PEI

10 cool things to know about Canadian horses

We talked to two Canadian horse owners on P.E.I. to find out why this breed is so special.

The 'little iron horse' came to Canada 350 years ago as a gift from the king of France

Evelyn Lafortune with her Canadian horses, Molssen and Belle, on her farm in North Milton. (Submitted by Evelyn Lafortune)

Did you know Canada has its own breed of horse? 

The Canadian horse became our national horse in 2002, and because of dwindling numbers is now listed by Heritage Livestock Canada as "at risk," with numbers of new annual registrations of females between 151 and 500.

CBC talked to two Island Canadian horse owners to find out why they are so special — Evelyn Lafortune of North Milton, P.E.I., owns Molssen and Belle, and Orwell Corner Historic Village in Orwell Corner has Sean, Tartan and Urban — all, coincidentally, Molssen's offspring. The historic village is part of the provincial government's network of museums.  

1. They date back 450 years

Canadian horses descend from a shipload of horses sent to Canada in 1665 by King Louis XIV to his subjects in New France. They were likely a variety of breeds including Belgian, Percheron, Breton and Dales that mixed to become what became its own distinct breed, according to the Canadian Horse Breeders website. 

Dapples pop in summer on the sides of these two Canadian horses at Orwell Corner Historic Village. (Rick Dunphy)

Only the hardiest survived those first tough pioneering decades, leading to their nickname as the "little iron horse."

"As a museum, it's our responsibility to interpret it in as authentic a way as possible," said Jason MacNeil, site director for the historic village at Orwell Corner. Since the village interprets the P.E.I. of 1895, the Canadian horse is as historically authentic as it gets.   

2. The government used to raise them 

The federal government had a breeding program for Canadian horses in 1913 after mass exports to the United States led to a dangerous drop in numbers, says the Canadian Horse Breeders website. 

A student takes a turn learning to drive one of the Canadian horses at Orwell Corner. (Dale McIsaac)

The program ended in 1940 but the Quebec government took over and kept the program running until the 1960s. 

If everybody does a little bit then we can keep the breed going.— Evelyn Lafortune

Since then numbers have risen and fallen over the years — Lafortune puts their current number in Canada at about 6,000. 

Lafortune has been raising Canadian horses since 1999, and said she first heard about them on CBC Radio. 

"And then I researched it and thought 'Oh my God, how could I not know about this?'" She visited farms in Quebec and fell in love with the horses, bought and raised them and at one point had a herd of 12. 

3. They are tough

Canadian horses have extra-hard hooves that often don't even require horseshoes. 

They grow long, thick coats in winter so they don't need blankets, and can live outdoors with some shelter year-round. 

Like many heritage breeds, they don't get sick often — they have a robust immune system and are not prone to colic or founder, as many horses are. So, owners say they save big on veterinary bills! 

They are also long-lived, with a life span of 25 to 30 years. 

4. They are smart

Because they are intelligent, Canadian horses are easy to train and love to please.

Even though they are smart they are not high-strung and are very reliable — "bomb-proof" is the word horse owners use. 

Canadian horses are versatile and can be ridden and driven, says Lafortune. Here she is riding Molssen and driving Belle. (Submitted by Evelyn Lafortune)

Lafortune recalls when she was breaking Molssen to harness and she hadn't had much experience, she harnessed him to a cart improperly. 

"Another horse would have lost his mind and went running and probably would have hurt both him and myself," she recalled. "Molssen, you just tell him stop and he does. I can't tell you just how great that horse is."  

Their temperament makes them perfect around children and all the noises they encounter at the historic village, said MacNeil.

"They are calm and relaxed and in general don't spook very easily," he said. 

5. They are strong

Canadian horses can pull unusually large loads for their size, which made them ideal for hauling logs in the woods or large wagons loaded with people, grain or hay. 

Orwell Corner is planning to breed Tartan the mare soon so they can perpetuate the Canadian breed. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)

Not only that, they love to have a job to do, and will get bored if given too much free time. 

They also have incredible stamina and can work at a steady pace for many hours. 

"They can go all day long," said Lafortune. "They will work tirelessly," agrees MacNeil. "A great horse for a museum but also a great horse for Islanders in the past that needed a low-maintenance animal that would do the things they needed done." 

6. They are versatile 

Canadian horses can do anything — you can ride them, or they can haul a cart or sleigh. They can work in the woods hauling logs, do dressage or a course of jumps. They've even been known to pull hearses and work cattle.

They can look at a blade of grass and they'll get fat.— Evelyn Lafortune

"They just look beautiful pulling a carriage," Lafortune said. They are also used by several police forces, especially in Quebec, she said. 

Lafortune both rides and harnesses hers, while the three at Orwell pull cartloads of visitors as well as demonstrate all the farm's historic farm implements like plows. 

7. They don't eat much

Canadian horses are what are known in the horse world as "easy keepers." 

Tartan and Urban enjoy their work on the farm at Orwell Corner. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)

It's easy to keep them because they don't need to eat grain, just hay or grass — and not even a lot of that.  

"They can look at a blade of grass and they'll get fat. So they're very low maintenance," Lafortune said. 

8. Horses, not ponies 

Although many Canadian horses are smaller — what would be considered pony-sized — they are still to be called horses. 

They range between 14 and 16 "hands" high, or 1.4 and 1.6 metres. 

9. They are beautiful

With their long, wavy manes and glossy dark coats, Canadians take great glamour photos. And they are full of personality.

'They are calm and relaxed and in general don't spook very easily,' says Orwell Corner Historic Village's Jason MacNeil. (B. Simpson/Government of P.E.I.)

They mostly are dark colours like black, brown and bay.

"They're beautiful animals," said MacNeil. 

10. There will be foals

The Orwell museum is considering breeding its mare Tartan in the next few years to ensure the perpetuation of the breed and because visitors would enjoy seeing a foal. 

'Most people in Canada don't even know we have a horse called the Canadian,' says Lafortune. (Submitted by Evelyn Lafortune)

Lafortune has now bred her four-year-old mare Belle, who is due to foal in the spring. She then plans to breed the mare again. 

"I have no intentions of getting into being a big breeder again, I have no intentions of getting a stallion again, but what I will do is my little part," she said. "If everybody does a little bit then we can keep the breed going." 

Molssen is 16 and has been gelded now, but before Lafortune had him fixed she had a friend collect his semen with a mobile lab. It's now frozen for future use by a group of Canadian horse breeders in Quebec.

"Potentially, they could use Molssen's semen in 100 years," Lafortune said, noting he is of rare parentage and is "a fabulous horse, I could never say enough about that horse." 

Lafortune laments the breed's dwindling numbers. 

"It's such a shame. It's such a beautiful horse. Most people in Canada don't even know we have a horse called the Canadian."

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca

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