The Canadian Horse


The Canadian Horse, Part 1


By Janice M. Ladendorf —


 The Canadian horse is not well known in the United States. Most of the foundation stock came to New France (now Canada) from the stables of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The horses who lived through the long sea voyage were expected to survive in a harsh climate with minimal care. What evolved under these conditions was an incredibly tough breed of small horses. Pioneer settlers called them their “Little Iron Horse.”


As long as Canada was ruled by France, this breed evolved in relative isolation. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, all of New France was finally turned over to Britain. Afterwards, a great migration began. American horses were sent north to Canada and Canadian horses south to America. Narragansetts and Morgans from New England went to Canada, as well as thoroughbreds whose forbearers had come from England. When these horses were interbred with Canadian stock, one of the results was the Canadian pacer. Americans imported many of these pacers from Canada. The earliest records of some breeds, such as the Morgan, saddlebred, and standardbred, do show some Canadian horses. Canadian blood may also have passed through feral stock to some of our other breeds.


Both the American Civil War and the Boer War in Africa consumed thousands of horses from the United States and Canada. At the end of 19th century, a few dedicated people began a long struggle to save the true Canadian horse. By 1905, they had agreed on a breed standard and established a national register. The Canadian horse has been classified as a rare breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory. In 2002, it became the National Horse of Canada.


The Time of Isolation in New France

 Acadian Horses

 Initial settlements in New France began on the eastern coast. This area was called Acadia, but it is now known as Nova Scotia. In 1610, a few horses arrived in Port Royal and the Jesuits brought more horses in 1612. Samuel Argall’s marauding expedition from Virginia raided Acadia in 1616 and carried off every horse they could catch. Incoming colonists soon replaced the stolen horses with new stock.1  Several sketches exist of one of the first imported stallions. He appeared to be a leopard Appaloosa. Some experts have suggested his color genes could have traveled with feral horses west to Nez Perce territory.


There never have been many horses in Acadia. The settlers were more interested in fishery than in agriculture. Also, they could not use horses to farm the marsh-lands bordering the Bay of Fundy. Most of them did keep one or two horses for riding. The place where horses became numerous in Nova Scotia was on Price Edward Island.1


Since the settlers in Acadia rode their horses, they naturally preferred easy-gaited ones who ambled. To create them, they may well have soon begun importing Narragansetts from Rhode Island. New settlers may also have brought gaited horses from Normandy and Brittany. By 1674, most of the horses in Acadia ambled. According to Robert Jones, Acadian horses had little impact on the development of the French-Canadian horse.1


The Feral Horses of Sable Island


Feral Horses of Sable Island courtesy of Canadian Encyclopedia.


Sable Island lies 100 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This narrow piece of land is about 20 miles long and one mile wide. It is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Hundreds of ships have been sunk on the sandbars off its shores.


The survivors of early shipwrecks reported no horses on the island. Andrew Le Mercier, a Huguenot minister from Boston, took possession on the Island in 1739 and found no horses there. In 1753, he stated there were 20-30 stallions, breeding mares, and colts living on the island.


The origin of these horses is unknown, but the most probable explanation is that most of them came from Acadia. In 1713, the Peace of Utrecht turned Acadia over to the British. Some of the settlers continued to refuse to accept British rule. From 1755 to 1766, they were expelled from Canada and forced to leave much of their stock behind. Some of their horses could well have been left on Sable Island and become part of its wild herds.


Whatever their heritage may have been, natural selection in a harsh environment created a distinctive type of small horse. Like the old Acadian horse, they have a strong build with a high crested neck. They have deep narrow chests, steep shoulders, sloping croups, and short legs with heavy bone. Most of the stallions sport heavy manes and tails. When they are caught, they can be hard to tame, but are easy keepers. As riding horses, they are tireless and surefooted. An observer in 1885 commented that they “trot, jump, gallop, paddle, rack, prance, shuffle, and waltz.” Their trot is generally rough and choppy; but again like the old Acadian horse, some are gaited.2


Horses in New France (Quebec and Beyond)


 In 1647, Governor Montmagny received one horse as a gift, but he did not last long. In 1665, Louis XIV sent two stallions and 20 mares from his royal stables, but eight of the mares died on the journey. In 1667, he sent another 14 or 15 horses and in 1670, he sent one stallion and 11 mares. These horses remained the property of the king, but could be leased by farmers. After the three years title to the horses, as well as some of their colts, passed to the farmer. The colts who went back to the crown were reared at government expense and then leased out on the same terms. By 1698, there were 684 horses in the province.


What did King Louis XIV send? The shipping records for the horses sent to New France contained no information on their breed, size, color, or gait. The actual genetic mix of the original French-Canadian horse has been lost in the mists of time. What they might have been can be determined from what was in the Royal Stables at that time, as well as what was available in the main horse breeding provinces in France.


In the late 17th century, Iberian horses from Spain were still the preferred mounts of French nobility and they already had begun using Spanish blood to improve their native breeds. The Royal Stables probably included Iberian horses for general riding and the relatively new art of dressage, as well as Friesians for driving and Barbs for racing or hunting. It may also have included a few palfreys, known in France as haubini, for long distance riding. These horses had inherited their ambling gait from the Spanish Asturian.


The old French-Canadian horse showed many signs of Spanish ancestry. They had iron constitutions, as well as excellent bones and feet. They also had tremendous endurance. Their temperament was spirited, yet docile and willing. The Spanish influence could have come directly from Spain or from the Spanish Netherlands. It could also have come indirectly from other breeds, such as the Norman and Breton. Robert Jones comments, “There can be little doubt that the hardiness, the bottom and the prepotency of the old French-Canadian horses were traceable to this Andalusian inheritance.”1


In the 18th century, many Normans or Bretons were imported to New France directly from France, but these shipments probably included no Friesians from Holland. The old French-Canadian horse does share some characteristics with Friesians. They probably came from the horses sent from the stables of King Louis XIV. Horses from both breeds are predominately black and have some feathering on their legs. Many also have long, heavy, wavy manes and tails. Both breeds have good hock and knee action. When pulling a carriage, Canadians are able to travel at six to eight miles per hour.


A modern Friesian. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Treatment (Care and Use)

The French-Canadian horse not only had to live in a harsh climate; they received minimal care from their owners. In the summer, they ran in the woods and fought flies. The French practice of docking tails would have increased their misery. In the winter, the adult horses may have rough shanties for shelter, but farmers generally grew little grain and cured no hay for their stock. Horses survived by eating straw and sometimes frozen fish.


Selective breeding also influenced the evolution of the old French-Canadian horse. Farmers rarely gelded their horses and eschewed inbreeding. They did not breed for excellence, for beauty, or for fashion. They wanted docile horses who could work hard, survive on scant feed, and stay sound.


What they needed was a versatile horse, who could pull carts, race on trips to town, and travel long distances. In Quebec, they were expected to haul grain, wood, or produce in a two-wheeled cart, or caleche. In winter, they pulled sledges or sleighs. If a farmer had to use more than one horse, he generally hitched them tandem. While pulling a loaded sleigh, they were expected to cover 80 or more miles in one day.


They not only had to excel at light farm work, but take whole families to church on Sunday mornings. Harness racing started on these trips. To prevent accidents, laws had to be established to prohibit fast driving within a certain distance of the churches. Settlers also came to town for special festivals which often included horse races. When they were on ice, they preferred to drive horses who paced.


The horses that developed from this combination of bloodlines and environment were small, but powerful. Few reached 15 hands, but their heavy muscling gave them the ability to pull relatively heavy loads and sprint on trips to town. The paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872) show what they were asked to do and how much they were part of the settlers’ lives. Krieghoff was an artist who specialized in producing pictures of Canadian settlers.

By Cornelius Krieghoff.  Public domain in the United States.


By Cornelius Krieghoff.  Public domain in the United States.
By Cornelius Krieghoff.  Public domain in the United States.


Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff. Public domain in the United States
By Cornelius Krieghoff.  Public domain in the United States.
By Cornelius Krieghoff.  Public domain in the United States.

Later History in New France

 In the 17th and 18th centuries, Normandy and Brittany were two of the most renowned breeding centers in France. The Breton horse of that time, though small, was noted for its soundness and vigor. The Norman horse closely resembled the Breton, except that it gave more evidence of an infusion of Oriental blood. Both provinces were in northwestern France with easy access to the sea. In the 18th century, they shipped many horses to New France. The old French-Canadian bore a strong resemblance to these horses.1


At that time, horsemen in Normandy and Brittany focused on breeding whatever was popular at the moment. Normandy produced many roadsters who were excellent trotters.4 Some people claim their Roussins were also the ancestors of the naturally gaited horses of Acadia, but they were not born with easy gaits; they had to be taught to do it.3


In medieval times, Brittany produced a gaited horse, the Bidet Breton. According to Bonnie Hendricks, this breed did have some influence on the French-Canadian horse. Today Brittany is still producing the gaited Postier Breton.4 Some of these horses may also have been able to produce a true pace. Most of the French-Canadian horses who ambled probably inherited their gait from French haubini, who inherited it from the Spanish Asturian. Robert Jones confirmed that the French-Canadian horses owed their ability to amble to their Spanish ancestors.1


Quebec and New England are geographically close together, and before our revolution, many traders went north to purchase Canadian horses for their lucrative trade with the sugar growers in the West Indies.1 Unlike the Narragansett riding horses, the Little Iron Horse would have been ideal for working in the sugar mills there.1 Simply selling horses could not have had any impact on the bloodlines of the old French-Canadian horse.1


In 1857, Henry Herbert wrote a good description of the Canadian:


His characteristics are a broad, open forehead; ears somewhat wide apart, and not unfrequently [sic] a basin face; the latter, perhaps, a trace of far remote Spanish blood, said to exist in his veins…


His crest is lofty, and his demeanor proud and courageous. His breast is full and broad; his shoulder strong, though somewhat straight and little inclined to be heavy; his back broad, and his crop round, fleshy and muscular. His ribs are not, however, so much arched, nor are they so well closed up, as his general shape and build would lead one to expect. His legs and feet are admirable; the bone large and flat, and the sinews big, and nervous as steel springs. His feet seem almost unconscious of disease. His fetlocks are shaggy, this mane voluminous and massive, not seldom, if untrained, falling on both sides of his neck, and his tail abundant, both having a peculiar crimpled wave…


He is extremely hardy, will thrive on any thing, or almost on nothing; is docile, though high-spirited, remarkably sure-footed on the worst ground, and has fine, high action, bending his knee roundly and setting his foot squarely on the ground


As a farm-horse and ordinary farmer’s roadster, there is no honester [sic] or better animal…5


Continued in The Canadian Horse, Part 2.


1Jones, Robert Leslie, “The Old French-Canadian Horse: Its History in Canada and the United States,” The Canadian Historical Review, Toronto, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, June 1947, pp.125-155.

2Christie, Barbara. The Horses of Sable Island. Halifax Petherie Press Ltd, 1980.

3“The Norman Horse,” Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, Edinburgh, XII, pp. 1841-2,221.

4Hendricks, Bonnie. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, pp. 81-82, 98-102, 194-5.

5Herbert, Henry W. Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship on the US and British Provinces of North America. NY, 1857, Vol. 2, pp. 63-5.