Horse racing on the Rideau Canal kickstarted first Winterlude

A special ice sculpture at this year's Winterlude pays tribute to the harness racing on the Rideau Canal that took place from 1979 until 1985.

Horses used special shoes to race on canal ice

In this archive photo horse can be seen racing on the Rideau Canal during the first Winterlude in 1979 (Courtesy Canadian Heritage )

At the first Winterlude in 1979, it was more than skaters and Beavertails out on the Rideau Canal.

Trotting horses raced up and down the ice in a competition people are remembering at this year's event.

A special ice sculpture at Winterlude pays tribute to the event that ran from 1979 until 1985 and featured quarter-mile horse races on the ice.

During the first Winterlude horses actually raced on the Rideau Canal. 1:21

Bill Galvin founded the Trotting on the Rideau harness races, and told CBC Radio's All in a Day that the event was a real spectacle.

"The atmosphere was electric. Tthe people, they lined the banks of the canal for a mile, three and four and five deep," he said. "It was exciting."

Bill Galvin founded the Trotting on the Rideau harness races, the first of which happened in 1979 at the inaugural Winterlude festival. This year Galvin arranged for an ice sculpture to commemorate those events. (Susan Burgess)

Galvin said that even a young Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took in the event.

"His father Pierre Trudeau, he brought his three sons down. And they all enjoyed it immensely," he recalled.

Galvin was active in the harness racing community and knew the history of harness racing both on the Ottawa River and the canal.

He said 1979 wasn't  even the first time horses were on the canal: Lt.-Col. John By, founder of the original settlement of Bytown, had organized races to celebrate the canal's opening.

"They came from all over North America to race on the canal, because of the very smooth surface," Galvin said.