The Canadian Horse, Part 2


The Canadian Horse, Part 2


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.

Later History in Canada (Out-Flow)

 The St. Lawrence Horse

Until the invention of the iron plow in 1797, farmers generally used oxen for plowing and other heavy farm work. In the 18th century, Normandy and Brittany had begun developing heavy harness horses for other purposes. They were not yet draft horses, but they were not riding horses either. They were used to pull heavy coaches, or diligences, through the mud. A few of the horses may have been imported to New France.

When horses could be used for plowing, the demand for heavy harness horses grew. When the roads began to be improved in the 19th century, the Canadians began marketing their heavy harness horses to the owners of freight or stagecoach lines. They were mainly reared in Kamouraska and other parts of the St. Lawrence Valley below Quebec. Eventually the Canadians created a new draft breed called the St. Lawrence, but it did not survive.1

Sable Island Horses

 In 1802, The Sable Island Commission established a settlement, mainly to aid or rescue the survivors of shipwrecks. Every year, men attempted to catch some of the wild horses, but chasing them through heavy sand lamed too many of their horses.  The ones they could catch were shipped to Halifax and sold. In 1853, the revenue from the sale of 52 wild horses was a meager 113 pounds.

Some superintendents attempted to improve the condition of the wild horses by providing them with winter shelter and feed, but the horses refused to enter the first shelter because it had only had one opening. They also refused to eat any of the hay because it carried the scent of man. The superintendents also imported stallions in an attempt to improve the quality of the Sable Island horses. They tried many breeds, including the Canadian, thoroughbred, standardbred, and Morgan, but none of them succeeded in getting any mares. The wild stallions either drove them off or killed them.

Today the horses of Sable Island live on a nature reserve. They are one of the few wild horse populations who are entirely unmanaged. There are no predators in the nature reserve, but severe winters keep the number of horses down to what the island can support. Since 1961, these horses have had legal protection under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act.2

Other Feral Horses

Some experts believe equine escapees from the French and Indian settlements reached the prairies and jointed the wild herds there. Exploration and trade in New France followed the rivers and lakes as they moved west. The French settlements at Detroit and upper Illinois lived on the fur trade, but used some horses for driving, riding, and racing on the ice. Their owners branded them; then let them run wild until needed. In Detroit, herds of half-wild Canadian horses infested the roads and thundered through the town at nights.1  Some of these horses could well have moved west as they searched for better grazing and joined the wild herds.

Some of the eastern Indian tribes soon acquired horses from the French. By 1687, the Senecas near Niagara Falls already had plenty of horses. In 1831, Mohawks in New France near the Grand River had herds of half-wild ponies. Except for their small size, most of they looked like the old French-Canadian horse.5  These ponies also had the opportunity to escape.

Although the Canadian horse had not been bred for gaits, this breed still produces some easy-gaited horses. Like them, some southern and northern mustangs are born gaited. When northern mustangs are compared to southern ones, they are said to more closely resemble the old French-Canadian horse in size and build. These similarities may simply reflect the Spanish heritage both breeds share. Environment may also have played a role in this resemblance. Stockier horses have had a better chance to survive the long, cold winters.






Photos illustrating the difference between the southern and northern mustangs. All are Spanish mustangs.  Left:  A southern mustang, bred in Arizona.  Courtesy of Apache Trail Ranch. Right: A northern mustang, bred in North Dakota.  Her foal was born in Minnesota. Courtesy of Zen Cowboys.

Canadian Pacers

After the British took over New France, they began importing thoroughbreds directly from England or from their American southern colonies. When these horses were crossed with the old French-Canadian horse, the result became generally known as a Canadian Pacer.1 The name was applied to three different types of horses. The first was an easy-gaited horse who ambled in one or more of the many four-beat gaits. The second was a fast trotter who had a two-beat diagonal gait. They were often called Frenchers. The third was a true pacer who had a fast two-beat lateral gait.

1) Easy-Gaited

 The easy-gaited horses in Canada had a mixed heritage. Their ancestors could have been Narragansett pacers from New England, French haubini [palfreys] descended from Spanish Asturians, or Bidet Bretons from Brittany. After our Revolutionary War, Canadians sold many of their horses to Americans and bought up many Narragansett pacers from New England.1

Of the early Canadian pacers, one of the most famous was a blue roan stallion named Tom Hal. He was born in Canada in 1806, and later was taken to Kentucky. He was one of many Canadian pacers used as foundation stock for our gaited breeds, like the saddlebreds, Tennessee walkers, and Missouri fox trotters. For example, the Missouri fox trotter derived from Narragansett pacers, Canadian pacers, and saddlebreds.6

A modern Missouri fox trotter. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The old French-Canadian horse included many fast trotters. Their ancestors originally came from Normandy and were used as roadsters. In New France, they participated in the Sunday races to church and in the new sport of harness racing. In the early 19th century, the improved roads in the United States created a new market for roadsters. Both pure Canadians and Frenchers sold well in this market.1

2) Trotters

 The sport of harness racing began in England in 1791 and soon migrated to the young United States. In the beginning, thoroughbred horses were used. Messenger was imported from England in 1788. Many of his sons were fast trotters, including Abdallah the sire of Rysdyki’s Hambletonian. This famous horse was born in 1849, well after the beginning of this sport. In the early days, both Morgans and Canadians played an influential role. They contributed a few notable sires and many known and unknown dams to the development of the standardbred breed.7

A modern standardbred racing at a fast trot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pilot (Old Pacer Pilot), a black pacing and trotting horse who sired many fast trotters, came from Canada to the United States in 1832. He was a pure Canadian or Cannuck. One of his sons, Alexander’s Pilot, Jr. also sired many speedy trotters, including John Morgan. Warrior (Royal George) was another notable sire and he was a Canadian pacer. One of the best known Canadian trotters was St. Lawrence, who has taken to the St. Louis Agricultural Fair in 1856.7


A portrait of St. Lawrence. Public domain.

In 1836, trotting races began in France. French breeders had already created a great roadster in the Norman horse. To breed faster trotters for racing, they imported thoroughbreds and Norfolk trotters from England, as well as standardbreds from the United States.4  Modern DNA analysis has established there is a close genetic relationship between the Canadian horse and the French trotter. This relationship probably began in the 17th century and reflects the amount of Canadian blood in American trotters. The same study also showed a strong link between Canadians and Morgans.8

3) Pacers

The third type of Canadian pacer was also used in the new sport of harness racing, but instead of trotting, they moved in a true pace. In Canada, they had long been used in races and were preferred for racing on the ice. In the United States, initially they were scorned and treated as the poor cousins of trotters. By 1879, their brilliant performances on the track began to overcome this prejudice. Our standardbred horses inherited the ability to pace from their Canadian ancestors. Tom Hal and Pilot (Old Pacer Pilot) were among the first to sire pacers fast enough to race on our tracks.9 Dan Batch was born in 1896 and began a national celebrity.

Dan Patch.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.


The Canadian is a rare breed today, but it did exist long before the birth of Figure (Justin Morgan). Both historical evidences and DNA analysis8 suggest the two breeds are closely related. Some experts accept this relationship, while other reject it. If it did exist, it could certainly explain why some Morgans are gaited.

Quebec and New England are geographically close together. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the French settlers brought horses with them when they settled along the eastern shores of Lake Champlain. At that time, this land belonged to New France. In Figure’s time, many horses with Canadian blood still lived in western Vermont.

Figure’s pedigree is unknown. Conflicting opinions exist on what it might have, but he could well have been part-Canadian. Bonnie Hendricks rejects the idea that he could have had any thoroughbred or Arabian blood and comments on the close resemblance between the Canadian horse and the Morgan.10


Statue of Figure (Justin Morgan).  According to people who knew Figure well, it is an accurate portrait of him. Public domain.

According to D. C. Linsley, Figure sired six stallions in Vermont:  Sherman, Woodbury, Bulrush, Revenge, the Fenton horse, and the Hawkins horse. The Fenton horse was gelded after he bit his owner. Only Sherman, Woodbury, and Bulrush were used extensively for breeding in the United States.10

1) Sherman (1808-1835) was out of an elegant mare who came from England and had some Spanish blood. He was a bright chestnut, who stood 13.75 hands and weighed 925 pounds. He sired Black Hawk who was never beaten in a harness race. He became one of the foundation sires of the standardbred.  His son, Ethan Allen was also well known for his speed on the track.10

2) Bulrush (1812-1848) might have been out of a Canadian. He was described as a dark bay with a heavy mane and tail. He stood at 14 hands and had a heavy build with a relatively low head carriage. He was known for his endurance and speed in harness10. All these characteristics are typical of Canadian horses.

3) Woodbury (1816?) was a dark chestnut with white and stood 14.75 hands. He was sold in 1825 for $500. His dam is unknown, but he could both trot and pace. His build was similar to that of Bulrush.10 These characteristics suggest his dam could also have been a Canadian.

Even if Figure himself had no Canadian blood, he and some of his descendants were certainly bred to some Canadian mares. In their day, there were many horses with Canadian blood in New England. There are some Canadians in the pedigrees of the early Morgans; as well as many unknown mares11, some of whom could have been Canadians. Figure was a prepotent sire, but stallions from the old French Canadian bloodlines also had this ability. When bred to common mares, even inferior Canadian stallions produced superior offspring.1

Sherman.  Public domain.
Stranger.  Public domain







General Morgan.  Public domain.
Ethan Allen. Public domain.






Portraits of four early Morgans.

 This exchange worked in both directions. For a few years, one of Sherman’s Morgan sons did stand at stud in Acadia.2 One of Figure’s few intact sons, the Hawkins horse, did go to Canada. He was born in 1808 and his death date is unknown. He was jet black, and stood 15 hands.10

Morgans and Canadians had a number of characteristics in common, with one major difference. Both breeds are medium-sized, compact, and well-muscled with a crested neck and a high head carriage. They have excellent bone and feet, as well as constitutions of iron and great endurance. Dispositions are docile, yet spirited. Both breeds are known for power under harness, as well as good action and speed at a trot.  Many are black or bay or have a heavy manes and tails. Crimped manes and tails are common in both breeds. Similar as they are, the one major difference between these two breeds is that Morgans generally have well-sprung rib cages, while the Canadians do not.10

Both breeds evolved to serve similar markets. Canadian and American farmers needed a sturdy horse who could be ridden, driven to town, pull loads, and plow a field. Figure may have created a new breed, but not a new type of horse. Some of the similarities of these two breeds could also have come from ancestors they shared, such as the various Spanish breeds. Both Canadians and Morgans made major contributions to the evolution of harness racing in the United States. Unfortunately, definitive evidence on the exact relationship between the two breeds has been lost in the mists of time.


 When the British took over New France, the old French-Canadian horses began to leave their homeland. They were first sold into the jockey trade with the West Indies. Then the demand changed and American buyers began buying gaited horses and racers, as well as qualified stock for their breeding programs. Sadly, the remaining stock in Canada was mongrelized by breeding inferior horses with unknown pedigrees. Finally, both the American Civil War and the Boer War in Africa consumed thousands of horses from both the United States and Canada.

One man, Dr. J. A. Couture, began to lead a long struggle to find and preserve the best examples of the old French and Canadian horse. In 1886, a stud book was started in Quebec and a commission established to manage it. This commission accomplished little, so in 1895 their work was taken over by the French-Canadian Horse Breeders’ Association. They began the preservation process but became careless about what they admitted. In 1905, a new breed registry was established under the auspices of the federal government of Canada. They used already established standards and recertified only the stallions and mares who met them.1

A Canadian horse representing the breed ideal established in 1881 by the Ontario Agricultural Commission. Public domain.

Modern Canadians are larger, but retain the constitution, temperament, and conformation of their ancestors. Most of them are black. Their strength and docility make them ideal for farm and ranch work, driving, hunter/jumping, packing, and endurance riding. They also can be an ideal family horse. A small percentage are naturally gaited, as were some of their ancestors. Because their numbers are still low, this breed has been classified as rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory. In 2002, it became the National Horse of Canada.


 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, 1867, Vol. 2, pp. 63-5.

6Vaughan, Jeannie, “The Poor Man’s Walking Horse? (or, A Short History of the Missouri Fox Trotter),” Foxfire Farm, 1997.

7Harvey, Elwood, M.D., “Essay on the American Trotting Horse,” Walsh, J. H., The Horse in the Stable and Field. Philadelphia, Porter and Coates, 1869.

8Behara, Amouk M. P. and Gibson, John P., “DHA Detectives: Using Genetics to Pinpoint Endangered Canadian Horse Breeds,” Canadian Horse Annual, 1998, pp. 42-44.

9“Pacers and Their Beginnings,” Harrison, James C. Care and Training of the Trotters and Pacers, US Trotting Assn, 1st edition, 1968.

10Linsley, D. C. Morgan Horse. NY, CM Saxon, 1864.

11Mellin, Jeanne. The Morgan Horse. Brattleboro, VT., The Stephen Greene Press, 1961.