A Short History of the Canadian Horse

1665-1671: The horse from overseas

In the 17th century, Quebec, which was called “New France,” was a French colony. Following the recommendations of Colbert, the minister of finance, King Louis XIV decided to send horses to the new world to address its military and commercial needs. From 1665 to 1671, New France received 82 horses from primarily Brittany and Normandy stock. However the exorbitant shipping costs put a stop to the endeavour.

The horses were distributed mainly to members of the nobility and clergy. A few horses went to farmers who were tasked with using an ingenious breeding system to quickly increase their numbers. For every horse received, farmers had to give back a living foal to the intendant of the colony three years later. Once that part of the contract was fulfilled, they could start selling the offspring for themselves and thus make up for their initial investment. The foal given to the intendant was then given to a different farmer, who was bound by the same breeding contract.

1671-1765: Adaptation and proliferation

The horses, confronted to the harsh climate of New France, soon adapted to food scarcity in winter and the gruelling tasks they were made to do. Unlike in Europe, where oxen worked the land, here horses were used to plough, clear and farm the land, and transport passengers and merchandise in harsh conditions. Only the strongest, bravest, sturdiest and most enduring survived.

After a hundred years, there were 15,000 horses thanks to the decree promoting the breeding and use of these horses. As the horses were bred in a fairly closed area in the St. Lawrence valley, a distinct breed was produced: the French Canadian Horse.


1759-1850: Quasi-extinction

In the 18th century, New France was conquered by the British empire. As trade developed, the French Canadian Horse became popular outside of its valley and experienced massive exportation to New England (currently the northeast of the USA), where it became known for being a tireless worker. It also played a role in the American Civil War (1861-1865), during which thousands of its breed, like those of other breeds, were massacred.

At home, the new English rulers snubbed the breed, as they favoured their other imported horses. The horses were crossed with draft horses to produce bigger horses, like the Percherons and Clydesdales that were being imported to the colony.

Up until the 19th century, these two movements, in addition to the beginning of agricultural mechanization, led to a quick decline in the stock and a quasi-extinction of the breed.

1850-1880: Rescue attempts

In 1850, an overall study on the state of agriculture in Quebec revealed the quasi-extinction of the French Canadian Horse on the territory. Rescue plans were made. Again, there were two competing approaches. One camp supported interbreeding with draft horses to reach a critical mass of horses that would ensure the sustainability of the breed. The other argued for selective breeding of the best purebred French Canadian subjects to preserve the original characteristics and qualities. After two decades of indecision and voting, the second option was chosen and concrete measures were taken to implement it (awarding prizes to promote the breeding of purebred horses, better governance form the agricultural societies, etc.).

Despite these efforts, by 1880 the breed was close to disappearing. That was when Dr. Joseph Alphone Couture, a well-respected member of the community who was a veterinarian by trade, a cattle inspector at the port of Quebec, co-founder of the first veterinarian school in Quebec (St-Hyacinthe) and a fervent admirer of the French Canadian horse, was tasked with starting a genealogical record, known as a stud book, for the breed. After his first tour of inspection, he recorded some hundred horses.

1895-1912: Birth of the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (CHBA)

On September 17, 1895, still under the direction of Dr. Joseph-Alphonse Couture, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (CHBA) was created as a component association of the Société Générale des Éleveurs (General Breeders Society) of Quebec. Strangely enough, that seems to be when the “French” suffix, which reflected the horse’s Canadian origin (as opposed to the “English” Canada at the time), seems to have disappeared.

Things started moving at a faster pace over the next ten years and 1,712 more horses were added to the stud book, for a total of 1,802.

In 1900, the federal government in Ottawa voted for the Act respecting animal pedigree associations and subsequently created a management body named the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation (CLRC). The act decreed that only recognized and affiliated associations could maintain valid pedigree registries and have access to government grants to support their development.

In 1906, at the request of its directors, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was incorporated and became a federal organization, which gave it access to useful grants. These were seen as an opportunity to carry out rescue projects (funding agricultural exhibitions, opening a government breeding farm, purchasing studs, distributing awards and cash prizes to deserving breeders, financial incentives for registration, etc.).

The criteria of the first stud book were then put into question. It was abolished and a second stud book was created, with Dr. Couture going on a second tour of inspection across the country. Based on the stricter and better defined acceptance criteria, 1,555 horses were registered between 1907 and 1912.

1907: First definition of the standard

In 1907, in the first stud book, Dr. Couture defined a standard for the Canadian Horse and proposed a grading scale. For the first time in its history, the breed was officially characterized. A standard model, with weight and size, was established. The maximum height for stallions was set at 15.3 hh (1.60 m) and 15.2 (1.57 m) for mares. The ideal weight was 1,100-1,350 lbs for stallions and 1,050-1,250 lbs for mares.

The criteria were revised in 1991. The minimum height was set at 14 hh (1.42 m) and the maximum height was increased to 16 hh (1.63 m) for both stallions and mares.

1912-1944: Creation of federal and provincial research stations

In 1912, a federal research station dedicated to the breeding of the Canadian Horse opened in Cap-Rouge, under the supervision of Gustave Langelier. The Cap-Rouge bloodlines quickly became a source of pride. The program was so successful that in 1920 the new St-Joachim Station welcomed 23 mares and 2 stallions from Cap-Rouge. Shortly after, 30 new mares joined the herd.

The research work carried out at the St-Joachim Station guided the breed in a clear direction. Some hundred horses lived there permanently, while others were sold to breeders associated with breeders’ unions. From 1932 to 1944, 17 breeders’ unions were created, which helped greatly increase the number of horses.

The Second World War brought an unfortunate end to government grants and the rescue efforts to save the Canadian Horse. The herd was split up between the La Pocatière farm, the Deschambault farm and breeders.


1940-1981: Deschambault (1940-1981)

The Deschambault farm worked on developing the breed for nearly 40 years.

Its first objectives aimed at replacing interbred horses by purebred Canadian horses. The mission evolved toward the importance of protecting the heritage and survival of certain bloodlines. Deschambault became the annual gathering site for breeders to show their most beautiful animals.

The research work came to a halt around 1970. Breeding objectives changed and attempts to cross-breed to produce more “sportive” horses led to confusion and decreased interest in the program. Deschambault ended up closing its doors in 1981 and the horses were sold to breeders at auction.


1981-2002: Modern times

The Quebec Government nonetheless had remained fairly involved up until 1995, providing financial support to breeders through certain breeding animal inspection and quality of life improvement programs. When the action priorities changed, it ended its involvement entirely.

In 1999, due to renewed enthusiasm in the breed, Quebec’s National Assembly adopted Bill 199, An Act respecting animal breeds forming part of Quebec’s agricultural heritage, which declared the Canadian Horse to be a Quebec heritage breed, along with the Canadian cow and the Chantecler chicken.

In 2002, the federal government adopted Bill S-22, which recognized the Canadian Horse as the national horse of Canada.

Since the early 2000s, promotion efforts rely primarily on the initiatives of a few provincial associations created throughout Canada, giving breeders and breed enthusiasts the opportunity to share their common passion.

2000: And today?

This hard-working horse that long toiled in the agricultural and forest industries has yet to fully find its place in the 21st century’s leisure-focused society. But it’s not for a lack of qualities! Its versatility and docile temperament make it an excellent choice for horse owners. It performs just as well riding or pulling, and its courage and work ethic more than make up for its lack of specialization, which is required in some of the most challenging disciplines and is acquired through generations of rigorous selection.

However, extinction is still a very real threat to this breed with barely 7,000 registered horses and an aging population that is not producing enough offspring. Even now, every passing day can make a difference to the future of the amazing Canadian Horse.

Additional references

National Horse of Canada Act

Le cheval Canadien : Histoire et Espoir
Claude Richer and Pearl Duval

The Canadian Horse: A Pictorial History
Gladys Mackey Beattie

Brève histoire du cheval Canadien
Mario Gendron

Le cheval Canadien
Paul Bernier