Canada’s National Horse is about to mark the 350th anniversary of its ancestor’s arrival from France – just as the breed’s status has been changed from threatened to critical.
Ancestors of the Canadian Horse – Cheval Canadien – were sent to the French colonies by King Louis XIV of France, landing on what is now Canadian soil in July 1665. Two stallions and 20 mares made the journey across the ocean.
As one of the first distinct horse breeds in North America, the Canadian Horse has contributed its genes to several other breeds, including the Morgan horse, the Tennessee Walking Horse, the American Saddlebred, and the Standardbred.
Canadian Horses were exported to the US by the thousands as cavalry mounts, artillery horses and pack horses. They helped the Northern Armies win the American Civil War; those that survived the battlefield never came back to Canada. Across North America, they hauled logs and pulled plows, pulled stage coaches and sleighs, and carried cowboys and city folks alike.
But by 1880 the breed was nearly extinct in Canada. In 1886 a group of Quebec breeders formed a studbook, and breeding programs were maintained periodically by both Canada’s federal government, and Quebec’s provincial government.
Organisers behind the upcoming 350th anniversary celebrations say the Canadian Horse breed is now in real danger of becoming extinct.
The Livestock Conservancy, an international watchdog for rare and endangered breeds, has just changed the breed’s status from threatened to critical. The number of new foals being born and registered has dropped drastically over the past several years, and soon there will not be enough horses of breeding age to maintain the balance between births and deaths.
“The loss of this breed would be a tragedy, as it represents a living link to the past for Canada and all of North America,” the Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society says.
The economic downturn of the past decade has affected all North American horse breeds, but for a rare breed such as the Canadian, the effect has been catastrophic, the society says.
“For most families, owning a horse is considered a luxury, so it is one of the expenses most likely to be cut during a financial crunch.
The Canadian Horse has long been known for its versatility, which makes it an excellent choice as a family horse. Horses range in height from almost pony size to over 16 hands, and depending on the conformation, training and temperament of the individual horse, can be suited for anything from competing in dressage to working with cows or from riding cross-country to driving in harness. A Canadian can make a good gymkhana horse for a youngster or a reliable trail horse to take camping.
Eighteenth century historian Etienne Faillon described the Canadian as “small but robust, hocks of steel, thick mane floating in the wind, bright and lively eyes, pricking sensitive ears at the least noise, going along day or night with the same courage, wide awake beneath its harness, spirited, good, gentle, affectionate”. The same description can still be applied to the majority of Canadian Horses today.
Canadian Horse owners and breeders are the stewards of a valuable and important heritage horse breed. In Managing Breeds for a Secure Future: Strategies for Breeders and Breed Associations, authors Phillip Sponenberg and Donald E. Bixby say: “Details of genetic management of breeds are especially relevant to rare breed associations. While associations for common breeds tend to focus more on genetic improvement of production, associations for rare breeds must also pay close attention to genetic aspects of breed population viability.”
The Canadian Horse Heritage & Preservation Society says the only way the population will grow is “if more breeders embrace the challenge of stewarding this heritage breed”.
“The Canadian Horse breed has come back from the brink of extinction before, and lovers of the breed hope fervently that it is able to do so again.”