The Canadian Horse: le Petit Cheval de Fer


Canadian Horse

The Canadian Horse – 24 X 30 collage, gold leaf, on cradled wooden panel

In the summer of 1665, King Louis XIV of France began to send shipments of horses to the colony of New France, a territory now known as the Saint Lawrence Valley of Québec. Approximately eighty-two horses crossed the Atlantic between 1665 and 1671. The exact breeds of these horses are not known. We do know that the shipments included a mix of both light and draft breeds, at least some of which originated from the Royal Stables in Normandy, then the centre of horse breeding in France. A lover of fine horses, King Louis did not skimp.



Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first horses were leased by The French Crown to noblemen, military officers, and religious orders through notarized contracts which stipulated the conditions under which the animals were to be maintained and bred. Breach of contract had serious legal repercussions. These horses were working animals of great value, not just nags to pull the plow.

The goal was to create a self-sustaining horse population as rapidly as possible to meet the needs of the colonists in what was, by European standards, a harsh and frequently unforgiving land. Through the breeding program established by The French Crown, the French colonists developed a small, compact, well muscled horse which was strong and agile, had a steady temperament, and could survive cold winters on a scarcity of forage.



Evry at the trot (H. Vachon, owner)

“For almost one hundred years, the horses multiplied in a closed environment without the benefit of other blood lines. Their common source, lack of cross breeding, and their rapid reproduction created a particular genetic group giving rise to a unique breed: the Canadian horse.” (Société des éleveurs de chevaux canadiens)

And this is how The Little Iron Horse – le petit cheval de fer – was born.

From 1760 onward, following the English conquest of New France, many of these tough, all-purpose Canadian horses were shipped from the Saint Lawrence Valley to the American colonies and beyond. When crossed with British, and later American horses, the genetics of the Canadian Horse contributed to the foundation of other breeds such as the Morgan and the Standardbred.

The Canadian’s calm temperament and physical endurance made it an ideal horse for the battlefield. Thirty thousand Canadian horses were exported to supply the Union Army during the American Civil War. Thousands more died on the battle fields of Europe in the First World War.


Canadian royal horse

The massive exportation of Canadian horses in the nineteenth century, crossing with other breeds, losses on the battlefield, and the mechanization of agriculture led to the near extinction of the Canadian. The number of Canadian horses fell to as few as four hundred worldwide as recently as the 1970’s.

While the Canadian Horse has rebounded somewhat in recent years, most conservation groups continue to list it as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, with estimates of five thousand pure bred Canadians currently in existence.



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