The Canadian Horse

In the same year the Canadian Horse celebrates its 350th anniversary, the breed also finds itself listed as critical by The Livestock Conservancy. Find out why this horse is worth saving, and how to help.

I adore my little Canadian mare, and so does pretty much everyone else who comes into contact with her. She is a very sturdy, low-maintenance horse, whose athleticism and level-headedness make her adaptable for many riders, from children to experienced adults. So I was quite shocked earlier this year when I learned that the Canadian Horse breed has been declared critical by The Livestock Conservancy in the same year that it celebrates its 350th anniversary. For a breed to be listed as critical it must have an estimated global population of less than 2,000, and fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States.

A long ride to discovery

Rick Blackburn, a documentary producer and owner of three Canadian Horses who has been a big champion for the breed, has similar views. “I found it ironic that although the Canadian was officially recognized as Québec’s Heritage Breed in 1998, and Canada’s National Horse in 2002, in recognition of its vital role in the economic and social development of North America, it was listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Conservancy,” he says. The discovery prompted Rick to do some research, leading him to Dr. Gus Cothran, head of the Equine Genetics Laboratory at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cothran was studying horse breeds in North America and their genealogy.

“I called [Dr. Cothran] to see if he could tell me where the Canadian fit in,” says Rick. “Gus informed me that he too was very interested in the Canadian’s genetic history, because preliminary testing by his lab indicated that the Canadian horse was likely the foundation stock to most American bred horses, and likely the true ancestor of the Morgan horse, but he needed more DNA samples to be sure. I earn my living producing documentaries for Canadian television, and this was a great Canadian story with international scope. Rick then rode his Canadian Horses 2,700 miles from Quebec to Texas (and documented the journey in the film The Legend of the Canadian Horse) to deliver the necessary DNA samples to Dr. Cothran, not only to aid with the study, but also in an effort to promote awareness of the breed and its temperament and durability. The resulting study (“Legend of the Canadian Horse: Genetic Diversity and Breed Origin”, Anas Khanshour, Rytis Juras, Rick Blackburn and E. Gus Cothran) did indeed show that the Canadian Horse is the foundation horse of North America.

A bit of history

The Canadian Horse has stayed true to its roots, which is why the horses have remained so hardy with the ability to do things such as cross-country treks. “When you understand the history, you realize how much the breed itself is a product of its environment,” explains Rick. “The original horses imported from France 350 years ago were immediately confronted with one of North America’s harshest climates – far different from continental Europe. Only the hardiest survived and their descendants were much smaller due to the lack of natural forage and harvested grain.”

“This breed enabled the habitants of New France to not only stay, but survive here,” adds Tina Morrison, breeder and Ontario Director of the Canadian Horse Breeders Association. “They are also our forgotten war heroes. We have an entire country because of them.”

The breed itself is often referred to as a compact Draft, and it was interesting to learn how the breed originated in France. “It is not truly possible to establish exactly what breeds were the source of the Canadian horse but what we did see was that French Draft breeds such as the Breton and Percheron show close resemblance to the Canadian, indicating that something of this type was a major contributor to the origin,” says Dr. Cothran, who piloted the Texas A&M genetic study on the breed. “These breeds per se did not really exist as breeds and the ancestral forms were likely smaller than the modern animals.”

Preserving Canada’s national horse

It is more than just the rich heritage of the breed that makes it worth preserving, though. “The quality of its genetics alone make it worth preserving due to the Canadian’s prepotency and its ancestral ranking as the foundation bloodstock for most North American breeds,” says Rick. Many feel that these genetics could be useful towards improving shortcomings in some of our modern competitive breeds, caused by tunnel vision breeding.

So how can we go about bringing this amazing breed back from the brink of extinction? “Heritage breeds as critically threatened as the Canadian is can only realistically be saved through a coordinated preservationist-breeding program designed to increase the population to a realistically sustainable number,” continues Rick. “The numbers are currently too low to rely solely on market demand. Industry forces tend to specialize breeding, not diversify it. A heritage breed is always a cultural product, and needs to be considered part of a country’s social economy.”

“Also, getting our Canadian Horses out to all-breed shows will help,” adds Tina. “It’s fantastic that we have our own Futurities and Canadian Horse shows, but we as owners already know and love this breed. We need to show other horse lovers what the Canadian Horse is capable of!”

The Canadian Horse is worth preserving – not only because of its rich history and solid genetics, but also simply because they are great horses to own and ride. So if you are looking for your next dream horse, consider helping to preserve a piece of history!