The 'little iron horse' came to Canada 350 years ago as a gift from the king of France
Sara Fraser · CBC News · Posted: Dec 16, 2018 7:00 AM AT | Last Updated: December 16
Did you know Canada has its own breed of horse?
The Canadian horse became our national horse in 2002, and because of dwindling numbers is now listed by Heritage Livestock Canada as "at risk," with numbers of new annual registrations of females between 151 and 500.
CBC talked to two Island Canadian horse owners to find out why they are so special — Evelyn Lafortune of North Milton, P.E.I., owns Molssen and Belle, and Orwell Corner Historic Village in Orwell Corner has Sean, Tartan and Urban — all, coincidentally, Molssen's offspring. The historic village is part of the provincial government's network of museums.
1. They date back 450 years. Canadian horses descend from a shipload of horses sent to Canada in 1665 by King Louis XIV to his subjects in New France. They were likely a variety of breeds including Belgian, Percheron, Breton and Dales that mixed to become what became its own distinct breed, according to the Canadian Horse Breeders website.
Dapples pop in summer on the sides of these two Canadian horses at Orwell Corner Historic Village. (Rick Dunphy)Only the hardiest survived those first tough pioneering decades, leading to their nickname as the "little iron horse."
"As a museum, it's our responsibility to interpret it in as authentic a way as possible," said Jason MacNeil, site director for the historic village at Orwell Corner. Since the village interprets the P.E.I. of 1895, the Canadian horse is as historically authentic as it gets.
2. The government used to raise them. The federal government had a breeding program for Canadian horses in 1913 after mass exports to the United States led to a dangerous drop in numbers, says the Canadian Horse Breeders website.
A student takes a turn learning to drive one of the Canadian horses at Orwell Corner. (Dale McIsaac)The program ended in 1940 but the Quebec government took over and kept the program running until the 1960s.
Since then numbers have risen and fallen over the years — Lafortune puts their current number in Canada at about 6,000.
Lafortune has been raising Canadian horses since 1999, and said she first heard about them on CBC Radio.
"And then I researched it and thought 'Oh my God, how could I not know about this?'" She visited farms in Quebec and fell in love with the horses, bought and raised them and at one point had a herd of 12.
4. They are smart. Because they are intelligent, Canadian horses are easy to train and love to please. Even though they are smart they are not high-strung and are very reliable — "bomb-proof" is the word horse owners use.
Canadian horses are versatile and can be ridden and driven, says Lafortune. Here she is riding Molssen and driving Belle. (Submitted by Evelyn Lafortune)Lafortune recalls when she was breaking Molssen to harness and she hadn't had much experience, she harnessed him to a cart improperly.
"Another horse would have lost his mind and went running and probably would have hurt both him and myself," she recalled. "Molssen, you just tell him stop and he does. I can't tell you just how great that horse is."
Their temperament makes them perfect around children and all the noises they encounter at the historic village, said MacNeil.
"They are calm and relaxed and in general don't spook very easily," he said.
5. They are strong. Canadian horses can pull unusually large loads for their size, which made them ideal for hauling logs in the woods or large wagons loaded with people, grain or hay.
Orwell Corner is planning to breed Tartan the mare soon so they can perpetuate the Canadian breed. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)Not only that, they love to have a job to do, and will get bored if given too much free time.
They also have incredible stamina and can work at a steady pace for many hours.
"They can go all day long," said Lafortune. "They will work tirelessly," agrees MacNeil. "A great horse for a museum but also a great horse for Islanders in the past that needed a low-maintenance animal that would do the things they needed done."
6. They are versatile Canadian horses can do anything. you can ride them, or they can haul a cart or sleigh. They can work in the woods hauling logs, do dressage or a course of jumps. They've even been known to pull hearses and work cattle.
They can look at a blade of grass and they'll get fat.— Evelyn Lafortune"They just look beautiful pulling a carriage," Lafortune said. They are also used by several police forces, especially in Quebec, she said.
Lafortune both rides and harnesses hers, while the three at Orwell pull cartloads of visitors as well as demonstrate all the farm's historic farm implements like plows.
7. They don't eat much. Canadian horses are what are known in the horse world as "easy keepers."
Tartan and Urban enjoy their work on the farm at Orwell Corner. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)It's easy to keep them because they don't need to eat grain, just hay or grass — and not even a lot of that.
"They can look at a blade of grass and they'll get fat. So they're very low maintenance," Lafortune said.
8. Horses, not ponies Although many Canadian horses are smaller — what would be considered pony-sized — they are still to be called horses.
They range between 14 and 16 "hands" high, or 1.4 and 1.6 metres.
9. They are beautiful. With their long, wavy manes and glossy dark coats, Canadians take great glamour photos. And they are full of personality.
'They are calm and relaxed and in general don't spook very easily,' says Orwell Corner Historic Village's Jason MacNeil. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)They mostly are dark colours like black, brown and bay.
"They're beautiful animals," said MacNeil.
10. There will be foals. The Orwell museum is considering breeding its mare Tartan in the next few years to ensure the perpetuation of the breed and because visitors would enjoy seeing a foal.
'Most people in Canada don't even know we have a horse called the Canadian,' says Lafortune. (Submitted by Evelyn Lafortune)Lafortune has now bred her four-year-old mare Belle, who is due to foal in the spring. She then plans to breed the mare again.
"I have no intentions of getting into being a big breeder again, I have no intentions of getting a stallion again, but what I will do is my little part," she said. "If everybody does a little bit then we can keep the breed going."
Molssen is 16 and has been gelded now, but before Lafortune had him fixed she had a friend collect his semen with a mobile lab. It's now frozen for future use by a group of Canadian horse breeders in Quebec.
"Potentially, they could use Molssen's semen in 100 years," Lafortune said, noting he is of rare parentage and is "a fabulous horse, I could never say enough about that horse."
Lafortune laments the breed's dwindling numbers.
"It's such a shame. It's such a beautiful horse. Most people in Canada don't even know we have a horse called the Canadian."
The horse in the field seemed ordinary enough. However, as I soon learned, this was no ordinary horse; he was instead a direct biological link to the first European settlers in what was known as La Nouvelle France.
And students of North American history, amateur or otherwise, will recognize that New France implied a continental territory that took in a great deal more than just “Canada” or “Québec” as we tend to think of them today. Le cheval canadien is the living legacy of the French régime in North America.
In many ways, the horse I was gazing at on that brilliant fall day in Québec’s pastoral Outaouais region, is also the embodiment of a distinct French-speaking culture in North America — in the words of the Québec Association of the Canadian Horse, “It is for our children that we are raising the horse of our forefathers.” And although for some I may be re-activating touchy “issues,” I think it is safe to say that the Canadian Horse is, in the most comprehensive sense, a political horse. When the Parliament of Canada passed a bill in 2001 officially recognizing this breed as The Canadian Horse, it also confirmed and validated over 400 years of Canadian history.
Le petit cheval de fer
The Little Iron Horse, as he came to be known, also epitomizes the enduring qualities, traits, and traditions inherent in many cultural legacies, especially those that reflect the historic and geographic realities of a people. Having a direct relationship with the colonial realities of New France, this little iron horse “evolved” as a uniquely North American breed and contributed in no small way to the physical and cultural survival of the early French settlers in North America.
Life in “The New World” was as much about a struggle for survival as about opportunities; no more so than in the French colony of New France. In this part of the New World, the climate was harsh and the terrain daunting. History rides on the backs of its modes of transportation — frequently the horse — and it was therefore the horse that would become one of the principal means of communication and economic engines of the new society — but it wouldn’t be just any horse.
When France established its new colony in North America and began to build an infrastructure in this resource-rich land, the colonial-powers-that-be soon learned that in order to reap the benefits of this part of the Americas, it had to develop a new society that would flourish in a new and challenging environment. And this included the use of horses.
A gift from the Sun King
It’s always a good idea to choose your ancestors well; and the Canadian Horse did just that. In 1665 Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, sent two stallions and 20 mares to New France, followed in 1667 and 1670 by about 30 more horses. These horses which became the foundation stock for le cheval canadien were from breeding stock from Brittany and Normandy. Le normand and le breton resembled each other in many ways but the former had some Andalusian blood from Spanish horses imported into Normandy at the end of the War of Spanish Succession (and consequently some Arab and Barb blood). It’s important to remember the Netherlands-Spain historic connection of the 17th century and the trading that occurred between these European lands; historical connections that would eventually benefit the bloodlines of le cheval canadien. Therefore you can also throw in a little Dutch Friesen blood there as well. The even, rhythmic trotting ability of le cheval canadien is evidence of that ancestor.
These first horses to arrive in New France were not of any consistent type; among them were what we would today call draft horses, some lighter trotters, and some pacers. The breeding programs in New France, such as they were, were pretty haphazard. As was the case with the human inhabitants of this part of the New World, the learning curve was very steep. And lest you think that it was all smooth sailing at this point, I must disabuse you of that notion and point out that many of these early horses led miserable lives and were not well-adapted to their new environment. The trial-and-error “breeding program” — the equine equivalent of sauve qui peut — however led eventually to a very hardy breed.
In terms of the genetic legacy of the Canadian, it is also important to note that no other breeding stock were sent to the colony after 1670, which meant that for nearly 150 years the horses of New France evolved in isolation, developing their own gene pool. (By the way, a similar phenomenon happened with the French language, and today linguists can identify many language elements in “French-Canadian French” that can be traced to the 17th century.)
A “recovering” breed
By 1679 there were 145 horses in the colony and by 1698 that number had grown to 684. By the middle of the 19th century, the Canadian Horse numbered about 150,000. However not long after, the numbers began to dwindle. By the 1860s-1870s, there were fewer than 400 horses in the colony — on the road to extinction! As late as 1976 there were only 383 registered Canadians in Canada. In the 1870s however, the precarious state of affairs was recognized by admirers of the Canadian, and under the leadership of veterinarian Dr. J. A. Couture, steps were taken to protect and revitalize the breed.
But progress was slow; and it wasn’t until the the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was founded in 1895 that significant growth occurred. As we have seen in so many other animal species, this kind of genetic decline can occur very rapidly but takes much longer to recover, if indeed it can. Le cheval canadien could have gone the way of species such as the Passenger Pigeon (la tourte), once so abundant in New France that the “national dish” (tourtière), a kind of pigeon shepherd’s pie, is named after it. (Today la tourtière contains primarily pork.)
And when the Canadian government (under the federal Ministry of Agriculture) recognized another potential loss of a kind of Canadian sovereignty, effective government breeding programs were established in 1913. Government decision-makers, however, dropped the ball again when they eventually closed down these and other government breeding operations and essentially privatized the Canadian Horse. Ironically, this led to a renewed grassroots effort on the part of private breeders to preserve and protect the little iron horse. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. However I am happy to announce that today there are more than 2000 Canadiens in Canada with about 300 births a year. The Canadian mare has always been extremely fertile.
Why did this rapid decline occur? In part, because of commerce, mechanization, and war. Because it had proven itself to be such a successful new breed, the Canadian caught the attention of others beyond our borders, especially the Americans. (Canada has always faced a “brain drain” problem in terms of our neighbours to the south.) American dealers imported great numbers of the Canadian into the United States from horse markets held primarily in the cities of Québec and Montréal. Stage coach horses in what is today New England were legendary, all of them of Canadian extraction. As a superb trotter and pacer, the Canadian also was imported and mated to American horses and thus has contributed its genes to such popular breeds as the Standardbred, the Tennessee Walking Horse, the Saddlebred, and especially the Morgan. Please note however, that you will find considerable “discussion” among breeders of the latter as to the role played by le cheval canadien in those bloodlines. (Recent DNA testing done at the University of Guelph’s Equine Centre in Ontario has confirmed that the Canadian’s bloodlines are to be found in the Morgan breed.)
The Canadian was also exported to the West Indies, and as far away as the Canadian Prairies where it proved itself once again as the quintessential work horse. It also sadly became a war horse serving first during the American Revolution and later in great numbers during the American Civil War. They were even sent to serve in the Boer War in South Africa. Canadians also saw action during the North-West Rebellion of 1885 when they were ridden by the North West Mounted Police (predecessors to the famed Mounties). And then there was that terrible war of attrition (World War I) during which the Little Iron Horse also served and suffered.
Le cheval à tout faire
Although the original stock were intended for the “noblemen” of the new colony, the breed that eventually emerged was a very “democratic” horse with the very best working class skills. Le cheval canadien eventually adapted well to La Nouvelle France and became a specialist in multi-tasking. For the habitant farmer, the Canadian became a superb plough and carriage horse. As a general riding horse, trotter, and light carriage or sleigh horse, it also proved itself well both in agility, adaptability, and temperament.
As any horse lover-connaisseur will tell you, especially if they get the opportunity (as I did) to spend some time with the Canadian horse — whether it be just grooming them, walking among them in the fields of l’Outaouais, or going for a four-hour hack through the glorious Forêt de l’aigle on a Canadian — this is one superb breed of horse.
Neither too big nor too small, the Canadian is an honest, solid, and handsome breed of horse without the excessive airs and graces of some of those other breeds. He is a “good” size; what he lacks in height, he makes up for in substantial bone and musculature. Usually between 14 to 16 hands, he weighs between 1000 to 1350 pounds. Notice how well proportioned he is; the strong well-set and arched neck; the long deep body; the heavily muscled hindquarters; the sculpted head with its widely spaced eyes. Note the bold and friendly expression and the intelligent, spirited, but calm eye. Note especially the solid joints (in particular the fetlocks) and the hardy feet and legs that are not prone to the kind of injuries that so many other more “delicate” breeds experience. But it is the temperament of the Canadian horse that is perhaps his best quality. This is a horse that has truly bonded with humans. He is generous, willing to please, and fun-loving. But he’s no pushover. The Canadian will respect you if you respect him.
What’s in a horses’s name
Throughout this piece I probably should have been referring to this horse as Le Canadien because his (300-year) heritage is primarily French-Canadian. The breed has been called “The Canadian,” “the Canadian Horse,” “the French-Canadian Horse,” “the Canuck,” even “The Norman.” The name can confuse some people who think you may be referring to the horse’s nationality as opposed to its breeding. (We are very liberal in Canada, but we have not yet begun granting citizenship to horses.) Suffice it to say that for many people, Le Cheval Canadien is a source of pride given the self-determination inherent in the breed and in its history.
Spotlight on the Canadian Horse
Just found out through a friend of ours, that one of Costa and I cross country clinic photos made it into a magazine. Super fun! Wanted to share the article. Reminds me I should also share the video content from the Calgary Stampede that we did this year(we ride in the parade every year).
Busy riding rings: I had the chance to work medical standby at a horse show, and it gave me a different view of the warm up ring than I normally do being in it with our horses. As I sat and watched I saw riders almost collide, some riders even cutting each other off. What is awful with all of this, is riders are so focused on THEIR warm up that they don't seem to put as much care into their surroundings as they should.
Is lack of experience with busy warm up rings the issue? is the stress preventing riders from making proper decisions? Even in the best case scenario it causes more stress in an already stressful situation and upsets horses and disrupts your warm up. If all of us paid better attention to the warm up arena, it would make a world of a difference in our safety and the quality of our warm ups.
Riding in an arena you don’t normally ride in, is stressful enough. Different smells, lighting, footing. Every arena has it's demons and monsters that the horses always seem to find. You have lots of people watching you and of course you feel like everyone is judging every movement you make. Different horses and different types of riders with different riding styles. Spooky horses, hyper, lazy, small, large and green animals. Warming up is not an easy thing to do when you’re away from home(or even at home really), but the thing is we are all trying to achieve the same thing so why are we watching each other's backs.
Having grown up in France, I know that even in crowded arenas these issues can be easily dealt with. Horse shows down there never run into these issues and they sometimes have 2-3 times the amount of horses in 1 warming up arena than we have-and they do incredibly well! I don’t believe that Americans lack respect or are inherently ruder but why is this happeneing?(and being European myself I can confirm that European folks win THAT rudeness competition). I think the issue really comes down to the riders might not as educated on ring etiquette and should take it more seriously. I feel like the general handling of riding in the ring in European countries, is taken just as importantly as the competition itself. Because of this anyone making a ring etiquette mistake is dealt with immediately either by the ring stewart/ or a trainer. We need to act together as a community, treating each other better and be more courteous so that every horse in the arena feels a sense of calm and security.
I think if we all followed some basic rules(which I do see some of them followed in warm up ring, though not consistently), we would really improve this embarrassing problem that we are having. Here are some rules that I feel would make a big difference:
Continuously look around: We’re all concentrating on our own warm ups and focusing on our mount so it’s easy to forget when you’re stressed but really, do you walk around with your head down? Do you know your daily activities staring at the ground? Keeping your eye up and watching the other’s riders warm ups and respecting their space, will also allow you to anticipate where they are going next. I think it is fair to say that really young riders will likely not always follow this because of their age and lack of experience, but for everyone else there is no excuse.
Keeping your eye up will also give you an indication of the horse and rider pairs and their skill level. It will give you an idea of the personalities and overall vibe that they give off. I personally stay away from pairs that seem out of control or horses that have been dressed with a red ribbon. Perhaps there are some really spooky horses in the ring, or horses that are bullies with tail swishing and ear pinning. Those things will affect where you want to be in the ring and how you are going to plan your ride.
Passing left to left: when approaching other riders head on, passing left shoulder to left their shoulder is a safe rule. It eliminates the guessing game of who is passing who on what side.
This rule might have some exceptions when there are jumps in the ring as that might not work if they are coming across a line or otherwise. Horses coming across the diagonal, jumping a line, pairs etc etc. There is always an exception to the rule.
Speak Up!: Even in a busy ring you can be vocal about some of the things you are planning to do. A good example is a calling out “outside line!” or “yellow oxer!” so everyone no knows which way you’re going and give you the space you need. Broadcasting your intentions makes it a lot easier. If you have noticed is touchy in the arena when near horses, or you notice a horse with a red ribbon ahead of you and you are passing, call out "coming up behind/passed you?". I know I myself have had to yell “heads up” on many occasions because I’ve watched a rider not paying attention heading my way and would likely lead to a collision.
Give Others Space Your job is to be your horse’s protector starts when you first arrive on the show grounds all the way to the warm up arena, during your warm up, in your class and once you load on the trailer to head home.
I have a mare who while out fox hunting has double barrelled at other horses who have come up her rear end, and she does it without an ounce of warning. She is a phenomenal parade horse, and will babysit horses all day long and allow them to ride her bum on the parade routes. In settings where things get exciting, her tolerance for that goes out the door and she demands her space.
I have never had her kick in a warm up ring, but I have also always done everything I could, to give her as much space as I can and prevent her from getting upset and giving out a kick. I now have a 3 yr old filly that I am about to start who is also a natural alpha and it will be interesting to see how she handles a busy arena and show ring.
Let's all try to be safer out there and watch each other's backs in the warm up. At the end of the day it keeps ourselves and our horses safer.
What is Working Equitation?
Working Equitation became a competitive sport in 1996 along with its first European championship being held in Italy the same year. Working Equitation is a recognised sport and it tests the horse and rider's partnership and ability to manoeuvre obstacles.
Riders will come to compete and ride in many different levels in the following 4 different trials: Dressage(functionality), Ease of Handling, Speed Trial and Cow Trial. There are many levels you can compete in with the advanced levels where the rider must ride with just one hand, most commonly their left hand, on the reins.
Competition events may be individual or for teams, and are in three or four parts, in this order:
Kristina Eckert and her Canadian Horse Stallion Amaro