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Canada's National treasure and best kept secret
THE CANADIAN HORSE

courtesy of Sanda Saunders
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The legacy:

King Louis XIV gave New France a great gift when he sent his best horses across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1600’s.  These horses were likely of Norman, Breton, Arab, Spanish Barb and Andalusian descent.   The King wanted his horses to add panache to the new nobility and to the French Army, who was trying to defend a territory covering the whole of Canada, Western United States including the Mississippi valley.   The King’s horses not only managed to survive but thrived despite northern shelterless winters, eating straw and working ever so hard to help settle the new continent.   The horses adapted well and soon were breeding so successfully that a regulation was passed in New France restricting the number of horses settlers were allowed to own.   Luckily, this ordinance proved impossible to be enforced.  Until the British conquest of 1780, the horses were bred true without any outside influence of foreign horses.   From this carefully chosen herd a truly amazing breed called in French “Le Cheval Canadien” emerged and has managed to impress horsepersons in contact with them for over 350 years.  After the conquest, the breed was referred to outside of the French speaking community as the “French Canadian Horse”.   Recently the name has been changed to the "Canadian Horse" but still today, especially in rural communities, the old name sticks.  In April 2002 the Canadian government has officially recognized the Canadian Horse as Canada's national breed.  We can draw from the past to build the future.

The influence:

Americans traveling in the Canadian Province of Quebec were so impressed by the “Cheval Canadien” horse that they brought back subjects to New England to improve local stock. The improvements were so successful that exportations became dangerously high for the survival of the breed in its “pure” form.  Indeed exportation is beneficial if the horses will be bred as purebreds as well as partbreds.  Unfortunately, even though there were many “Cheval Canadien” horses in New England and Illinois as well as in Canada, there was no studbook anywhere to keep records.  So after several generations, in the areas outside of what is now the Province of Quebec, the “Cheval Canadien” blood filtered away in “the traditional American Melting Pot” fashion.  The impact and legacy of the “Cheval Canadien” blood was remarkable though.  The Canadian was used to form the Morgan, the American Saddlebred, the Standardbred, The Misouri Fox Trotter and the Tennessee Walker breeds.   Wars also have taken their toll on the number of horses as the endurance, versatility, disposition, intelligence, and hardiness of the “Cheval Canadien” horse made him an exceptional war mount (driven and ridden).   Louis XIV would have agreed with that!

The danger:

The popularity of the breed was expanding so much so, that in an effort to protect the breed, a law was passed forbidding the exportation of “French Canadian Horses”.  However, without a studbook or strong association, it was hard to effectively protect the breed.  Luckily, some concerned individuals did form a first studbook in 1885 and in 1895 the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was formed.   In 1907 the first studbook was closed and a new one was formed through strict inspections of the breeding stock.  In 1909 the second studbook was closed to unregistered horses and the government became involved in the preservation of the breed by administrating breeding programs until 1979. The closure of the governmental programs, the effect of mechanization and the lack of promotional initiative were some of the contributing factors in the decline in numbers of registered stock.   At the lowest point between 1970 and 1974 the numbers had dropped from 150 000 in the 1850’s to only about 400 purebred horses.   Shortly thereafter alarmed “Cheval Canadien” enthusiasts aggressively started to promote the breed in the Canadian Provinces of Quebec and Ontario.  In the 1980’s horsemen in Alberta and British Columbia discovered that the Canadian’s aptitudes and characteristics make him the ultimate mountain horse.  The reputation of the “Cheval Canadien” horse was proven once again true.   Unfortunately Americans are only just rediscovering the breed that their forefathers appreciated and who had such an impact on so many American breeds.    All this welcomed renewed interest has enabled the status of the Canadian Horse breed to be moved from "Critical" to "Rare" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This time however we have to ensure the “Cheval Canadien” breed is propagated and not just used to improve or create new breeds.

The breed is desirable and worth saving for many reasons:

Genetic research has shown the “Cheval Canadien” to be genetically distinct from all other popular racing and riding breeds in existence today.    Three centuries of natural selection in the most adverse conditions have produced low maintenance horses, that are strong and sturdy, who live a productive life well into their twenties (both performance and reproduction).   Demuy Coco Loulou 4247 owned by Emilien Mainguy is an example, at 23 she is not only feeding her own foal but she has also adopted an orphaned Thoroughbred foal.   “That old gal has done that a few times and still she manages to keep her 12 year old looks and good health!” says her owner. The temperament of the breed is renown for its gentleness.  Riders generally learn and improve faster because the horse is easy to ride.   The   “Cheval Canadien” Horse has the reputation of offering very little resistance to human handling.   His athletic ability, stunning looks (described by many as a mix between the Warmblood, Friesian and Andalusian), conformation and bone structure combined with their trainability make them suitable for just about any discipline.    

An example of this wonderful versatility is Tonerre a 15hh purebred stallion.   He won the “Jeux Du Quebec” (Quebec Games) which are the equivalent to State Junior Championships in jumping while doing farm work on his time off   (he often gets hitched as a team with an other stallion!).   His part owner and rider Louis-Philippe Racette says that even though he competes against 16 and 17 hands high horses, his 15 hands high horse is so powerful and fast when he needs to be that he makes up for the lack of stride and size.  “Thanks to his remarkable agility we also make up time by taking sharp turns.  This is harder for the taller horses to do.”  He also adds: “Other reasons why my horse is a good jumper are that I can come to the obstacle fast and know that if I don’t get there at the right take off point I can count on Tonerre to take off from further away and he will make it.  His quiet nature enables me to open him up in between jumps and slow him right down at the last minute without him getting upset.    That’s an advantage!”    Louis Phillip's sister Andree-Anne Racette is also enjoying success over fences with her Canadian gelding Nougat.  She won the 2001 regional championships.  Louis-Phillip’s mother, a life long coach and trainer pointed out that all Canadians she has ever dealt with enjoyed working over fences “They have a knack for it!” she says. 

The Cheval Canadien’s reputation in the driving world is legendary.  Sue Mott and her purebred gelding Caesar captured the admiration of driving enthusiasts by winning the advanced singles of the 2000 Jaguar Combined Driving Triple Crown as well as other events. “One of the things that give my horse the extra edge is his power and the controllability of it.   I can open him up when I need it then suddenly pull him up and he will cool right down and carry on steadily.  He does not get wound up.  If we get in trouble in a hazard, he does not get upset or panic.   That enables us to work together and get out of trouble.  He is very muscular yet endurant and elegant enough for the dressage ring.” She was impressed by the speed at which he got back into shape after an 8 months complete rest.  “It was like if he was only a month off”.    She finds her horse exhibits typical characteristics of the breed.    Watch for her at the World Championships!  Francois Bergeron and his purebred mare Rosie had their moment of glory during the 1998 Canadian Carriage Driving Classic when they won the “Single Horse On Runabout Carriage Championship” and the Reserve Champion Single Horse On Road Cart” title in 2000.  Mr Bergeron enjoys success with his mare in “Pleasure Driving Shows” as well as “Combined Driving Events”.   Let's not forget about Paul Bienvenue who went to the World Championships in Riesenback, Germany with a team and came back with a first place in the presentation class.  These are just some of the success stories.  Canadian horses are now also building a reputation in the endurance, dressage, eventing and fox hunting worlds because of their wonderful movement and calm personality.   Canadians are found in all the western disciplines as well and have proven to be quite agile with cattle. 

Characteristics:

Although there has been a new trend towards breeding taller more refined sport horse type, the traditional “Cheval Canadien” should stand between 14.2 and 16hh weighing 1050 to 1350 lbs. The head is broad and courageous with an, open forehead, ears wide apart, full arched neck, and a stout frame.   He exhibits a proud and courageous demeanour. His breast is full and broad; his shoulder strong (even rather upright and somewhat inclined to be heavy), his back broad and rather long than short with sides inclined to flatness.  His is croup round, fleshy and muscular with quarters short and somewhat drooping, the muscles well let down and the tendons large. His legs and feet are admirable; the bone large and flat, and the sinews big, and nervous as steel springs, the feet tough and almost immune from disease. His fetlocks are shaggy, his mane voluminous and massive often falling on both sides of his neck, and his tail abundant. Both main and tail are often wavy.   The Canadian Horse is mostly black with some bays and chestnuts more common in certain bloodlines.   Two kinds of movement have been produced: a higher knee action desirable by many driving or parade enthusiasts (unfortunately not inclined to maintain great speed for any length of time) and a longer stretched out smoother movement more suited for riding.  The later having been appreciated by many dressage enthusiasts who often compare the Canadian’s movement to a mix between European Warmbloods and Andalusians.  The same comment is often used to describe the unique “Cheval Canadien’s” looks although the Friesian is also added in the mix.   But remember: different bloodlines have slightly different characteristics.

How should we ensure the survival of the breed?

His hardiness, his ability to thrive under the most adverse conditions and the fact that he is exceptionally strong for his size, have earned him the nickname of “Little Iron Horse”.  But as tough as the breed is, it needs the help of dedicated owners, breeders and enthusiasts to ensure its survival in its pure form and also in its traditional form.  As mentioned earlier, the new trend towards the sport horse use of the Canadian to satisfy the astonishing revived American interest should not take over the traditional characteristics of the breed.   Especially when traditional smaller horses routinely outdo the big guys!   The athletic ability of the Canadian proves the old saying that “size doesn’t matter”.    A second point to take into consideration is that even though the traditional Canadian is generally shorter in stature than the average show ring sport horses in use today, a “Cheval Canadien” Horse tends to look bigger and is able to carry a larger rider than his height would suggest due to his substantial body and bone size.  The traditional “looks” that make the Canadian so unique also need to be conserved.   We need to learn from many breeds that got caught-up in the halter class emphasis when breeding horses that a breed’s characteristics can dangerously change according to fashion trends.  If this happens the new aesthetic attributes might change performance ability or other prized characteristics of the breed.  Ethically breeders should not try to produce 17hh Canadians as too many consequences come in to play.    The right thing to do is to promote the breed for what it is so that it will be kept intact.   If breeders really need 17hh horses for those customers who don’t believe the fact that most 15 to 16hh Canadians can do the same job, then crossbreed!   An interesting fact is that, although generally small himself in stature, he has proven to have the unusual quality of breeding up in size with larger and loftier mares than himself, and to give the foals his own vigour, trainability and iron constitution, with the frame and general aspect of their dams.

For more information you can contact the author at cheval@nrtco.net

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