Behold The Little Iron Horse, a solidly-built equine, small but robust, with strong hocks, bright eyes, and with small but sensitive ears. The horse was developed in France and brought to Quebec on the French King Louis XIV’s ships in the 1660s. Three and a half centuries later, in 2002, the National Horse of Canada Act recognized the Canadian Horse as our national breed.

The act reads in summary, “…Whereas, since 1885 and all during the present century, widespread and increasingly successful efforts have been made to re-establish and preserve the Canadian horse; and whereas the Government of Canada wishes to recognize the unique place of the Canadian horse in the history of Canada.” A similar law was passed by the provincial legislature in November 2010, recognizing the Canadian horse as a “heritage breed of Quebec”.

The Origins of the Canadian Horse

King Louis grand stables in France

The Great and Small Stables, commissioned by Louis XIV and built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1682 sent and received horses from across the globe.

The Cheval Canadien, or what English-speakers call the Canadian Horse, can trace its roots back to the stables of King Louis XIV of France. The equestrian facilities in the Sun King’s capital city of Paris were legendary. The Great and Small Stables, commissioned by Louis XIV and built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, constituted the greatest royal construction project for the purpose of raising horses ever undertaken. Situated opposite the Palace, they mark the edge of the Place d’Armes and the start of three main avenues.

The king sent his horses all over the world: to the colonies, battlefields and as gifts to other heads of state. Between 1665 and 1670, King Louis sent three shipments of stallions and mares to the new French colony in ‘Canada’.

An observation authored by a veterinarian and expert on the breed Dr JA Couture, written around the turn of the 20th century, reports, “…all of these animals were descended from those sent out from France in the early days of the Colony. Louis XIV who liked to do things in a grand way had instructed his Minister Colbert to send only the best animals of the kingdom.”

On June 25, 1647, the first horse arrived as a gift to Governor de Montmagny and was sent by the Compangnie des Habitants. There is no record of what happened to this animal. Seventeen years later, in the spring of 1665, two stallions and twenty mares arrived in the colony. More horses arrived on July 16th the same year, but it’s recorded that eight of the mares perished on that journey. These horses were some of the King’s best, taken from his Royal Stud and which are thought to have originated from Norman and Breton stock. This is significant because Normandy and Brittany were the foremost horse breeding provinces of France. The Breton horse was small and noted for its sturdy frame and energy. The Norman horse resembled the Breton but had some oriental blood; possibly Arab, Turk or Barb, but most likely Andalusian. Much of the eventual hardiness and prepotency of the old French Canadian was believed to have derived from its Andalusian inheritance.

Horse shipments from the king ceased in the 1670s as Intendant Talon believed there were now enough horses in the colony to furnish a dependable supply of colts to all who needed them. The wealthiest Seineurs may have imported some horses later, at their own expense.

Canadian horse - wood merchant 1700s rural Quebec

Wood merchant “Going to Market to Sell His Load”, circa 1897 watercolour by John Henry de Rinzy, Library and Archives Canada.

The horses were rented to these leading farmers or gentlemen of the country who had done most to promote colonization and cultivation. The annual fee for each horse was 100 livres, or one foal. The horse remained the King’s property for 3 years. If the horse died while it still belonged to the King, the farmer paid the King 200 livres. After the 3 year period, the horse and any colts not turned over to the Intendant, became the property of the farmer. Colts given to the intendant as rent were reared at the government’s expense for the first three years, after which they were also rented out. This program was very successful, and the number of horses in the colony increased rapidly.

In 1679, there were 145 horses. In 1688, there were 218 horses. In 1698, there were 684 horses. In 1709 the first regulation was issued to limit the number of horses owned by each farmer. This regulation forbade any settler in Montreal from having more than two horses and a foal, and provided for the slaughter of the surplus the next year. This ordinance proved impossible to enforce.

For the next five decades, the king’s horses were bred, somewhat indiscriminately by the farmers. They were coupled without concern for producing superior horses, or even for perpetuating the unique qualities in their own horses. Although few horses were ever gelded, stallions with the most docility, soundness and vigor were probably selected for mating. Even though the horses were bred without consideration, after another century, the breed appearance had scarcely altered from its prototype and still closely resembled the Norman and the Perche precursors.

During this time, the farmers primarily used their horses for church visits and neighbourly occasions and young people enjoyed racing their horses against each other. In the winter the horses were used for drawing sleighs. Most of the heavy farm work was done with oxen. Contact with the English to the South was forbidden because England and France were frequently at war, and the topography of the Appalachian Mountains was a formidable obstacle to outside communication. There were no roads and the only means of travel was by foot or by canoe. For this reason many generations of horses were bred in isolation.

The Canadian Horse possesses courage, spirit, and an affectionate good nature. (Ron Marino photo)

In the mid 1700s, the distribution of the horses began to broaden as the western settlements at Detroit and Illinois were furnished with horses from New France.

The Conquest of New France was the principle outcome of the Seven Years’ War, undertaken by the British as a campaign in 1758. The acquisition of Canada was made official in the Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years’ War in 1760. The conflict caused French officers to be outfitted with horses in Montreal for service along the Great Lakes and river forts. From that point, it’s believed the Canadian horse also contributed to the feral horses of the Great Plains.

Right up until the British conquest of New France, the French Canadian horse was bred true without any influx of foreign blood. After the Englishmen conquered New France, fresh horse blood was introduced 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. Genetic studies conducted in 1998 and again in 2012 found a surprising wide range of inputs for such a small breed.

Three distinct types of horses were produced in the early 1800s:

There was a Canadian Pacer, as pacers were preferred for racing sleds over ice. Narragansett pacers were imported to Lower Canada and a horse called Old Pacer Pilot was foaled around 1826 and this horse was an important sire in some of the gaited horse lineages.

Another similar breed isotope was the Frencher which occurred as a result of a cross between the Thoroughbred and the French Canadian. These horses had great speed and power, and are now believed to have added to the genetic composition of the American trotter.

Lastly, a heavy draft type called a St. Lawrence was the result of a cross between a French Canadian and a draft horse, likely a Shire or Clydesdale. Sadly, this type disappeared by the end of the century.

The British recognized the Canadian Horses’ quality and the market for them grew in some of the older British colonies. Horses from Quebec were shipped to West Indies sugar islands such as Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba where they adapted to the hot climate better than American or British horses, and where they were used for plowing and to pull wagons and carriages.

In rural Quebec, they also endured the harsh conditions, the extreme cold, hard work, and bad roads took their toll. Yet the horses adapted by becoming noticeably smaller in size than the foundation horses sent from France. They became renowned for their strength and durability and earned the name The Little Iron Horse. By 1850, it’s estimated there were as many as 150,000 Canadian Horses and they could be found all across North America.

In the early 1860’s, thousands of Canadian horses were exported to the United States for the Union Army fighting the US Civil War, and also to use as breeding stock to create roadsters, leading to new breeds such as the Saddlebred, Standardbred, Missouri Fox Trotter, and the Morgan.

By the end of the 19th Century, so many Canadian Horses had been exported to America and the West Indies that the pure Canadian horse was in danger of becoming extinct. In 1886, a stud book was started to help preserve them, and in 1895, veterinarian Dr. J.A. Couture set breeding standards for the Canadian Horse and founded the Canadian Horse Breeders Association which still operates today.

Canadian horse foundation sire Albert de Cap Rouge

Foaled in 1913, Albert de Cap Rouge was among the most influential sires of the breed.

In 1913, the Canadian government began a breeding center in Cap Rouge, Quebec. It functioned throughout the Great War and by the war’s end in 1919, this facility was outgrown so the breeding program was transferred to St. Joachim, Quebec, where it was operated jointly by the Canadian and Quebec governments.

In 1940, World War II brought an end to the federal breeding program at St. Joachim. At that time, the Quebec government purchased several of the horses and created their own provincial breeding program at Deschambault. In 1981, this herd was sold at auction and the breed was in danger of disappearing for a second time, with less than 400 horses in the registry, and fewer than fifty new registrations being recorded per year.

Dedicated breeders rescued the Canadian Horse, however, and new registrations climbed to over five hundred per year in 1999–2000. But Livestock conservation organizations still consider the Canadian horse to be at risk. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation spoke to Canadian Horse breeder Evelyn LaFortune in 2018, who estimated the current number of Canadian Horses to be about 6,000.

What does the Canadian horse represent?

The Canadian Horse is an official animal of Canada, and arguably more important than the beaver (which became an official emblem in 1975), the animal commonly seen as the symbol of Canada. But on April 30, 2002, a bill was passed into law by the Canadian Government making the Canadian Horse an official symbol of Canada. The Canadian Horse is “closely associated with the historical origins and the agricultural traditions of Québec.”

How Big is a Canadian Horse?

Canadian horses are generally somewhat smaller than other breeds. A typical Canadian horse of the past would be considered ‘pony-sized’ today, which is to say they average only 14 hands in height. But today, most Canadian horses range from between 14 and 16 hands high, or 1.4 to 1.6 meters.

The Canadian horse

Despite its smaller stature, The Little Iron Horse is renowned for its strength.

Which breed standards must the Canadian horse conform to?

Each horse that’s put forth for possible registration as a Canadian must pass an eight-point test. Seven challenges relate to the horse’s chief anatomical regions; the first is the head; then the neck and shoulders; then the body; the fore-quarter, the hind-quarter; the lower parts of the legs, and the feet. The eighth group consists of the skin, weight, action, and height of the candidate horse. Finally the temperament and general appearance are noted.

What’s so special about Canadian horses’ names?

You can tell a lot about each Canadian Horse by simply reading or hearing its name. Each name contains three parts which must be included in the following order – the herd name, the sire’s name and the horse’s given name.

The herd name is what Canadian Horse breeders register with the CHBA, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association. They use their own moniker when naming all foals born to mares they own or lease. This is the ‘herd name’, and it must be unique as it identifies the breeding program. For that reason, the herd name is usually farm’s name, or the breeder’s last name, and it can be hyphenated.

Two horses sharing the same herd name does not necessarily mean that they are related to each other; for example, ‘Sand Hill Protem George’ and ‘Sand Hill Duc Brock’ are not related at all, but ‘Sand Hill’ (herd name) means that both mares were owned or leased by the same individual or farm when they were bred. The Common Sire’s Name is the second portion of the horse’s full registered name. For example, ‘Sand Hill Brock Duffy’, and ‘Sand Hill Brock Sally’ were both sired by the same stallion, ‘Sand Hill Duc Brock’. The Horse’s Given Name forms the last part of its full registered name. For example ‘Sand Hill Duc Brock’ is where ‘Brock’ is the given name.

There’s also an assignment of letters as a different letter of the alphabet is assigned to each year and foal’s name must start with the assigned letter of the year the foal is born. For example, the letter ‘B’ was assigned for 2014, the letter ‘C’ for 2015 and the letter ‘D’ for 2016, and so on. Letters that are not assigned are: I, O, Q and V., which were thought to cause confusion even though tattooing has been replaced with microchip technology. Many older horses do not have names beginning with the letter assigned to the year of their birth. The full registered Canadian horse name annot exceed 30 characters including spaces.

Bob Langrish photo

What are Canadian Horses used for?

Canadian Horses are still found primarily in Eastern Canada and used by several police forces, especially in Quebec. In equestrian sports, Canadian Horses can be found in just about every discipline, be it English, Western, or in harness; competition, leisure, or working; there’s a Canadian Horse in every discipline and they’re also well-regarded for their jumping ability. They can be found performing light draft work, trail riding, and working around cattle as stock horses. Canadians are also agile ‘cow horses.’

For more information about the Canadian Horse, visit:
We the North –
Societe Des Eleveurs De Chevaux Canadiens/Canadian Horse Breeders Assoc.
Canadian Horse Association Rocky Mountain District