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.