The Canadian Horse – A National Treasure

Text and Photos by Traci Durrell-Khalife

Versatile, hardy, strong, easy keeper - such traits earned Canadian horses the moniker "Little Iron Horse."

The Canadian descended from 14 horses shipped by King Louis XIV from France in May 1665 to New France. Subsequent shipments of 14 and 12 horses respectively were made in 1667 and 1670. These horses were most likely the produce of small draft mares such as Bretons and Normans crossed with Iberian and Oriental stallions. These fine offspring were destined for military officers, government officials, and religious communities in the New World.

These compact horses stood just 14 to 15 hands, but proved to have great strength and stamina. They skidded logs, cleared land, brought in the maple sugar harvest, and transported goods. They were also fierce trotting competitors in sleigh races on ice near Montreal.

Many Canadians were imported to the US during the early 1800s, becoming common in New England and around the Great Lakes. Then, the American Civil War broke out. Horses were in great demand. Army buyers recognized the qualities and suitability of the Canadian Horse and purchased about 30,000. Known as "Canucks," they were not only strong with incredible endurance, but they were also quite adaptable to weather and were able to get by on little food. Furthermore, they were noted for their exceptionally tough feet.

Stoney stands with Blazer and Jeena
Stoney stands with Blazer and Jeena, a team of Canadian artillery horses as they await a Civil War battle re-enactment.

The breed was also in demand for crossing with local horses to improve the quality of offspring. Canadians appear in the pedigrees of breeds including the American Saddlebred, Standardbred, Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Fox Trotter, and Morgan. In fact, genetic studies show that they are close relatives of Morgans.

Sadly, by the late 1860s, Canadian horses were in danger of extinction. Numbering about 150,000 before the Civil War, purebreds dwindled to fewer than 400 in the 1970s. The decline can be attributed to both crossbreeding and mechanization.

The first registry was started in 1886. By 1913, the Canadian federal government established stud farms at Cap Rouge and Saint Joachim in Quebec. However, both were abandoned around 1940. The Quebec Department of Agriculture did maintain a small breeding farm at Deschambeault. In 1981, 44 of these horses were auctioned.

Through careful breeding programs, Canadian numbers have climbed to about 5,000 today. Genetic studies show them to be free of genetic defects and to have good genetic diversity. Nevertheless, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy still lists them as an endangered breed. Their importance in history was honored in 2002 when an Act of Parliament declared the breed Canada's National Horse.

Jeff (with position rider) and Blaze pull a limber and cannon in a Veteran’s Day parade.
Jeff (with position rider) and Blaze pull a limber and cannon in a Veteran's Day parade.

Purebreds are registered with the Canadian Horse Breeders Association (Société des Éleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens), which has more than 900 members in North America. A Canadian Horse's name tells a lot about the individual. Each registered name consists of three parts: the farm name, the sire's name, and the horse's individual name. Under a plan established in recent years, the latter must begin with a designated letter of the alphabet. For example, names will begin with "S" in 2006 and "T" in 2007.

Today's Canadians are a bit taller than their 17th century ancestors, standing 14-16 hands, with 15 hands being average. Despite being taller, they still possess the same original type. These sturdy animals weigh in at 1,000 to 1,400 pounds. Black is the most prevalent color, followed by seal brown, bay and chestnut. They are occasionally gray. White markings are minimal.

Breed characteristics include compact bodies, dense bone, and long, thick manes and tails that are often wavy. They may sport feathered legs, as well. They are well proportioned, deep in the heart girth, and have wide chests.

This Canadian horse displays the typical heavy mane and forelock.
This Canadian horse displays the typical heavy mane and forelock.

Canadians are making a great comeback, thanks to the dedication of a few breeders. Their docile temperaments and versatility add to their demand. They excel in driving, dressage and even jumping. They are ridden by the Montreal Mounted Police, and can be found at Colonial Williamsburg and historical sites in Canada, as well as in Civil War reenactments.

Canadian horses excel in driving
Canadian horses excel in driving


Their shows offer unique classes for Heritage Costume as well as the Iron Horse Class. In the latter, entrants must pull a stone boat, trot one half mile in harness, and negotiate an obstacle course under saddle...a veritable equine triathlon!

While there is no original finish Breyer model designated to the breed, a few could easily pass when doing breed assignments for your models. Good candidates include Adios, the Friesian/Gypsy Vanner; and the new Goffert Friesian. Just be sure your choice is an appropriate color. Customizers could also start with these molds or a number of others to create a stunning Canadian. Your model Canadian can participate in a variety of events, especially those mentioned above.

A cavalry outfit is a good choice for a Canadian horse.
A cavalry outfit is a good choice for a Canadian horse.


For more information on this breed, visit the Canadian Horse Breeders Association: