eight stallions are called heads of lineage. During my numerous research and readings of the reports of Cap Rouge, Deschambault Farm, etc., I noted that we were speaking, then, of families. Families? Lineage? Paternal lines? What is the difference? And why those?

The lineages have been identified by their Y chromosome which is transmitted only from father to son and is the bearer of a limited number of genes. We identified the eight stallions, at that time, to bring assistance to the breeders concerning the choice of stallions and the direction they would desire to take.

Those were named in the pedigrees of our horses, which pass directly from them. They carried (surely) a genetic diversity from one to the other. But why were they chosen, and not their fathers or grandfathers…???


Albert from Cap Rouge, a direct descendant of Wilfird 1012-FS and Helene 49-FS


Thanks to this research which was done from the 1950s to August of 1992 and was published in volume 7 of the genealogy book of the Canadian Horse Breeders Association, the establishment of the eight paternal lines also had a goal to establish maternal lineages as well as to document the faults and qualities of each one of them. I never stop myself at what I read or hear. I have thus continued my own research and tried to understand the whys and wherefores of these stallions.

My research revealed that these eight stallions identified above are not actually the heads of lineage. In fact, a head of lineage appears at the very beginning of the registry and not in the middle. They shall be named here as Family founders.  The eight stallions previously identified as heads of lineage are actually sub-families. With the passing of the years, the Canadian horse herd was reduced to three different large families: Wilfrid 1012-FS who transmitted his Y chromosome through several generations to arrive at Brio de la Victoire, La Gorgendiere Royal, Ste-Anne Marquis de Becancour, Henryville Prince, La Gorgendiere Major II and Pitro; Bill 2 201-FS who transmitted his also  through generations to arrive at Thomas de Viger; and finally, Beau de Repentigny 200-FS  represented by Lou. The Canadian horse breed is comprised of three families, in addition to a much larger group comprised of several sub-families.

The sub-families can be traced to the eight stallions to which we have been referring for several years. However, La Gorgendiere Major II and Pitro are not a part of the paternal lineages and appear only in the maternal lineages, as is the case with several other stallions that had no male offspring. From this fact, we can trace our horses to foundation stock with three families and six sub-families. It goes without saying that other sub sub-families have been formed with the passage of time. The only one of these sub-families which has contributed to homogeneity of its descendants is the lineage of Henryville Prince.

Don’t worry about genetic diversity! According to the result of more than 100 accounts of genetic percentage calculations that I made and the University of Guelph study (Anouk et al, 1998) the Canadian horse herd represents a very large genetic diversity; this explains the phenotypic diversity of our breed. Our families are now very diluted if we consider the genetic contribution of the foundation sires, which also results in a large diversity of the type.  In the Guelph report, it is also mentioned that the Canadian horse possessed a weak consanguinity rate. A high rate typically occurs when the population of a breed diminishes. That does not seem to be the case for our Canadian horse. How does such diversity happen? Do we have two types of Canadian horses? Perhaps three? Or even four? Or none at all?

Different breeding programs can direct breeders, but breeding should not be undertaken to simply gratify the desire to produce a foal. A goal must be chosen and the objectives of each one can be different, but the Canadian horse standard must be kept in mind. Certain people are going to reproduce for one discipline in particular such as dressage, combined driving, trek, etc. Others will prefer the halter show (even though expositions see themselves diminishing, as are the breeders of this category); to ensure the future of the breed, or just because the mare is beautiful and has a good temperament, and they want an offspring from her. Finally, others will breed simply for the colour. In all cases, the choice of breeding can have significant repercussions on the future of the breed.

For a long time, people believed that the stallion improved the mare and considered that breeding inferior mares was justified as long as quality stallions were used….But the mare transmits slightly more genetics, hence the importance of searching for THE best mare to start a breeding program. The mare contributes slightly more genetics to her son then the stallion does but they contribute equally to their daughters. The souche mares which had been inspected between 1940 and 1984 are often the subject of the greatest discrimination among Canadian horse breeders. Why? A percentage attributed to the mare signifies only that their parents have not been registered. The only impact that this can bring is the gelding of a colt who is not at 100%. What certainty do we have that even our original Purebreds really are that? Before the founding of a genetic follow-up with a DNA test and the insertion of a microchip, nothing was impossible. In any case, we have to work and breed with the horses we have today in order to be able to advance the breed. These mares brought significant genetic diversity to the breed and have served to increase the Canadian horse herd during these years. We must consider them in our breeding programs. The stud-book is now closed, so we don’t have the slightest need to bring particular attention to whether or not our horse is an original purebred.  Genetically, what does that bring us? The possibility of being able to trace back the maternal lineage to foundation stock mares. For those where this is not the case, their genetic lineage remains unknown.

The Cap Rouge breeding farm contributed the most phenotypic and genetic homogeneity to the breed, which was later lost. But how did they manage to conserve it? By simple inbreeding. It’s a subject which scares the majority of breeders…and with reason. Often the misunderstanding of the subject is at the origin of these fears. There also exist other techniques such as, for example, line-breeding and breeding without any closely related parents.

By definition, inbreeding means that the breeding pair are more closely related to each other than the average relationship between individuals of the breed. Typically, the practice of inbreeding is carried out be selecting breeding pairs that have common ancestors in the first or second generation of their ancestry. Intensive inbreeding plans can involve matings between brother-sister, father-daughter, mother-son, half-brother and half-sister, grandfather and granddaughter. From a human viewpoint, we see that as incest. But let us not forget how each breed has been created. Inbreeding must not be used if a genetic defect is known to exist in the common ancestor(s), which obliges the breeder to be extremely knowledgeable of the genetics and the breed. This technique has two advantages: it enables one to establish homogeneity in the herd (physically alike, behave and perform similarly), fix the type and increase homozygosity and, thus, prepotency and, at the same time, it reveals recessive genes. It establishes the qualities, stabilizes the reproduction of descendants and enables one to quickly notice defects and imperfections, facilitating selection of breeding stock. Inbreeding does not create sicknesses and genetic defects; it rapidly reveals them. But as with every technique, it contains some inconveniences. If it establishes the qualities, it can also establish the defects (and imperfections), can spread new defects more rapidly (but very rarely…), diminish the genetic pool, can be used on a few generations but can bring a reduction of vitality and fertility problems. By definition, the inbred horses have more genetic baggage than cross-breeds.

Less intensive inbreeding may be accomplished by selecting breeding pairs with common ancestors in the third or fourth generation. To utilize this technique, you must also know the genetic of your horses. Several breeders of other breeds use linebreeding a lot but that does not seem to be the case with Canadian horse breeders. In the end, linebreeding is a form of inbreeding incorporating some genes from another lineage and only focusing on a single common ancestor for the breeding pair. There are two methods of linebreeding: loose linebreeding and close linebreeding. Loose linebreeding on consecutive generations will produce more variations in physical appearance than close linebreeding. The advantages of linebreeding are that it can be used on several generations without negative effect as long as the focal horse is not hiding any genetic defects. The good and the bad come out less quickly than with inbreeding while it reduces the risks associated with increased homozygosity that results from inbreeding. It’s the best option that allows us to have uniform and consistent results without diminishing vigour.

Finally, the technique of outcrossing, or breeding animals without any common ancestors in the near pedigree, is the one which breeders of Canadian horses use the most. Due to ignorance? Or from fear of making themselves judged if they use inbreeding or linebreeding methods? It also has several advantages, such as the facility of choice of the male, more vitality, and greater genetic diversity in the offspring. Outcrossing can bring consistently good results, particularly if the selected parents are themselves the product of inbreeding or linebreeding. Outcrossing also reduces the risk of the appearance of recessive genetic disorders or faults. However, while specific crosses between unrelated animals that are the products of inbreeding or linebreeding programs can produce a consistent phenotype in their progeny, the progeny of such crosses do not possess prepotency, meaning that their type will not be consistently reproduced in their offspring because, by definition, the progeny resulting from outcrossing have a greater degree of heterozygosity.  The level of heterozygosity resulting from outcrossing also increases the chance that genetic defects remain undetected and can, therefore, easily pass to future generations.

There is no secret or magic formula. It suffices to study your horse well and be honest when the time comes to make a decision. Each technique is important and must be utilized in an intelligent fashion. “Breeding is not a science and cannot be learned in school. The intuition is there in you.” (- Wiescamp, PH breeder) Genetics is a science based on the mathematical probabilities that an animal will inherit specific genes its ancestors. Breeding should not be done quickly but rather by the way of deep reflection. One must be objective in one’s evaluation. Is your chosen horse or stallion a worthy representative of the breed? Is he physically and mentally healthy? Does he possess some genetic defects? He must possess the best phenotype. Even the temperament of some horses must be taken into consideration. For example, to cross an aggressive stallion with a frightened or stressed-out mare will not necessarily give you the desired offspring that would be somewhere between the two extremes. A big question is important to ask oneself: Is this a genetic defect or the result of the environment? How can one know? By studying attentively each one of our horses and by informing oneself about his ancestors.

Many horses are the subject of discrimination and others are held in reverence by certain breeders even when they show a genetic defect, such as cryptorchism. Currently, no genetic disease is recognized in the Canadian horse. Why? Do you think they don’t exist? Certain ones can be less apparent than others and it’s the responsibility of the breeders to do everything necessary to determine the source and take action. There is currently no committee to keep track of these diseases. I propose then to receive all of your information and file them all while preserving the confidentiality of each one. The information can be sent at! My intention is really for the future well-being of the breed, and I thank you in advance for your contribution! One must remember that nobody is 100% responsible if the horse exposes a genetic disease. No one is safe from genetic mutations.  But we must be responsible and denounce them before it becomes widespread. It would be wise to have a greater involvement in genetic research and also to assure oneself of the best possible selection of breeding horses.

Why are certain horses discriminated against by some breeders? Because the horse bears the name of a breeder that is not appreciated? Or because it really doesn’t represent the standard of the Canadian horse? In the last census of stallions that I published in December of 2012, I was able to count close to 300 stallions, WOW!! It’s an enormous number when one takes into consideration the thoroughbred breed that comprises nearly 3,000 certified stallions, but from a population of a few million, which represents a lower ratio than the Canadians. For a population of about 4,500 Canadian horses, around 300 of them are stallions. So it is not easy to choose THE good one! How did the herd of other breeds which were created and/or improved from our Canadian horse, happen to have such an interesting world population?

Unfortunately, there are several poor stallions on the market. However, they continue to reproduce. How can one choose? The most popular way is marketing. A beautiful photo of a flashy stallion is going to attract lots of attention. But is this a good choice for your mare? The selection of a stallion can lead to transportation expenses, an enormous amount of research and lots of time on the telephone. It’s not easy! While already knowing the conformation of a well-balanced horse very well, it goes without saying that this will help with your selection. An excellent book I can recommend to you is “The Conformation Handbook” by Heather Smith Thomas. The information in this book will also bring you good knowledge regarding the choice of reproductive mares. A big mistake that many people make in the selection of a stallion is the proximity, the price and the fact that the stallion belongs to a friend. In breeding, there are no friends, but the advice of a friend can perhaps be very useful! The choice must be objective and well thought out! You surely do not want to bring into this world a foal that in no way resembles a Canadian horse and that is not wanted. How many horses have you already seen which you were not capable of identifying as being a Canadian?  However, it is registered as one!

Your work as a breeder is to select horses in such a way as to optimize the best combination possible. One cannot control the genes which will be transmitted by the mare and the stallion. Each of them transmits half of the foal’s genes. The genome of the first horse has been sequenced in 2007. Since then, people have identified more than 100 genetic diseases and close to 30,000 different genes.

The first goal of breeding should be to bring an improvement to each generation. Therefore, a new stallion on the market is supposed to be better than his father which is not always the case. When a foal is born, a very important question must be asked: What can this foal, a future reproductive stallion, bring to the breed? Is he better than his parents? Am I ready to manage a stallion? And several questions can also be asked about his future. A poor stallion can do a lot more damage than a poor mare but can turn out to be an excellent sports stallion. We all want THE rare pearl, so we must do our homework and be objective in our choices.

According to you, is the type of the Canadian horse fixed? No! And it wasn’t in October of 1995 either, when Dr. Jean Desrochers classified 145 horses from Quebec and from Ontario. Some 20 years later, the type is still not yet fixed. How are we going to manage that? Quite simply, by working together! The structure and genetics are the breeding foundations as the ground floor and footing are for the construction of a house. An excellent conformation will create a versatile horse from where we recognize the Canadian horse. It is also important to identify the horses that have aptitudes for certain sports. An aptitude for one sport does not mean that our horse will no longer be versatile. The conformation makes a horse versatile and then comes the training and his development. After this work, the lineages will come by themselves! The lineages will be created gradually as long as the common traits (type, sports aptitudes, etc.) will be transmitted to the future generations.

Finally, what of the maternal lineages, several breeders of other breeds, notably in racing, for generations have been using maternal lineages for the choice of their stallions and mares. To this day, I have been able to identify 33 maternal families. The list of these will be published on my website at Different types of breeding programs and a few techniques exist, so there are several possibilities. It’s up to you to choose!

It is not enough to rely on the words of other breeders, but one should verify things for oneself.  Each person and each breeder has his or her own vision of the perfect Canadian horse and the comments/descriptions often become subjective. Also, what can someone do to know if the phenotype defects that a horse shows are genetic? Can they be the fruit of the environment (conditions of life, training, blacksmith, etc.)? If the problem is genetic, does it come from a dominant or recessive gene? It’s not easy to be a breeder when one believes that the breeding is based only on the reproduction of two horses!

I have not broached the subject of the colour of Canadian horses. It seems that the colour has taken on fullness during the last 10-15 years. One must keep in mind that the arrival of new colours does not necessarily mean that these come from different breeds. The modifications of the coats can quite simply happen following a genetic mutation or simply from a recessive gene that has previously been masked. Finally, one can conclude that all of these questions deserve reflection and prudence.

I would like to thank all the people who worked closely or from a distance on the Canadian horse genealogy. This work helps us move forward and enables us to shed light on certain questions. Several tools are offered you. Now, let us work together!  The day where breeders will focus on the quality of breeding, we will then see a great improvement of the herd. Let’s be proud of our Canadian horse, develop their potential and he will do the rest.

  1. Langelier, G.A., régisseur de la Station Expérimentale de Cap Rouge, Qué, « Le cheval Canadien «, Fermes Expérimentales Fédérales du Canada, Bulletin no 87, 1927
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