THE CANADIEN HORSE
The cheval canadien played an integral part in the settlement and development of Canada. In 1665, the government of King Louis XIV of France arranged for the first shipment of horses to the colony of Canada. Twelve horses survived the first dangerous voyage and arrived in Quebec City in July of that year. It is thought that these first horses were selected from the King’s own royal stables and had Breton, Norman, and Andalusian bloodlines.
The first horses were allocated to noblemen (chevaliers) and to religious orders, Recipients had to sign a notarized contract specifying that, within three years, they would return a foal to government officials who then passed it along to another colonist. In this way, the number of horses grew quickly and soon the habitants (peasants) also had access to these very valuable animals. By 1671, it was no longer necessary to import additional horses from the mother country.
By 1760, when Canada fell under British control, there were an estimated 14 000 horses in the colony. Clearly the horses had adapted well to the challenging environment in which they lived and evolved into a hardy breed able to withstand rigorous winters and strenuous work. The colonists relied extensively on them as the horses were used to clear and work the land, transport goods and people between scattered settlements, get to church in summer and winter, and for pleasure driving and riding.
In the early nineteenth century Canadiens were shipped across the border into the New England states, and through cross-breeding they contributed to the development of well-known American breeds including the Morgan, Saddlebred, Standardbred, and Tennessee Walking Horse. Recent research suggests that the Canadien was also used in the fur trade and in opening up western Canada and the United States.
Ironically, the breed’s reputation for its physical strength, adaptability, and minimal dietary needs nearly proved its undoing. The American Civil War saw the export and eventual death of thousands of Canadiens used by Union armies as cavalry mounts and to pull heavy cannon and supply wagons. Changing agricultural practices also led Quebec farmers to move increasingly to heavier European breeds such as Belgians, Clydesdales, and Percherons.
Deeply concerned by the declining numbers of Canadiens, Dr. J.A. Couture, a federal government veterinarian, and some colleagues established a studbook in 1886. Nine years later, they established the Canadian Horse Breeder’s Association.
Some Canadiens continued to be exported at the turn of the century. They were used in the West Indies to work on sugar cane plantations and sent
to South Africa where they served Canadian troops during the Boer War.
Between 1913 and 1940, the federal government operated an experimental farm, located first in Cap-Rouge and later in St. Joachim in Quebec, with a breeding program designed to produce heavier Canadien horses for use in agricultural work.
Early in World War II, Ottawa decided to close the St. Joachim stud farm, but fortunately the Quebec government instituted its own breeding program at Deschambault. Since tractors were increasingly replacing horses on the farm, greater emphasis was placed on producing more refined, agile, and taller horses suitable for recreational activities. The St. Joachim program continued until 1981 when the horses were sold at auction to private interests. By that time, the estimated number of registered Canadiens was only 400.
Through the efforts of a relatively small number of enthusiasts both within and outside Quebec, the number of Canadiens grew steadily and significantly. In 2001, the federal government recognized the breed as the national horse of Canada. By 2010 it was estimated that there were between 5000 and 7000 in Canada and beyond.
In recent years there has been growing concern about the future of the breed as the number of annual registrations has fallen from 421 in 2002 to just 129 in 2015. For this reason, Rare Breeds Canada has placed the Canadien on its Vulnerable list while the Livestock Conservancy has described its status as Critical, its most urgent category.
The Canadien is renowned for its versatility and ability in a number of activities and equine disciplines including agricultural and ranch work, English and Western riding, jumping and dressage, pleasure driving, and marathon and ice racing.
Standing from 14 to 16 hands and weighing from 1000 to 1400 pounds, Canadiens are most frequently black in colour but can also be brown, bay, or chestnut. Common descriptions associated with the modern Canadian horse include intelligent, inquisitive, sensible, friendly, sociable, robust, and easy to keep.