The Canadian Horse / Le Cheval Canadien

Did you Know?

The Canadian’s legendary toughness earned him the nickname Petit Cheval de Fer, or “Little Iron Horse.” 

The Cheval Canadien was declared the “National Horse of Canada,” in April 2002.

The Canadian Horse is the oldest horse breed in North America.

Canadians are smart, naturally curious, and versatile. They are known to be easy keepers with great feet.

The Canadian is foundation stock for the Morgan, Standardbred, and other popular horse breeds. 

A Brief History

In 1665, The King of France, Louis the 14th, sent the first of several shipments of horses, approximately 80 in total, to Canada. Intended as gifts to nobles and clergy, they were among the best from his stables. In them, the blood of royal horses combined with France’s working breeds. They were elegant and brave, but also rugged enough to survive in a challenging environment. For the next two centuries, these horses bred prolifically with no influence from any outside breeds. The result is a genetically unique breed of horse and one of just three to originate in Canada.

The Canadian Horse, or Le Cheval Canadien, may have had royal blood, but he quickly became a horse of the people. His compact, muscular body, thick winter coat, rock-hard feet, and willing attitude served him well. He could outwork much bigger horses, pull a sleigh 60 or even 80 miles in a day over snow and ice, and live on “almost anything, or almost nothing.”  

The Canadian Horse’s Baroque ancestry shows in his powerful build and aptitude for collected movements, making him well suited to classical dressage. The same surefootedness and confidence that make Canadians great horses in the bush and mountains, also make them natural jumpers. Whether it’s competing in the dressage ring or cross-country course, marching in a parade, or leading a trail ride Canadian Horses enjoy going to new places and doing new things. They are intensely curious and want to investigate everything. It’s said that “If you’re out mending fence, the Canadian Horse will be handing you the tools.”

Although King Louis only sent a small number of horses, by the mid 1800s there were approximately 150,000 Canadians. Unfortunately, being brave, sure-footed, tough, and “easy-keepers,” huge numbers were sent south to fight in the U.S. Civil War, never to return. Americans also took many high quality Canadian stallions south to improve their own breeds; some even ended up in the West Indies to work the sugar plantations. Exported for war, work, and crossbreeding, huge numbers of these horses were lost to the breed forever.

With numbers in decline, at the end of the 1800s, inspections were held and the Canadian Horse became one of only seven breeds in Canada to receive federal recognition. The government also provided the Canadian Horse Breeders with a 20 year lease on a breeding farm in Cap Rouge, QC for a centralized conservation program. Despite this support, by the 1970s only 400, or so, horses remained. The “Little Iron Horse” – the oldest horse breed in North America – was rare even in his native land and was hovering on the brink of extinction. On April 23, 2002, the Cheval Canadien was officially declared the “National Horse of Canada,” finally giving him the recognition he so richly deserves.

While the Canadian has been making a comeback, he’s not out of the woods yet. According to recent information, there remain only 5,000 – 6,000 horses (compare that to, as one example, 5 million quarter horses). Breeding stock, however, is likely closer to 1,500 and the number of new Canadian Horse registrations has dropped to less than 200 per year, for several years now. This has put the breed “Critical” status once again.  

This brief history was written by Ken Morris, with contributions by Roxanne Salinas. Our sincere thanks to them both for allowing us to use this on our website.