The Canadian Horse

Canadian FlagIN HONOR OF CANADA DAY, we pay homage to one of Canada’s greatest national — and little known — treasures, the CANADIAN HORSE.

The Canadian Horse is a hardy breed descended from horses originally sent to the “New World” by King Louis XIV of France in the late 1600’s. These Norman and Breton horses were felt to be of Arab, Andalusian and Barb ancestry, traits of which can still be recognized in the Canadian Horse today.

For hundreds of years, the French horses bred with little influence from outside breeds. They eventually developed into their own distinct breed — the Canadian Horse or Cheval Canadien.

Because they evolved under the adverse conditions of harsh weather, scarce food, and hard work, the Canadian Horse remains the sturdiest and most acclimatized horse in Canada today. They are tough, strong horses, tolerant of inclement weather conditions, and are extremely “easy keepers”. Because of these traits, the Canadian Horse is often referred to as “The Little Iron Horse”.

Cheval Canadien
Cheval Canadien

The Canadian Horse typically stands 14 – 16 hh and weighs 1000 – 1400 lb. Although most frequently black, they may also be dark brown, bay or chestnut.

They are characterized by their finely chiseled heads, arched necks, and thick, long, wavy manes and tails – all reminiscent of their Barb and Andalusian ancestry.

They have strong, sturdy legs and short cannon bones often exceeding 9” in circumference.

Their feet are exceptionally well formed and tough, and generally require little more than routine trimming.

Most impressive of all, Canadian Horses are renowned for their kind, sensible, sociable natures, intelligence and willingness to please.

In the mid-1800’s, the Canadian Horse numbered about 150,000 and could be found throughout Canada and the United States. The Canadian was used for crossbreeding to improve the strength and hardiness of other breeds, and helped to found other North American breeds such as the Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, Standardbred, and the American Saddlebred.

Increasingly, Canadian Horses were exported out of Canada for the Boer war, for working the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and to the United States for use on the stage-lines and for the American Civil War. The number of horses began to dwindle rapidly. With the advent of mechanized farm machinery, the Canadian Horse almost became extinct. During the 1860-70’s, there were fewer than 400 horses in existence and 20 or less registrations recorded per year. By the late 1870’s, the peril of Canada’s national breed was finally recognized, and efforts were made by diligent breeders to try to bring the Canadian Horse back from the verge of extinction.

Under the leadership of Dr. J.A. Couture, DVM, a few concerned admirers of the “Little Iron Horse” banded together to try and preserve what remained of the breed. Their efforts produced a first stud book in 1886. Progress was slow however, and it was not until 1895, when the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was formed that any real expansion took place. In 1907 under the leadership of Dr. J.G. Rutherford, the Federal Government livestock commissioner, a new stud book was started with improved standards.

In 1913 the Federal Ministry of Agriculture set up a breeding program at Cap Rouge, Quebec, where Albert De Cap Rouge, one of the foundation studs was bred. There were other breeding programs set up in Quebec at St. Joachim and La Gorgendiere that continued to breed the Canadian Horse until 1981.

Now, the breed is slowly gaining in popularity, and currently numbers just over 2500 horses in existence. The Canadian Horse is still classified as “critical” on the American Livestock Conservancy list.

6 thoughts on “The Canadian Horse”

  1. There is a theory that the Morgan breed was mostly derived from the Canadian Horse. Of course, there are many theories about Figure’s breeding, but I rather like this one. It goes on that Figure wasn’t the first of a breed, but the last of a breed that was becoming extinct. The details of this dying breed vary from source to source, but the Canadian Horse always plays a huge role. Judging from this picture, I can definitely believe it.

    If the AMHA isn’t careful the MORGAN breed will become extinct too. Those Saddlebred wannabes are not Morgans to many of us. Thank goodness for the Western breeders – they are still breeding Morgans.

    BTW, that’s my Morgan, Indy, in my avatar. He’s a very playful sort. :)


    1. Suzanne, I grew up in New England and I saw many “real” Morgans. Now I know where they came from. I was shocked when I first set eyes on the “refined” SB look at a big show. IMO, all that made Morgans so unique had been bred out of them!

      When I lived in Texas, I was about to sign a year’s contract for a Morgan foal when, unfortunately, I had to move. The folks who offered this unique program had bred a “refined” stud and mare and out popped a “throwback” colt, who passed his strong genes to his progeny without fail. “Go ‘Figure’!?!”

      I could have chosen from several wildly popular stallions and mares (flashy, SB types with lots of show points), but I decided on that tough little stud and a 20-year-old mare … also “old line”, and gentle and loving Mom.

      I wanted what I grew up wanting … “the real thing!”


      1. I know what you mean. If I wanted a Saddlebred, I’d buy a Saddlebred. Back when the Saddlebreds and Morgans were still almost the same breed, Saddlebreds looked SO different from the modern ones. As far as I’m concerned, the Saddlebreds have been ruined too, and then they come back and ruin Morgans with modern Saddlebred blood. Oh, the irony!

        There are still some “real” Morgans out there, but they don’t get nearly the publicity from the AMHA as the “Morglebreds.” I blame the AMHA for promoting
        this type of Morgan. I prefer the “Old Type” too. I’ve been lucky that both my Morgans have been that type.
        BTW, I was in Texas when I got my first Morgan. He was bred in Oklahoma.


  2. An amazing story of these wonderful hearty breeds the Cheval Canadian. It really puts things in perspective how horses are NOT expendable and that the Canadians almost lost a whole heritage of truly magnificent horses; for they nearly went extinct due to Canadians lifestyle and actions. It took group effort, the government, the people, hard work and time to bring them back to a level of only 2500. Not to dampen this story. Thinking of the Wild Horses Herds of America this could easily happened to them extinction, if we don’t watch out. If only government would wake up. Bravo and three cheers long live the Canadian Horse!!!


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