The Tragic Tale of the Canadian Horse

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It’s been called “The Horse of Steel” and “The Little Iron Horse.” It’s a distinctly Canadian breed, with roots stretching back more than 300 years to the early French-Canadian pioneers. It had to be a rugged breed to survive the rigours of the Canadian climate ­— and in the centuries since, that toughness has served it well: the Canadian Horse has plowed fields, hauled wood, and even fought on the frontlines in times of war. But as strong as it is, the Canadian Horse has barely survived: more than once, the National Horse of Canada has nearly gone extinct. And today, it’s still in danger.

The story of the Canadian Horse begins in the summer of 1665. That’s when the first horses arrived in Canada. They were sent straight from the Royal Stables of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, the longest-reigning monarch in European history, the ruler who turned Versailles into one of the world’s great palaces.

King Louis was determined to solidify his empire in Canada. His subjects in New France had been fighting a series of conflicts for decades, struggling for control of the fur trade. The Beaver Wars soaked the eastern half of the continent in blood as the French and their Wendat allies clashed with the British and the Haudenosaunee. So, Louis decided to send reinforcements. More than a thousand soldiers were sent across the ocean, along with hundreds of filles du roi — single women meant to be married off in an effort to increase the population. And along with the human beings, King Louis sent some equine reinforcements as well.

There were 22 horses in the first shipment: two stallions and twenty mares. But the months-long journey across the Atlantic was brutal. By the time they reached New France, eight of the mares had died. Only fourteen horses survived. But that was enough to get started. And over the next few years, they were joined by two more shipments. Those few dozen horses were leased to farmers and religious orders, helping to build the foundations of the nation that would one day become Canada.

The new arrivals included a mix of breeds, but only the strongest survived life on the Canadian frontier. And as they began to interbreed, they coalesced into a distinct new breed.

The Canadian Horse was born.

It was small, but strong and sturdy. Agile, with a graceful, arched neck and a high, broad head. Its coat was dark, with a waving mane and tail. They were said to be proud and courageous, exceptionally calm, with a brave heart. They were sure-footed, with a flashy trot, and good jumpers. They were versatile and easy to take care of. And maybe most important of all: they were fertile.

Their numbers quickly skyrocketed. By the end of the 1600s, there were more than seven hundred Canadian horses. A few decades later, when the Battle of the Plains of Abraham led to the British conquest of Quebec, there were fourteen thousand of them.

That number was still rising rapidly, but in the British conquest, the seeds of the breed’s near destruction were sown.

It had already started. As they waged war on the French in Canada, the British turned on some of their own citizens. The Acadians were the descendants of French settlers who lived in the British colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In one of the most disturbing chapters of Canadian history, the British ordered them deported. The Great Expulsion lasted more than a decade as thousands of Acadians were driven from Canada. Property was seized, homes burned, families forced off their land and imprisoned or sent into exile. Their livestock was killed or seized, too — including their Canadian Horses.

You can still find some of the descendants of those confiscated Acadian horses today. A few were taken to a tiny strip of sand far off the south-east coast of Nova Scotia. Sable Island is now a national nature reserve, famous for the herd of wild horses that thunders across its beaches.

And those weren’t the only Canadian Horses to find themselves far from home. Now that France and Britain were no longer at war, the horses began to spread south as they were traded to the American colonies. There, they played an important role in the development of the United States. They pulled stagecoaches across the continent. Hauled freight. Even Benedict Arnold got into the business, heading up to Montreal in the winters, leading Canadian Horses back across the ice of Lake Champlain.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Canadian Horses found themselves in the heat of battle — and it was far from the only time. During the American Civil War, as many as thirty thousand Canadian Horses were used by the Union Army as cavalry mounts and to pull artillery. As the historian Fran Lynghaug puts it, “The Canadian Horse played a major role in the history of that war; it has even been said that the North won simply on the fact that its soldiers had the better horse — the Canadian." But the breed paid a heavy toll for that contribution to the fight against slavery. Thousands upon thousands of Canadian Horses were killed.

The massacre helped to nearly wipe out the breed — as did its popularity for less dangerous work in the United States. So many of the horses had been exported out of Canada and mixed with other breeds — and so many lay dead on battlefields — that their numbers were suddenly plummeting. By the 1880s, the Canadian Horse was nearly extinct.

That’s when the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was founded with a mission to save the breed. Quebec banned the export of Canadian Horses entirely. And soon, the federal government started an official breeding program. The Canadian Horse was saved. But barely. In 1970, there were only four hundred left — of a breed that once boasted more than 150,000.

Today, the Canadian Horse is still listed as “threatened.” And although it has officially been recognized as a national symbol of Canada, most Canadians don’t know the story of the horse that helped build this nation. The Canadian Horse, as Lynghaug puts it, “is a 340 year-old secret.” They are a living, breathing connection to the history of our country — one very much worth saving.