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The Canadian Horse: Born to Drive
courtesy of Ken Morris, Director, Canadian Horse Heritage and Preservation Society in BC.

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It was the spring of 2004, and I was taking part in my very first combined driving event in Beavercreek, Oregon. I had walked the marathon course with my instructor, and had serious trepidation about it. Not only was this my first CDE, but it was also the first CDE for my young Canadian gelding, Jeff. The second half of the course ran through woods, winding up and down steep hills, between trees, rocks, stumps, and roots with very little clearance for the cart. To make matters worse, rain had turned the clay soil slick. I decided to play it safe and walk the worst parts. As it turned out, Jeff was not nearly as worried about the course as I was. We did get time penalties, but we finished without being eliminated and actually took 4th place in Training Single Horse. I told my driving instructor two things afterwards: (1) "If I had known how hard that course was going to be, I never would have done it!" and (2) "I couldn't have done this without a Canadian Horse!" Because a Canadian Horse is born to drive.

I was first introduced to the Canadian Horse, or Cheval Canadien, in the summer of 2001, in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. I had actually "discovered" the breed several years earlier, in a musty old book I picked up in an antique shop. The description, written by Henry William Herbert more than 150 years ago, sounded like just the horse I had been looking for—compact, robust, brave, and strong. His endurance and hardiness had earned him the nickname "Little Iron Horse." The Canadian Horse was an all-purpose animal, but best known for driving. He was the "horse of all work" for the small farmer; a smart, trappy, go-all-day roadster; and the fastest of them were harness racers. The stallion pictured at the front of the chapter, "St. Lawrence," was a famous trotter imported to the U.S. in the 1850s, and his blood still runs today in the Standardbred breed.

I assumed that the Canadian Horse must be extinct. Otherwise, why hadn't I heard of it? Several years later, I found out to my delight that the Canadian Horse, although it had come close to extinction in the 1970s, still survived and was making a comeback. Despite the breed's rarity, some Canadians were doing well in international level competition. François Bergeron's mare Bienvenue Héros Rosie was Singles Champion at the Canadian Carriage Driving Classic in 1998, and in 2000, Du Coteau Lalou Caesar had won the Advanced Singles at the Jaguar Combined Driving Triple Crown, at the precocious age of 7. They were even starting to make inroads in jumping: a 14.3 hand stallion named Tonnere had won the Quebec Junior Games championship against much larger horses. I wrote letters, made calls, and soon my visit to Canada was arranged.

I had a special reason for looking at Canadian Horses. One of my hobbies was historical reenacting, and for that I needed a horse that was brave, calm, and above all a "people horse," since we would be constantly interacting with a public that knew very little of horses. I also wanted a horse that matched one of the historical types found in the 19th century. My expectations were not only met, but exceeded, and to make a long story short, Jeff made the trip from Alberta to Oregon in the fall of 2001. As a three year old, he led a troop of cavalry, unperturbed by the thunder of cannon and the crackle of small arms. At the end of the season, a friend who had also purchased a pair of Canadians made a proposition. Since these Canadians were so calm and unflappable, why not train them to be artillery horses? Neither of us had driven horses before, but it seemed possible. We signed ourselves and our horses up for a year of driving training, and the following summer we were pulling cannons about on the battlefield.
Unlike me, Dennis Waller and Molly White of Ladysmith, British Columbia were already driving enthusiasts when they were first introduced to the Cheval Canadien. But for them, like me, it was love at first sight. Molly reminisced about the day she met her first Canadien, Calo Thomas Mary Lou, or Mary for short. "Mary's first owner drove her five miles down the road to our place in a little cart. She looked so pert, so intelligent, so strong—just beautiful!" Now they own not only Mary, but four other Canadiens and compete with them in both combined driving at the preliminary and intermediate levels, and competitive trail riding.

"They are very powerful horses," Dennis said. "You hear all these stories about them. One fellow I talked to at the Royal Winter Fair had a team of two Canadiens that he used for logging back during World War II. All the other loggers had these big Belgians. They laughed at him and asked him what he was going to do with those two dinky horses. Well, when his time came the Canadiens outpulled all of those big horses, a huge load. My Xerox is a skookum girl. One time we were driving through a hazard, and I asked her to give me a little more. Well, she pushed off with one hind foot and set me right back in the seat! I had to call out to the navigator to make sure he was still there!"

When I asked Dennis and Molly for their advice to the first time Canadian owner, they said, "Don't be in a hurry just to get them into a carriage. Do a lot of ground work, until you think you can't do another day of it. Drag a tire all over your property, over leaves, over gravel. Then when you go to the carriage, it's a non-event." When asked if the Canadian is a good horse for beginners, as some claim, Dennis said, "Some of them are, some are very tolerant of beginner mistakes. But they are smart, they think all the time, and will take over real fast. Our Glenfiddich has quite a sense of humor. He's like the naughty boy in school that bugs the girls and then looks for a reaction." Most likely, such humor would be lost on a beginner.

Breed Origins and History

The Canadian Horse has its roots in the France of King Louis XIV. He descends from 81 stallions and mares shipped to New France (now Québec) between 1665 and 1671. Although the color and sex of the horses were noted in the shipping records, their breeds or places of origin were not. But from studying writings of the period, one can make educated guesses about the breed's beginnings. In 1665, the National Stud was established in France. Louis XIV's minister, Colbert, was involved in both the improvement of French horses, and the shipments of horses to New France. The King's ecuyer, the Sieur de Solleysel, was a proponent of breeding carefully chosen "short-jointed" Barb and Spanish stallions to French mares. Of the many French breeds that existed at the time, we can surmise that those nearest the ports from which the ships sailed were the most likely candidates for shipment. Even the Friesian may have played a role. Solleysel's student Sir William Hopes wrote that breeding the Spanish stallion to a "well-chosen Dutch mare . . . will make an excellent Composition [cross] for the Manage." Hopes praised the "Dutch or Frison" horse, writing that "he is hardy, can live upon any Thing, and will indure either Heats or Colds." This hardiness may have been a reason to choose Dutch mares, or the similar breeds of Normandy and Brittany, to colonize New France.

One must also bear in mind that the original horses sent to New France were intended as riding mounts, for officers of the Carignan-Saliéres Regiment, for the nobility, and the clergy. As such, they must have been of high quality. They were most likely, a Baroque type horse, strong and muscular, with a well arched neck, but not too tall or heavy. Solleysel cautioned, "for the most part [tall and heavy horses] are not only the weakest horses, but commonly without spirit or vigor." The legs should not be too long relative to the horse's body: the ideal horse should have the same measurement from withers to elbow, as elbow to heel. The pasterns should be short and flexible; the feet excellent. Such a horse would be sturdy and very strong for its size; in other words, it was pre-adapted to be a good driving horse.

Over the next hundred years, the Canadian Horse was bred in virtual isolation, and it quickly went from being a horse of the nobility, to the people's horse. After the War of 1812, Americans "discovered" the Canadian Horse. Thousands were sent across the border, where they were immensely popular for crossbreeding, and contributed to the Morgan, Standardbred, and other American breeds. Thousands more were sent south during the U.S. Civil War, to supply Federal cavalry that was eating up horses at the rate of 500 per day. The drain on the breed was so severe that finally, in 1886, the first breed registry was established in Canada, and the exports were shut down. Americans forgot the "Little Iron Horse."

There always were, and still are, several types within the Canadian breed. Among the oldest and purest bloodlines, the Spanish, Barb, and old Norman-Breton influence can still be clearly seen. Later "tinkering" to produce lighter, faster horses, or conversely heavier, draftier ones, is also evident in today's Canadian. Some have fine, high trotting action, bending their knees roundly, while others, perhaps partaking more of their Barb ancestry, have a long and low trot. The average height has increased; a century ago it was rare to find a Canadian over 15 hands. Today many are in the 15-16 hand range—or even taller. Molly White worries about the trend towards increasing size in the breed, noting that the smaller Canadiens are often the most athletic. "I hope they don't ruin them like they have every other breed. The breed standard is 14-16 hands now. I hope they don't change that. But there's a movement to get rid of the lower end, the 14 hands. Nobody wants the smaller horses, everyone wants big."

But despite this trend, one can still find Canadians that fit the description historian Etienne Fallon wrote in the 1800s:

"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, following his road with finest instinct to come surely to his own stable."

But it is not looks, but temperament, which truly won me over to the breed, and many others who keep Canadian Horses agree. The breed varies in temperament, as it does in build. But the ideal Canadian should be kind, courageous, adaptable, and energetic. "I would use the term brave," says Molly White. "I think they are."

From my own experience riding and driving Canadians, I also found that they have a very distinctive temperamental trait. They can go from being calm and relaxed, standing with one leg cocked and eyes half-closed, to wide awake and "all systems go" at the driver's command; and then right back again the moment the work is done. These are horses with an "on-off switch." But once again this is merely the Canadian Horse showing his Baroque heritage. More than 350 years ago, Solleysel wrote that "There is a very great difference between a mettled horse and a fiery one . . . a fretting and fiery horse is good for nothing: A horse which is truly vigorous, should be calm and cool, ride patiently, and not discover his mettle, but when required." This was not only the Baroque ideal, but the ideal temperament of the Canadian Horse.

The "mettle" of the Canadian Horse was most clearly shown to me in 2005 by a little four-year-old Canadian stallion named Luca. I had driven this horse before; he was energetic, light in the bridle, and clearly loved his job. Luca's owner, Robert Shannon, was driving him in a demonstration at the Northwest Horse Fair in Albany. Riding horses were part of the demonstration too, and the stallion had to weave his way around jumps and other props. This was no big deal, since he was used to negotiating hazards. But then the saddle slipped on one of the riding horses, she dumped her rider, and went bucking around the arena with the saddle underneath her belly. Robert stopped Luca and I saw him wince as the bucking mare charged right towards him. The mare hit Luca broadside and lifted both him and the cart off the ground. Luca didn't move. The mare ran off and was caught. Luca simply waited for Robert's command, after which he carefully picked his way over toppled jumps and quietly exited the arena.

Talk to a few Canadian owners and you will hear stories equally amazing, and equally true. If you are looking for a horse that is rugged and brave, a friendly and willing partner in your own driving adventures, consider the Canadian!

Further Reading

Canadian Horse Heritage and Preservation Society
Based in British Columbia; dedicated to preserving the traditional Canadian Horse.

Canadian Horse Breeders' Association
Maintains breed registry and records, publishes quarterly magazine

Association Québécoise du Cheval Canadien
Quebec district of Canadian Horse breeders. Emphasis on breeding and preserving the traditional Canadian "type".

Cherry Creek Canadians
Standing Ranch Lac G Fanfaron Zipper, South Forty Prince Fonzie, and Cherry Creek Fonzie Merit. Great information about the breed and bloodlines; if you are thinking about buying a Canadian Horse, consult this website!

Legacy Canadians
Standing Swallowfield Eno Kelbeck. Excellent, well researched history of the breed.

Ferme Mober
Standing Mober Héros Eloi. Home of champion driving mares, Bienvenue Héros Rosie and Mober Héros Cel-Kim, owned and driven by François Bergeron and Monique Dandurand. Offering driving instruction and clinics.


This article was provided courtesy of Ken Morris.

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