Canadian Horse

Canadian Horse

HEIGHT: 14.3–16.2 hands


SPECIAL QUALITIES: Hardy, sound, easy keeper

BEST SUITED FOR: Riding, jumping, and driving

The Canadian Horse has a long, underreported yet illustrious history, marked by repeated surges and precipitous falls in popularity. The breed has contributed much to the history of Canada and to many other breeds of horses but has never received adequate credit.

According to the History of the Canadian Horse, by Yvonne Hillsden, the Canadian traces its ancestry to France. The first horses went from France to New France (Quebec) as a gift to the governor in 1647, but they were stolen by members of Samuel Argall’s expedition from Virginia. In 1665, King Louis XIV sent two stallions and twenty mares to the colony, although eight of the mares died during shipment. These were some of the best horses from the king’s royal stud and are thought to have originated from the stock of Normandy and Brittany, the two most famous horse-breeding areas in France at the time.

The Breton horses of the day were small but noted for soundness and vigor. The Norman horses were much the same in overall type but showed evidence of Oriental blood, such as Arab, Turk, or Barb, and may have benefited from a significant infusion of Andalusian as well. It is well documented that Andalusian stallions had been brought to Normandy and La Perche, home to the Percheron breed, beginning in the late sixteenth century. Some of the Norman horses arriving in Canada were probably of strains closely related to the Percherons of the time (which they resembled), as the bloodlines were frequently crossed.

Most Canadian Horses are black or very dark brown.

Types within Breeds

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were not standard types for the Norman, the Breton, or, presumably, the Perche. Each breed had several types and these types were crossed on each other depending on the fashion and needs of the moment. Among the horses arriving in Canada from France were some draft-type horses, some pacers, and some excellent trotting horses. In 1667, fourteen more horses arrived in New France, including at least one stallion, and in 1670, a stallion and eleven more mares arrived. Not long after that, the shipments from France ended because the governor thought there were enough horses in the colony to form a dependable supply.

In the early days of New France, horse production and use were managed in a unique way by the government, which leased horses to those farmers who had done the most to promote colonization and cultivation. The farmer either paid an annual fee for the horse or returned a weanling, which the government raised for three years and then leased out to another farmer. After three years of leasing, a horse became the property of the farmer.

The program succeeded. In 1679, there were 148 horses in the colony; by 1688, 218 horses; and in 1698, 684 horses. By 1709, a mere thirty years after the breeding program was introduced, the government issued a regulation limiting the number of horses. Each farmer was to be allowed only two horses and a foal. Excess horses were to be slaughtered. Not surprisingly, attempts to enforce this law utterly failed.

Although farmers bred horses rather indiscriminately for the next one hundred years, people noted that even after a century, the horses’ appearance hardly altered from the prototypes and still closely resembled both the Norman and the Perche. There were recognizable subtypes within the breed depending on use. By the early 1800s, the horses were used for riding, driving, racing, and pulling sleighs. Oxen, however, performed the heaviest draft work.

During the eighteenth century, Canadian Horses were transported from New France to the western settlements in Detroit and in Illinois. These horses were kept in large herds and caught only when needed for work. Inevitably, many escaped and some were stolen or lost. There is little doubt that these horses contributed significantly to both the numbers and the quality of feral horses on the northern Great Plains.

Until 1780, the French Canadian Horse, as the breed was also known, was bred largely without any additional influence of foreign horses. After this point, Canadian breeders increasingly imported horses from the British Isles and the United States. The imported horses were crossed on the Canadian Horses and contributed to the further development of distinct types within the Canadian breed. In time these types earned names of their own.

Canadian Pacer. Breeders crossed pacing horses, derived from early imported French pacers, on Narragansett Pacers, imported from New England, to produce pacing horses that were especially good at racing over ice. These bloodlines later contributed much to the development of the American Standardbred.

Frencher or St. Lawrence. Thoroughbreds were crossed in to produce horses with great speed and power. These horses, as well as the lines related to the early imported French Trotters, are involved in the history of the American trotters.

Canadian Heavy Draft, also sometimes called the St. Lawrence. These were probably the result of crosses with imported Shires or Clydesdales. This type disappeared by the end of the 1700s. It’s a good bet that many of them were sold to New England, which had a sizable horse industry providing horses to the plantations of the Caribbean until the dawning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775.

Influence on Morgans

Canadian mares appear in the pedigrees of early Morgan horses, and many think it likely that the stallion Figure, who became known as Justin Morgan, was himself a Canadian Horse. Justin Morgan (the man) lived in Vermont, near Quebec. His parents lived in Quebec, and he frequently visited them. It is quite possible that he brought a horse back with him from one of his trips.

Genetic research indicates that the Canadian and the Morgan are quite closely related. Certainly the two breeds closely resemble one another. There is also documented Canadian blood in the famous Morgans Ethan Allen and Black Hawk, who had much to do with the foundation of the Standardbred and the Tennessee Walker, as well as other breeds.

By 1847, Canadian Horses were well known in Michigan, Illinois, and New York, as well as in New England. They performed as trotters and roadsters, and heavier ones pulled freight wagons and stagecoaches. They were often the favorites of coach drivers because they had tremendous stamina and were easy to maintain. Canadians were so popular and so frequently outcrossed for the improvement of other breeds that purebreds nearly became extinct.

In 1885, worried that the breed was virtually gone, the government of Quebec established a studbook for Canadian Horses and in 1886 passed a law forbidding their export. All horses to be registered had to be inspected and approved. In 1913, the government of Canada became involved with the preservation of the French Canadian Horse and a breeding program was started at the Experimental Station at Cap Rouge, with a goal of increasing the size of the horses without sacrificing endurance or vitality. By 1938, the stallions stood between 15.2 and 16 hands and weighed 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. The mares were a little smaller.

Ultimately, two World Wars and the advance of technologies that rendered horses obsolete ended the government breeding program. Many of the best horses were sold at auction. During the 1970s, interest in the Canadian Horse dropped to an all-time low, with only five horses registered and fewer than one thousand horses in existence. But just at the brink of extinction, the horses were saved, this time by a few private breeders who began acquiring the best Canadians and showing them in major horse shows in Canada and the United States. When a team of Canadians won the North American Driving Championships in 1987, the world noticed, and interest in the breed grew. Popularity of these versatile horses continues to increase.

Canadians are hardy, strongly built, and muscular.

With excellent speed and power, Canadians make ideal performance horses.

Breed Characteristics

Canadians are excellent riding and driving horses, good jumpers, and flashy trotters with good action. They are very hardy, easy keepers, and long-lived.


According to the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation, which maintains the registry for the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (Société Éleveurs des Chevaux Canadiens):

• The living, registered population as of 2005 is around 2,000 animals.

• Over the past four years, an average of 525 new foals were registered annually.

• Of the new foals, 15 to 20 each year are foaled in the United States.

• There are about 10,800 horses in the database since the association was formed in the early 1900s.

• In 2002, the Canadian Horse was officially proclaimed the national horse of Canada.


A Canadian should be solidly built with good proportions and stand between 14.3 and 16.2 hands. Stallions should weigh 1,050 to 1,350 pounds, mares 1,000 to 1,250. The head is short and quite wide between the eyes, with a fine muzzle. The neck is strong and arched, the body long and deep, the barrel rounded. The tail should be set high on a heavily muscled rump. The mane and the tail are long and usually wavy.


About 80 percent of Canadian Horses are black or very dark bay or brown. There is no longer gray in the breed, the gray gene having been lost when numbers fell to a precarious low. Chestnuts, sometimes with flaxen mane and tail, occur only occasionally. A very few cream-colored foals have been born, all sired by one particular stallion. There is some question as to whether this color should be recognized by the breed.

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