The Canadian Horse or Cheval Canadien was developed in Canada and has been relatively unknown in recent times due to its scarcity, but it has influenced many other North American breeds, including the Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, and Standardbred, and the Canadian Pacer, which had a profound impact on several gaited breeds of today. It is a recognized horse breed, indigenous only to Canada. It is so rare that several times the breed almost went extinct, but now the Canadian Horse has many supporters both inside and outside of Canada and is Canada's National Horse.
The Canadian Horse originated from the Norman and Breton horses sent by King Louis XIV of France in the late 1600’s to the New World. These French horses are believed to have been of Arab, Andalusian and Barb ancestry since many traits of those breeds can still be recognized in the Canadian Horse today. Over several hundred years, the French horses were bred amongst themselves with little influence from outside breeds and eventually developed in the distinct breed known as the Canadian Horse or Cheval Canadien.
Since the breed was developed under the adverse conditions of harsh inclement weather, scarce food, and hard work, they became tough, strong, tolerant horses that are extremely easy keepers. The Canadian Horse is considered to be the sturdiest and most acclimatized horse in Canada and their strength was legendary. It has been rumored that the Canadian Horse was capable of generating more power per 100 pounds of body weight than any other breed and is often referred to as “The Little Iron Horse”.
In the mid-1800’s, there were about 150,000 Canadian Horses and the breed could be found throughout Canada and the United States. The Canadian Horse was used to improve the strength and hardiness of other breeds and as founding stock for several North American breeds. Canadian Horses were exported out of Canada for many purposes and the number of horses began to drop rapidly. When mechanized farm machinery came to the country, the Canadian Horse almost became extinct and during the 1860-1870’s there were fewer than 400 horses left with 20 or less being registered per year. By the late 1870’s the danger to the breed was finally recognized and efforts were made by diligent breeders to try to bring the Canadian Horse back from the dead.
Their efforts resulted in the first stud book in 1886 but progress was slow and it was not until 1895 that the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (CHBA) or, Société des Éleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens, was formed in the province of Quebec. The Canadian Livestock Records Corporation has been the administrators of the breed registry since 1904. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture set up a breeding program at Cap Rouge in 1913 where one of the foundation studs for the recovery effort, Albert De Cap Rouge, was foaled. Other breeding programs were set up in Quebec at St. Joachim and La Gorgendiere. After World War II, the Canadian Horse was on the verge of dying out again the 1950's with the breed having disappeared from every Canadian province except Quebec, and this time the breed was resurrected by opening the stud books to previously unregistered, but known to be purebred Canadian horses.
Despite these efforts, the Canadian Horse once again nearly disappeared during the 1970's when the numbers dropped to 400 horses again with fewer than 5 registrations per year and by 1979 all horse training programs were dropped since few foals were being produced. In 1981, the administration closed its Canadian Horse breeding program and auctioned off the remaining stock to private breeders.
The number of living registered Canadian Horses in existence in 2006 was estimated to be 5746, down from the 6374 that were surveyed in 2005, but if you combine the number of stallions and geldings registered the total comes to considerably less than the number of existing mares. Since males vs. females traditionally have a roughly equal registration ratio, it may mean that a significant number of male horses have never been registered or reported. This could be due to geldings not being registered because of the cost of registering a non-breeding horse, and because gelding-only owners often do not become breed association members so there would be no way to report their horses. It is hoped that the total number of existing Canadian Horses has been under-reported.
Some breeders feel that it is a disservice to the breed when horses are not registered because there is no way of accurately tracking the population, nor of being able to track specific individuals to see if which ones are producing exceptional animals that may be particularly suited to one discipline or another. In spite of this, the breed is continuing to gain in numbers and popularity, but the Canadian Horse is still classified as “rare” on the American Livestock Conservancy list which has only recently been upgraded from "critical".
The Canadian Horse stands 14 to 16 hands high, weighs between 1000 and 1400 pounds and black is often seen although chestnut, bay, and dark brown are also available. The overall impression is of power and agility from a well-balanced and proportioned conformation and graceful carriage. The finely chiseled head of the Canadian Horse is rather short and thin with straight lines, carried high and slanting on a medium length arched neck that is fairly arched. Eyes are large, moderately convex, bright, kind, and active. Ears are set well apart and are rather short. Both mane and tail have an abundance of fine wavy hair with tail being large at the root and attached rather high and carried well. Their short cannon bones often exceed 9” in circumference and the gait of the Canadian Horse has a free and vigorous movement with, hocks, knees, fetlocks, and pasterns bending well in higher harmonious movements. The hooves are exceptionally tough and rarely require little more than routine trimming.
The breed has an energetic and spirited temperament without nervousness and is very calm and docile. It has been renowned for their sensible, sociable natures, high intelligence and willingness to please, but they have also been described as having a tendency to be "in your face" and quite "opinionated" to the point of encroaching on your own physical space which can be an issue for someone who feels intimidated by horses. The Canadian Horse is considered to be a general utility horse and from the very beginning, it was valuable not only for plowing, but also as a carriage horse. The breed is long-lived and still useful even at an advanced age. The mares are extraordinarily fertile and able to reproduce regularly until the age of 20 or older.