The Canadian Horse


The Canadian Horse or Le Cheval Canadien originated from horses sent to Quebec by King Louis XIV in the late 1600’s. These horses, the best from the King’s stable, were of French Norman, Breton, Arab, Andalusian and Spanish Barb descent.

Origin: Canada.

Canadian horse trotterColors: Black, chestnut, bay or dark brown. Usually dark in color. Rarely grey. One stallion has the gene for a flaxen mane and tail.

Height: Average 14 to 16 Hands.

Conformation: They are recognizable by their finely chiseled heads, arched necks and long, thick and often wavy tails and manes. They have sturdy, straight legs with good bone, and have exceptionally hard, strong feet, and a well balanced, compact and muscular body.

Temperament: They are renowned for their kind, sociable natures, intelligence and willingness to please.

Uses: Dressage, Hunter Jumper, Eventing, Endurance, Trail, Packing, Ranch Work, Mounted Patrol, Logging, Carriage Driving, Combined Driving, Wagon Rides.


Canadian horse trotterThe Canadian Horse descended from the French stock Louis XIV sent to Canada in the late 1600s, which were draft and light riding horses. The initial shipment, in 1665, consisted of two stallions and twenty mares from the Royal Stables in Normandy and Brittany, the center of French horse breeding. Only 12 of the 20 mares survived the trip.

Two more shipments followed, one in 1667 of 14 horses (mostly mares, but with at least one stallion), and one in 1670 of 11 mares and a stallion. The shipments included a mix of draft horses and light horses, the latter of which included both pacing and trotting horses.

The exact origins of all the horses are unknown, although the shipments probably included Bretons, Normans, Arabians, Andalusians and Barbs. The horses were leased to gentleman farmers or religious orders for money or in exchange for a foal, and they remained the property of the king for three years. The Canadian Horse was later crossed with other British and American breeds.

Picture of black Canadian horseDuring the 1700s, the “French Canadian Horse” spread through what is now eastern Michigan and Illinois in the United States, and lived a generally feral existence, with many escaping human control completely.

During the Expulsion of the Acadians in the mid-18th century, the English seized the livestock of the Acadians, including horses. Some of these animals were transported to Sable Island, where their descendents became the Sable Island horse.

In the late 18th century, imported horses from the US and the British Isles were crossbred with existing Canadian stock. The Canadian horse spread throughout the northeastern US, where they were used for racing, as roadsters, and, due to their stamina, to pull freight wagons and stagecoaches.

They also contributed to the development of several horse breeds, including the Morgan horse, the American Saddlebred and the Standardbred. Although used extensively in the US, no efforts were made to establish a purebred population, studbook, or breed association in that country.

Picture of ferel Canadian horse in Alberta, CanadaDuring the peak popularity of the breed, three subtypes could be distinguished, a draft horse type, a trotting type and a pacing type.

All three are now considered extinct, having disappeared or been merged back into the main Canadian horse population. The first, the Canadian Heavy Draft or St. Lawrence, which disappeared by the late 1700s, probably developed from Shire and Clydesdale crosses. They were probably a popular export to New England, which bred large numbers of horses for Caribbean plantations.

The second, the Frencher, sometimes also called the St. Lawrence, was a trotting horse known for its power and speed, resulting from crosses with Thoroughbreds. Mixed with French trotting lines, they played a role in the development of the US trotting horses.

The third type was the Canadian Pacer, which was historically better documented than the other two types. Canadian Pacers were likely the result of breeding pacing horses imported from France with Narragansett Pacers from New England. The resulting horses were known for their ability to race on ice.

Picture of ferel Canadian mare Canadream Dynamo Sweet DreamsFrom there, they were exported to the United States, where North Carolina became a breeding center, later exporting them to Tennessee in the late 1700s. Pedigrees were not maintained, so early breeding histories are often impossible to trace. The Canadian Pacer influenced the Tennessee Walker, the American Saddlebred and the Standardbred.

Commonly called “Canucks”, the fastest members of the breed came from Quebec near the St. Lawrence River.

Several horses imported to the United States from Canada had a lasting impact on American horse breeding. In the early 1800s, a roan-colored stallion named Copperbottom was imported to Lexington, Kentucky from Quebec, through Michigan. He began to be offered for stud service in 1816, and his progeny spread throughout the eastern US. Known mainly as saddle stock, they also included several pacing horses.

Canadian horse trotterAnother roan stallion, Tom Hal, a successful pacer in his own right, founded an important family of pacers in the US. Appearing in Kentucky in 1824, he was offered for stud, and his offspring (many of whom carried on the family name, being differentiated only by the name of the owner) began the family of Standardbreds that included Little Brown Jug, Brown Hal, Star Pointer, Adios and Good Time, all champion harness racing horses.

Another pacing import to the US was a black stallion named Old Pilot, said to have been bred near Montreal, who originated the Pilot family of trotting horses. Old Pilot produced a son, also named Pilot, who was acclaimed as a sire of trotting horses, as well as being a successful harness horse himself.

In 1849, there were estimated to be more than 150,000 Canadian horses, and many were exported from Canada annually. Some were shipped to the West Indies, where they possibly contributed to gaited breeds such as the Paso Fino.

Canadian horse pacer pictureThousands of horses were exported in the 19th century, many of whom were subsequently killed while acting as cavalry horses in the American Civil War. These exports decreased the purebred Canadian population almost to the point of extinction, prompting the formation of a studbook and the passage of a law against further export.

In 1885, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was formed to inspect and approve breeding stock with the aim of creating a studbook for the breed, and in 1886, further export from Canada was forbidden by Quebec law.

In 1913, an experimental breeding program was begun at Cap-Rouge by the Canadian government. The program’s goal was to breed larger horses that retained the endurance and vitality for which the breed was known, and succeeded in increasing the size of stallions to 15.2 to 16 hands (62 to 64 inches, 157 to 163 cm) high and 1,200 to 1,500 pounds (540 to 680 kg) in weight, with mares slightly smaller.

However, mechanization, combined with World War I and World War II, ended the federal breeding program, and in 1940 all breeding stock was sold at auction.

Canadian horse trotterThe popularity of the Canadian breed had decreased significantly, and there were approximately 400 Canadian horses worldwide, with only around five annual registrations between 1970 and 1974.

The province of Quebec re-established the Canadian breeding program at Deschambault. The program lasted there until 1979, when the herd was again disbanded and sold at auction.

In the 1980s, concerned with the declining population numbers, interested breeders undertook a promotional program, which resulted in a Canadian team winning the 1987 North American Driving Championships and brought renewed interest in the breed. Popularity began to increase, and by the mid-1990s population numbers were between 2,500 and 3,000.

Picture of black Canadian horseBy the 1990s, population numbers were higher, and genetic studies in 1998 and 2012 found relatively high levels of genetic diversity for a small breed. However, livestock conservation organizations still consider the breed to be at risk, due to low population numbers.

Since the beginning of the studbook, there have been over 13,600 horses registered. In 2012, 208 new horses were registered, mainly in Quebec.

In a study of mitochondrial DNA published in 2012, the Canadian horse and the Newfoundland pony were found to be the most genetically diverse of the Canadian breeds studied, which also included the Sable Island horse and the Lac La Croix pony.

The Canadian horse showed high haplotype diversity, sharing haplotypes with all Canadian populations, as well as draft breeds, Nordic pony breeds and British mountain and moorland pony breeds also tested in the study. The Canadian horse had been shown to be related to draft horse breeds, including the Percheron, Belgian and Clydesdale, in previous microsatellite loci studies. This relationship was supported by findings in the 2012 study.

The high levels of diversity in the Canadian horse supported the conclusions of a 1998 study, which determined that the small population size and historical genetic bottlenecks had not resulted in a significant loss of genetic variation. The 1998 paper also stated that the Canadian horse did not show inbreeding any more significant than other, more popular, breeds.