Breed History

The breed of Canadian Horse did not evolve in the new world; the breed developed as a result of the importation of horses during colonization. In his report around the turn of the 19th century, Dr. J.A Couture reported from his research “All of these animals were descended from those sent out from France [to Acadia and New France] in the early days of the Colony. King Louis XIV who liked to do things in a grand way, had instructed his Minister Colbert, himself very eager to see the Colony flourish, to send here only the best animals of the kingdom.” These horses were some of the best, from the King’s royal stud, likely stock from Normandy and Brittany which were the two most renowned horse breeding provinces of France. The Breton horse was small and noted for its soundness and vigor. The Norman horse resembled the Breton but had evidence of the infusion of oriental blood; possibly Arab, Turk or Barb, but most likely Andalusian. Much of the eventual hardiness, and prepotency of the old French Canadian was felt to be due to this Andalusian inheritance. 

Until the British conquest of 1780, the French Canadian bred true, without genetic influence from foreign horses. After the conquest, horses began to be imported from the British Isles and the USA in increasing numbers. These horses were crossed with the Canadian and contributed to the development of new and distinctive varieties within Lower Canada, as well as to the general dissemination of the entire Canadian horse population. 

In the mid 1800′s there were nearly 150,000 Canadian Horses spread across the whole of North America. The horses were renowned for being extremely hardy: they had to be in order to survive the conditions that they lived in! Little used in the summer, they ran free in the woods, tormented by flies due to their docked tails; in the winter, they had no shelter, minimal feed, perhaps some straw as no hay was cured at that time. 

Mass exportation of Canadian Horses is well documented. By the time of Canadian Confederation, so many Canadian stallions had been exported it was feared no horses of undisputed purity remained in Lower Canada. Eventually, the government of Quebec established a French Canadian stud book; further exportation was forbidden. Less than 2000 horses were registered, and after twenty years, the program was found inadequate. Fueled by the newly appointed Livestock director in 1907, a new commission was appointed which closed the first stud book. A new stud book was created: The new inspection criteria was designed to admit only those animals which were representative of the breed, and met stringent standards of qualification which included genealogy and suitable conformation by way of individual inspection. Less than 1000 of the 2500 animals inspected were accepted. Although the breed had become quite diverse, it was concluded that with intelligent and careful breeding, a fixed type could perpetuate itself, thereby recreating the old type with perhaps even some improvements.  

The federal government became involved in the preservation of the Canadian Horse and a breeding program was inaugurated at Cap Rouge Experimental Station; eventually the facility was outgrown, and the program was transferred to St. Joachim, a joint operation of the Dominion and Quebec Departments of Agriculture.  WWI brought an end to the Joachim program. Smaller separate federal and Quebec provincial programs were formed. The programs dwindled; in 1981 the final Quebec government facility closed its program and auctioned its stock. Reaching an all time low, (estimated 400), the population of Canadian Horse breed was listed as “critical” .  

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated private breeders and supporters of the “Little Iron Horse”,  interest in the Canadian Horse is continuing to increase.  The upsurge in the last few decades has been reassuring, but even with the rapid growth in the breed numbers over the past ten years, the current population remains small, at only 6000 horses worldwide.  Even now, there are only 300 or so new registrations per year. Recently upgraded from its previous “critical” status by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the breed status is now listed as “threatened”. The future of the breed is not guaranteed at present, and the Canadian Horse continues to be rare. 

17th Century

1647 June 25 The introduction of the horse to the new world when a single horse was imported from France for Gov. de Montmagny.

1665  King Louis XIV sent a shipment of 2 stallions and 20 mares to the colony. Only 14 horses landed on July 16, as eight of the mares had perished on the journey.

1667 14 more horses arrived, including a stallion and two mares for the Ursulines.

1670 A stallion and 11 mares arrived in New France.

A breeding program was established to increase the number of horses in the colonies; horses were rented out to the leading farmers who bred and returned foals to the program as payment for the use of the horses. The program proved to be very successful and eventually, horse shipments from the king ceased, as Intendant Talon considered that enough horses to furnish a dependable supply of foals to all who needed them existed within the colony

In 1679 there were 145 horses recorded

In 1688 there were 218 horses recorded

In 1698 there were 684 horses recorded.

18th Century

1709 The first regulation was issued, limiting the number of horses owned by each farmer to a  maximum of two horses and a foal. This law proved impossible to enforce.

1780 After the British conquest, horses began to be imported from the British Isles and the USA in increasing numbers. Three distinct types of horses were produced as a result of these crosses:   Canadian Pacer: Narragansett pacers were imported to Lower Canada, as the pacer was preferred for racing over ice. Crossed to the French Canadian, they produced the “Canadian Pacer”.  Frencher: a result of a crosses to the Thoroughbred; Frenchers had great speed and power, and are felt to be involved in the makeup of the American Trotter. St. Lawrence: A heavy draft type, likely the result of a cross between a French Canadian and a draft horse, this type vanished at the end of the century.

1780 After the conquest of New France, the market for the French Canadian Horse grew in some of the older British colonies. The horses were sent to some of the West Indies sugar islands where they were found to adapt to their new climates better than American or British horses.

1784 French Canadian foundation stock was predominantly located in Upper Canada.

19th Century

1812-1820 Many Canadian Horses were sold to northern New England and west Vermont. There the Canadian was interbred with non-descript local horses to create animals with strength, endurance, and freedom from disease. These crossbred horses were used for the stage lines running between Boston and Portland

After the war in 1812, the trade in horses increased further. The numbers exported through St John give some idea of the numbers of horses being shipped out of Canada:

In 1829, 247 horses were exported;

In 1848, 639  horses were exported;

In 1849, 1181 horses were exported;

In 1850, 1125 horses were exported.

1867 Canadian Confederation. So many Canadian stallions had been exported to the United States that most authorities feared there were no horses of undisputed purity remaining in Lower Canada.

1885 Concerned with mass exportation and realizing the need to preserve the breed before it was lost forever, a French Canadian Stud Book was established by the government of Quebec under the guidance of Dr. J.A. Couture, and a Commission was put in place to manage it.

1886 The Stud Book was formally opened Dec 16; at this time, a law was also passed forbidding export of French Canadian Horses.

1895 La Société des Eleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens (The Canadian Horse Breeders Association), was officially formed. This Association took over the Commission, and the work of inspection of the horses was inaugurated.

1895-1901 During this period, 1801 animals were registered (628 males, 1173 females). Although the standards of admission to the registry were carefully maintained initially, they gradually became more lax and it became evident that animals of inferior quality were being registered.

20th Century

1904 La Société des Eleveurs de Chevaux  Canadiens joined with the Canadian National Livestock Records Corporation.

July 1906 Dr J.G Rutherford, Veterinary Director General, assumed the position of Live Stock Commissioner. He found that basically nothing whatsoever had been done in the previous two years in the way of registering horses.

Feb 1907 On the advice of Dr J.G. Rutherford, the Minister of Agriculture Canada had a discussion with the officers and members of the Société. The previous inspection process had resulted in many ineligible animals being entered in the stud book. As a result, a commission was to be appointed which would close the first Stud Book, and create an entirely new Stud Book. This new Stud Book was to include such stallions and mares which could meet a fixed and definite standard of qualification and entry. Each animal underwent an inspection, and accepted only if they were a good representative specimen of the breed.

1908 Dec 31-the Stud Book was officially closed.

1909 By this time, 2528 horses and mares had been presented for inspection; only 969 animals (38 %) were accepted. The 969 horses were composed of 134 stallions, and 835 mares.

1913 On  recommendation of Dr. Rutherford, the federal government became involved in the preservation of the French Canadian horse, and a breeding program was inaugurated at the Cap Rouge Experimental Station, Quebec.

1919 The Cap Rouge facility was outgrown and was transferred to St. Joachim.

1940 World War I brought an end to the program at St. Joachim; several smaller facilities set up to carry on breeding programs.

1981 Deschambaults closed the doors on the final Canadian Horse breeding program, and auctioned off its stock to private breeders, whose dedication to preserve the breed has allowed us the opportunity to continue to have the Canadian Horse today. 

Canadian Horse Historical Brochure available here

Historical Brochure