This article by director and former Chair of CHHAPS, Ken Morris, examines the historical descriptions of the foundation stock of today’s Canadian Horse. For many years, Ken has used Canadian Horses in U.S. Cavalry reenactments  in order to be historically accurate, as well as for dressage, jumping, driving and general recreation. He is a valuable member of CHHAPS and the Canadian Horse community, and has done a great deal to promote the Canadian in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Historical Descriptions of the Canadian Horse

In order to make informed decisions about the future of the Canadian Horse, we must understand his past. The purpose of this article is to look at historic descriptions of the Canadian Horse, and use these descriptions to paint a picture of the breed as is existed before the development of the breed standard. I examined descriptions of the Canadian Horse written between 1841 and 1895. A limitation of this study is that, with one exception, I only looked at sources written in English; I would welcome a similar study of the French sources.

European roots of the Canadian Horse

An American artillery officer and his Canadian horse. C. 1861

The Canadian Horse has its roots in the France of King Louis XIV. From studying writings of the period, one can make educated guesses about the breed’s beginnings. One must remember that the original horses sent to New France were intended as riding mounts, for officers of the Carignan-Saliéres Regiment, for the nobility, and the clergy. As such, they must have been of high quality. So what type of horses did the French nobility ride? The writings of the Sieur de Solleysel, an ecuyer to Louis XIV, provide an answer to that question. In his book Le Parfait Maréchal(first published in 1664) Solleysel recommended breeding carefully chosen “short-jointed” Barbs, and Spanish stallions, to French mares. Of the many French breeds that existed at the time, those nearest the ports from which the ships sailed were the most likely candidates for shipment to New France. The horses of Normandy had long been famed for their quality. Even the Friesian may have played a role. Solleysel’s student Sir William Hopes wrote in 1696 that breeding the Spanish stallion to a “well-chosen Dutch mare . . . will make an excellent Composition [cross] for the Manage.” Hopes praised the “Dutch or Frison” horse, writing that “he is hardy, can live upon any Thing, and will indure either Heats or Colds.” This hardiness may have been a reason to choose Dutch mares, as well as the similar breeds of Normandy and Brittany, to colonize New France. Hopes’ remarks about the Dutch horse are echoed by those of Benjamin Crowninsheild 200 years later, who wrote that the Canadian and part-Canadian horses used by his cavalry regiment in the American Civil War were “able to endure hardship and hunger nearly in proportion to their Canadian blood . . . exceedingly hardy. When they could not get hay they would eat the bark of trees, leaves, almost anything; and would thrive where horses of some other breed would starve.”

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff

Solleysel’s ideal was a Baroque type horse, strong and muscular, with a well arched neck, but not too tall or heavy. Solleysel cautioned, “for the most part [tall and heavy horses] are not only the weakest horses, but commonly without spirit or vigor.” Small and medium sized (entre dues selles) horses were the best. The forehand could be somewhat heavy, but above all, the loins (reins) must be strong. The legs should not be too long relative to the horse’s body: the ideal horse should have the same measurement from withers to elbow, as elbow to heel. The pasterns should be short and flexible; the feet excellent. Such a horse would be sturdy and very strong for its size. Temperament was also extremely important. “There is a very great difference between a mettled horse and a fiery one,” Solleysel wrote, “a mettled and vigorous horse should be esteemed, but a fretting and fiery horse is good for nothing: A horse which is truly vigorous, should be calm and cool, ride patiently, and not discover his mettle, but when required.”

So the Canadian Horse most likely originated as a composite breed, which helps to explain the “diversity of types” described by early authors. Historical descriptions of the Canadian Horse agree well with the hypothesis that the breed originated as a cross of Spanish, Barb, old French, and perhaps Dutch blood. In any composite breed, one sees variety in how strongly various traits are expressed, and no doubt, this—along with later infusions of blood from other breeds– led to the “great variety of races” noted by George Barnard in the 1840s.

Indeed, George Barnard’s description of the Canadien Horse in the Albany Cultivator (Oct. 25, 1841) is one of the most detailed ever written. He wrote that although the Canadien breed varied, all were “clearly impressed with a certain general character.” The distinguishing marks of the Canadian Horse were a “ broad, courageous – looking head, . . . thick neck, with general stoutness of frame, full breast and strong shoulder, with a round or fleshy croup . . . low-set muscles and large sinews, with those tough feet that know not disease.” Every author I examined praised the Canadian Horse’s soundness, his “virtual immunity from diseases of the legs and feet.” When it came to this, the Canadien had “all the advantage” over similar breeds such as the Morgan.

Size and Proportions

Illustration of Canadian horse from John Dimon’s Horses and Horse Breeding, 1895, representing the breed as it appeared 50 years earlier.

All of the sources I was able to locate, without exception, agree that the early Canadian Horse was a stout, muscular, short-legged animal, typically under 15 hands. But while he had short legs, he had a strong, substantial body. Civil War cavalryman Aaron Bachman’s remark that his “Canadian pony” was “not so tall standing but quite large lying down” is an apt description of the Canadien’s proportions. Indeed, as John Dimon wrote in 1895, short legs combined with a strong body gave the Canadian horse a significant mechanical advantage over taller horses of equal or even greater weight. In the mid-1800s the Norman, or Percheron-Norman, horse was gaining increasing favor, and inevitably comparisons of the two breeds ensued. Many authors assumed that the Canadien was simply a Norman horse “degenerated in size” due to harsh climate and poor feeding. However, the breeding of large and heavy Percherons did not begin until the 1820s. While horses from Normandy were doubtless among the first imports to New France, they were considerably smaller than the 19th century Percheron.

Dr. Ellwood Harvey wrote in 1859 that their “backs [are] short . . . bodies round and roomy, the ribs sometimes projecting from the backbone nearly horizontally, giving a peculiar, flat appearance to the back.” While almost all authors agreed with Harvey, a few, such as D.C. Linseley (1857) noted that the Canadian was “inclined to be flat-sided.” (Interestingly, Linseley describes the Morgan horse’s body as having the exact same shape that others noted for the Canadien!) It may be that Linseley was being selective, and contrasting the Morgan with Canadians of the most dissimilar type. Linseley’s “Canadian” appears to be more similar to the Canadian Pacer, some (though not all) of which tended to have a narrower build, steeper rumps, and a narrower, more mule-shaped foot. The origin of the Canadian Pacer is the subject of some conjecture, but there is good reason to believe that imports of pacing horses from the United States figured in its development. Some Canadian Pacers, for example Tom Hal, are markedly different in type from the typical Canadian horse of the era, while others (such as Pilot) match the typical Canadien in every way.

Aptitudes and Temperament

Over time, the Canadian Horse developed into an all-purpose animal, but for which the physical traits needed to drive long distances, often pulling a heavy load, over difficult terrain superceded other uses in importance. Increasingly he became a roadster or the small farmer’s horse. The base stock from which the Canadien originated—the strong, compact Baroque horse—was well suited to this purpose. The Canadiens’ temperament also figured into his suitability at a long-distance driving horse. He was “self-pacing.” He could not be induced to go at his top speed for long, but “[allow] him to go at his own pace, say from six to eight miles the hour,” as Henry William Herbert wrote in The Horse in America (1857), he was “an indefatigable undaunted traveller, with the greatest endurance, day in and day out, of any horse I have ever driven.” George Barnard agreed: “The Canadian, if he has the power of rapid locomotion, inclines for the most part to put forth his energies only for a short time, and then to take a leisurely gait.” A Canadian Horse was sensible, and knew how to take care of himself. As a New York Times article remarked, he had the “power of adapting himself to circumstances” (“The Quebec Horse,” July 15, 1890). This, every bit as much as his build, explained the reknowned hardiness of the breed.

“Corbeau, A Trotting Horse.” Painting by Robert C. Todd, 1845 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). An example of the lighter type of Canadien bred for harness racing. He appears in early studbooks of what would later become the Standardbred breed.

At the same time, some people bred the Canadien for racing (both trotters and pacers). The first horses to race on the ice of Quebec also had to work on the farm, but as the craze for trotters and pacers spread, some animals were kept exclusively for this purpose. No doubt, new blood was introduced into the Canadian Horse as breeders sought to increase speed. Strong, low-built horses like Pilot and St. Lawrence could have speed, but one also sees lighter built, longer-legged animals, like Corbeau, whose appearance suggests more than a dash of Thoroughbred blood. But overall, the trotter or pacer—which still needed to pull weight—was generally of a stouter build than the runner.

While “driving” type traits were favored in breeding over riding traits, some Canadiens were good riding horses. Barnard wrote that “in general the weight of the neck and uprightness of the shoulder disqualify them for [use as saddle horses].” Nevertheless, some Canadiens were good saddle horses: “Some of the light-footed Canadian horses, too, are very pleasant under the saddle.” In his memoirs, Gustave Koerner described a “stout Canadian pony” he owned in the 1840s as “a very fine traveler . . . [with a] swift canter . . . We [travelled] one hundred and fifteen miles in two days and a quarter . . . I never rode a better traveling horse in all my life, and did not feel at all tired when I got home.” Veterinarian Gustavus Asche-Berg wrote that the “delightful small round” Canadian pony he rode in 1863 “surpassed the other [cavalry] horses with the speed and fabulous ease with which he ran . . .”

Coquette – drawing from 1829

Moreover, he had an “excellent ability to leap the widest and highest fences . . .”  While breeding Canadiens to Thoroughbreds to produce the speedy yet powerful “Frencher” was a well established practice by the 1840s (as noted by J.S. Skinner in the first American edition of Youatt’s The Horse, 1843) some good-riding Canadiens were to be found among the early type. My guess is that such animals were fairly small (if they were too large, their heavy musculature would have decreased endurance) and had a sloping, as opposed to an upright, shoulder. Asche-Berg’s quote brings up another point as well: Canadiens of the early type could be very good jumpers. Temperament, as well as build, probably factored into this. Canadiens were notably surefooted and good at negotiating obstacles. Naturally high knee action would help them pick up their feet over jumps, and their strong hindquarters provided the necessary power.

So this is the Canadian Horse as he existed before the establishment of the breed standard. The breed standard reinforced the old type in some ways, while pointing the breed in a new direction in others. Reading this document, one sees the hope that the good qualities of the Canadian Horse (strength, stamina, soundness, hardiness, and temperament) could be retained, while breeding for increased size and refinement. Whether or not this ideal has been attained in the past hundred years is a matter of opinion. One thing is clear, however: to do justice to the Canadian Horse in the future, we must understand his past.

From the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ)

The Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Canadian Horse breed, known in French as Le Cheval Canadien. CHHAPS has members across North America. 

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