The Things We Left Behind

Today, I’ll tell you about one of the things King Louis XIV of France left behind. Horses or more specifically, the origins of the Canadian Horse Breed.

According to Norse sagas, the first horses to set hooves on Canadian soil were small and sturdy horses that came with Erik Thorvaldsson (Eiríkr Þorvaldsson) and his men in 1000 AD. They landed in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Vikings called those Vinland and Marksland.

Several centuries later, history is undecided.

On one hand, the folklore has it Baron de Lery and Saint-Just survived a shipwreck and landed on Sable Island, Nova Scotia in 1518 with horses. They supposedly left when winter hit the land.

On the other hand, The Natural Museum of Nova Scotia says the wild horses from Sable Island are the result of a shipment of 60 horses sent by Boston merchant and shipowner Thomas Hancock back in 1760.

While the Nova Scotia situation is unclear. King Louis XIV of France truly sent a shipment of 2 stallions and 20 mares to New France for French settlers around 1665.

It is said Norman/Perche and Breton Horse Breeds were selected for Royal stocks for breeding once in the colony.

But as you can imagine, horses and boats don’t go well together. None of them survived. Up until 1670, horses were sent continuously to New France.

The first record of breeding goes back to 1679 where 145 horses were born in New France. By the end of the 17th century, a bit more than 600 horses were recorded.

They were called the French-Canadian horses.

For a hundred years, farmers bred their horses without any purpose other than having sturdy horses for transport and some light labor. Heavy labor was done by oxen. The weaker ones were left to themselves and eventually became wild horses.

Some years before the British conquest of 1780, the distribution of horses in New France territory started to broaden. Mostly between Montreal, Detroit and Chicago.  As a result, we can say the general built and personality evolved slightly from its prototype.

After the British Empire ceded Detroit and Chicago to the US, the French-Canadian mixed with breeds from the British Isles and with Michigan, Illinois and Vermont in the US. Justin Morgan, an American schoolteacher living in Randolph, Vermont, used to travel between Vermont and Quebec. He acquired in 1791 a mixed breed stallion called Figure. With French-Canadian mares, Figure sired what we call now the Morgan breed.

While the French-Canadian helped creating the first breed of horse to survive  to the present, the British tried other mixes like the Narragansett Pacer and the French-Canadian. The Narragansett Pacer were known for their speed and were mixed with English and Spanish Saddlebred horses. Together, they created the Canadian Pacer. Extinct today, this breed was known for racing on ice. They also created the St Laurent/Frencher, a mix of a French-Canadian and a Thoroughbred. The Canadian Heavy Draft was with a Shire. All those variants of the French-Canadian are extinct to this day.

Things starts to get serious during the war of 1812 happening in Lower and Upper Canada opposing the British Empire to the United States. There is approximately 18,000 French-Canadian horses. Needed in the war, they are bred for battle instead of transportation. So far, the French-Canadian was interbred to “keep it pure”, now it’s mixed with unknown horse breeds to “make it strong”. The goals are to keep the sturdiness of the breed while improving it to create disease-free horses.

Even with this massive crossbreeding, you could still spot horses sired by Canadian stallions.

English novelist, Henry. W. Herbert said about the Canadian horse:

“The Canadian is generally low-sized, rarely exceeding fifteen hands, and oftener falling short of it… His characteristics are a broad, open forehead, ears somewhat wide apart, and not infrequently, a basin face; the latter, perhaps, a trace of the far remote Spanish blood said to exist in his veins; the origin of the improved Norman or Percheron stock being, it is usually believed, a cross of the Spaniard, Barb by descent, with the old Norman war-horse.”

English inventor, William Evans commented that Canadians would “never possess a better or more suitable breed of horses for this country than the real Canadian of good size“.

The crazy crossbreeding stopped around the Confederation Act in 1867 in fear of losing the breed particularities. In 1886, the Quebec government created a French-Canadian Stud Book and a Commission. It was formally opened in late 1886 with Dr Joseph Alphonse Couture, a renown Montreal veterinarian, appointed as Head of Commission.

In 1895, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association/Société des Éleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens  is created and takes over the Commission. The work of inspection of the horses is inaugurated.

Between 1895 and 1907, the work of inspection is somewhat losing its purpose and accept lower standards. Also a few amalgams between the Canadian Horse Breeders Association and Canadian National Livestock Records are made.

In 1907, a new Stud Book appears with higher standards for the breed.

“Stallions not exceeding 15.3 hh, and weighing 1100 – 1350 lb. Mares not exceeding 15.2hh, and weighing 1050 – 1250 lb. The head is broad and courageous looking, perhaps somewhat coarse, with the ears far apart, the neck thick, the frame stout, the breast full, the shoulders strong, even rather upright, the back rather long than short and sides inclined to flatness, the croup rather round or fleshy with quarters short and somewhat drooping, the muscles well let down and the tendons large, the feet tough and almost immune from disease. The French Canadian Horse is of no fixed color and although a good mover with high and perhaps rather forced action, is not inclined to maintain great speed for any length of time although there have been, and are some remarkable exceptions to this rule. His hardiness and ability to thrive under the most adverse conditions were notable characteristics.”

Even though, the French-Canadian Horse has become the Canadian Horse in name. To this day, the majority of certified breeders are still in Quebec and Ontario. Detroit and Boston have certified breeders outside Canada.

To finish, the Canadian Horse was also sent to the West to help Canadians settle. As you can read Grant MacEwan’s praises of the Canadian Horse as he recalls childhood memories. From the book Heavy Horses, Highlights of their History published in 1996.

“…from boyhood years a carload of eastern Canadian farm horses being shipped to Saskatchewan for sale. In it was one black Canadian mare. The freight car was derailed close to the town and with the car lying on its side, there seemed to be no way by which the struggling horses could be removed. But an attendant who hoped to throw some hay to the imprisoned and frightened animals, climbed to the car’s side that had become the top as it rested in the railroad ditch. He managed to get the only exposed door open, the one at the top. Inasmuch as freight cars were eight feet wide, the open door at the top would be eight feet above the level on which the trapped horses were standing. Nobody knew how it was done but as soon as the car door was opened, one horse scrambled madly – conceivably using the other horses as stepping stones – and jumped out, through the roof as it were. It was the French Canadian horse, to be sure, and the courageous and nigh miraculous performance left a lasting impression. […] I remember very well how at the end of a thirty-mile ride from the east side of Saskatoon to Beaver Creek and back, he was tired and sore while his mount, “Frenchie” as he was known, seemed ready to start out again.”

From the things British and French left behind, Canada was born.

Happy 150th Canada!


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