The Canadian horse (Cheval Canadien) is a heritage breed of equine from Quebec, and is the official National horse of Canada. Also known as the Little Iron Horse for their small stature and robust constitution, these horses are popular recreational mounts in Canada and the United States.

Canadian horses were among the first equine breeds to populate North America. These horses appear in the bloodlines of many famous American breeds and helped shape the development of the Morgan horse.

At the height of its popularity, the breed had several subtypes. However, modern Canadian breeding programs prioritize producing healthy, versatile animals.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Canadian horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Canadian horses.

Canadian Horse History

Canadian horses date back to early colonial times in Quebec, a French-speaking province in eastern Canada. Throughout the last three and half centuries, these horses influenced Canadian and American history on both sides of the border.

Origin

This breed descends from French horses sent to Canada in 1665 by King Louis XIV. The initial shipment included twenty mares and two stallions from the French Royal stables. Additional imports continued until the 1670s to establish a breeding population in the colonies.

Not all horses survived the trip across the Atlantic. Horses also had to endure harsh environmental conditions in Colonial Quebec. Generations of horses were bred in isolation, producing a type unique to the new Canadian breed.

Historians once believed the founding stock for Canadian horses included Arabians, Barbs, and Andalusians. However, genetic studies reveal no evidence of a relationship between Canadian horses and Iberian or Oriental breeds. [1]

Instead, research suggests Canadian horses share ancestry with Dales ponies, Percherons, and Belgian drafts. Shire and Clydesdale horses possibly influenced the breed later in its development. [2]

Historic Use

The crown leased horses to colonial farmers, nobility, and clergy in exchange for producing foals that the government could rent to other settler with similar breeding contracts. As a result, over the course of a century the population of Canadian horses grew to 30,000 animals from a foundation herd of less than 100. [1]

Without oxen to plow the forested terrain, colonial farms relied on horses for farm work and land clearing. Only the most robust individuals could endure the heavy demands.

The French Canadian horse first emerged as a distinct breed in the St. Lawrence Valley. After the British conquered New France in the 18th century, demand for the breed exploded, and exports to New England began. [3]

The breed was a popular stagecoach and cavalry horse on both sides of the border. French Canadian horses carried Northern soldiers on the battlefield in the American Civil War of the 19th century, where thousands died.

At the same time, English settlers in Quebec crossed Canadian horses with imported draft breeds to increase the size of local horses.

Breed Registry

The Canadian horse population sharply declined in the 1700s and 1800s, but organized efforts for their preservation ultimately saved the breed.

The Canadian Horse Breeders Association (CHBA) was founded in 1895 as a subgroup of the General Breeders Society of Quebec. Federal and provincial government support for the breed commenced in the early 20th century in coordination with the CHBA.

Quebec’s National Assembly declared the Canadian horse a heritage breed in 1999. In 2002, the federal government recognized the Canadian horse as the national horse of Canada. Although numbers rebounded in modern times, the Canadian breed is still at risk.

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Breed Characteristics

The breed characteristics of the Canadian horse reflect the history and environment of the region that shaped the breed. While modern Canadian horses can have slightly different types, all horses share some common traits.

Conformation

Canadian horses stand between 14 and 16 hands tall. These horses have compact shapes but are heavier than other horse breeds with similar heights. Some Canadians have a sportier type, while others have the more traditional, stockier build.

Their heads are harmonious and short, with broad foreheads, straight profiles, and small, wide-set ears. Large eyes give these horses a kind expression. This breed has long manes and tails with abundant hair.

They have arched necks, broad chests, and long, sloping shoulders to add strength and power. The breed’s back and loins are short, broad, and strong. Legs are straight with large, solid feet. This horse’s movement is free without excessive knee action.

Colours

All coat colours and white markings are acceptable in the breed.

Most Canadian horses are bay, black, or brown. Approximately 70% of horses registered with the CHBA have black coats.

Temperament

Most Canadian horses have docile temperaments. Their calm dispositions contribute to the breed’s rebounding popularity in modern times. Canadian owners find their horses are full of spirit without displaying nervous behaviour.

They often cope well with environments that cause spookiness in more sensitive breeds. These horses are also intelligent, social, and trainable. Canadian horses pick up new things quickly but can become bored with repetitive work.

While their excellent characters make them popular with riders of all levels, these intelligent horses can sometimes take advantage of inexperienced handlers without proper guidance.

Disciplines

With proper training, Canadian horses are ideal family horses. They are strong enough to carry adult riders, but their height is also suitable for children. Their athleticism and confident temperaments allow them to succeed in many disciplines.

Many Canadian horses are good jumpers. They are also popular low-level dressage mounts. Government breeding programs often showed their Canadian horses in both disciplines.

Other popular disciplines for Canadian horses include endurance, trail riding, western pleasure, and driving. Some Canadians are still used for farm and ranch work. This versatility reflects their history as the all-around breed of the Canadian colonies.

Canadian Horse Health

Canadian horses are a relatively healthy breed. These horses do not share the same genetic problems as other North American breeds. With good care and management, Canadian horses can lead exceptionally long, productive lives.

Genetic Diseases

There are no known genetic diseases common in Canadian horses. Studies comparing genetic variance in Canadian, British, and Nordic horse populations found that Canadian horses had higher genetic diversity than several domestic and foreign breeds. [4]

Although the original group of horses arriving in Canada contained under 30 individuals, the current Canadian horse population has very low inbreeding. [1]

Their good genetic diversity and low inbreeding indicate a promising future for maintaining a healthy population and preserving the Canadian breed. [5]

Health Problems

In past centuries, infectious diseases were a significant concern for working equines in Canada and the U.S. In the late 19th centuery, an outbreak of “Canadian horse disease,” a strain of equine influenza virus, halted the economy. Flu vaccines help protect horses today. [6]

Common problems affecting Canadian horses today are similar to those found in most modern horse breeds. Although they can live long lives, senior Canadian horses are still susceptible to health problems associated with old age, such as dental disease, osteoarthritis, and PPID. [7]

Canadian horses with competition careers have a higher risk of digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers, as well as musculoskeletal injuries associated with intense training schedules.

Research investigating metabolic disorders in Canadian horses is limited. However, studies show equine metabolic syndrome is highly heritable in Morgan horses. Because Canadians are closely related to Morgans, they may share a genetic predisposition to the condition. [8]

Care and Management

Canadian horses need quality basic care to stay healthy throughout their lives. Your horse’s care and management should consider their physical, mental and behavioural needs.

Work with your veterinarian and other equine health practitioners to develop a preventative wellness program that includes:

  • Veterinary Exams: Schedule regular veterinary appointments to identify and address health issues early.
  • Vaccinations: Follow a vaccination schedule recommended by your veterinarian to keep your horse safe from infectious diseases.
  • Dental Care: Regular dental check-ups and teeth floating performed by a qualified dental practitioner help support chewing and digestion. Older Canadian horses need more frequent dental exams as their risk of dental disease increases. Senior horses with poor dental health often require changes to their diet to maintain a healthy weight. [9]
  • Parasite Management: A comprehensive parasite control program can help to protect your horse from internal parasites.
  • Hoof Care: Regular farrier visits and hoof trimming can help to maintain hoof balance and keep your horse’s feet healthy. The breed has strong, solid hooves and often does well barefoot, but horses in heavier work may benefit from extra protection from shoes.

The thick manes and tails of Canadian horses can become tangled without regular grooming. These social horses bond closely with their owners and enjoy daily grooming sessions.

Canadian horses are hardy and can live outside in cold climates as long as they have access to shelter. If your horse lives inside, follow a daily turnout schedule that allows your Canadian free exercise and social interaction.

Canadian Horse Nutrition

Good nutrition is an essential part of your Canadian horse’s care and management program. All horses need a balanced diet to thrive, and some health problems in the breed require special consideration when developing feed programs.

Weight Maintenance

Canadian horses are easy keepers, which means these horses should easily maintain body condition on a balanced diet. This breed inherited an efficient metabolism from ancestors who had to survive harsh winter conditions in the Canadian colonies.

This also means that Canadian horses are prone to weight gain in domestic management settings when they are provided with energy-dense feeds. Canadian horses with equine metabolic syndrome are also prone to becoming overweight.

You can use body conditioning scoring to monitor changes in your horse’s weight and adjust their diet if necessary. A score of 5 on the 9-point Henneke scale is considered an ideal body condition.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 545 kg (1,200 lb) Canadian horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 127%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

Most Canadian horses do best on a forage-based diet. However, forage is commonly lacking in certain vitamins and minerals, which can result in nutrient deficiencies that impact your horse’s health. [13]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a vitamin and mineral supplement that can be added to your horse’s diet to balance forage- and grain-based feeding program. Omneity provide essential nutrients to support hoof health, metabolic function, the immune system and more. [11]

Furthermore, Omneity does not contain any added grains or sugars, making it an ideal supplement for easy keepers Canadians.

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Forage

The amount of forage your horse needs depends on their body weight and physiological state. Horses typically eat 2% of their body weight in feed and forage per day. An average 1,200 lb (545 kg) Canadian horse should eat approximately 24 lb (11 kg) of hay daily.

The best type of hay to provide your Canadian horse depends on their workload and health status. Mid-maturity or mature grass hay that is low in starch and sugar is a good option for most easy-keeper breeds.

Together the starch and sugar (ESC) content is known as the ‘hydrolyzable carbohydrates‘ (HC). These are the components that can trigger insulin release, unlike NSC which includes carbohydrates that have no impact on metabolism.

Canadian horses in heavy work can benefit from adding higher-calorie forage, such as alfalfa, to help meet energy and protein requirements.

However, some horses with metabolic syndrome become foot-sore on alfalfa. In that case, beet pulp or soya hull pellets are a safe choice.

While free-choice forage supports digestive health in horses, Canadian horses may gain too much weight with unrestricted access to hay. Hay restriction by rationing the hay may be necessary to support weight loss or help them maintain a healthy body condition. Slow feeders can help prolong access to hay and are especially useful when hay is rationed.

Full-time turnout on lush grass pastures may not be appropriate for Canadian horses with metabolic health concerns. Consider turning these horses out on a dry lot instead or using a grazing muzzles to reduce grass intake. [11]

Feeding Recommendations

Most Canadian horses don’t need commercial concentrates in their diet. High-starch, high-sugar grains can increase the risk of digestive upset and metabolic problems in this breed. [10]

Consider switching from a ration balancer to a concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement to reduce excess starch in the diet. Soaked hay pellets or beet pulp are excellent fibre-based alternatives to grain if you need a supplement carrier in your Canadian horse’s feeding program.

Beet pulp and forage cubes are often suitable options for senior horses with dental issues. If your horse is quidding, they may benefit from less hay in their diet. Consult with an equine nutritionist to formulate a diet that properly meets their needs while reducing the dietary concentration of long-stem fibres.

If your Canadian horse needs extra energy, consider feeding a fat supplement. Fats containing anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids provide additional health benefits for joint health, coat quality, and respiratory health. [12]

All Canadian horses need fresh water and salt available at all times. Our nutritionists recommend feeding 1-2 ounces of plain loose salt to provide enough sodium and encourage drinking.

Nutritional Supplements

When formulating a feeding program for your Canadian horse, the first priority is providing a balanced, forage-based diet that meets your horse’s energy, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements. After balancing the diet, you can consider adding supplements to support your horse’s unique needs.

  • w-3 Oil is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement that contains DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that supports immune function, joint health, and coat quality. W-3 Oil is also enriched with high levels of natural Vitamin E.
  • Optimum Digestive Health is a gut health supplement that supports hindgut function, nutrient absorption and the immune system. Canadian horses on a forage-restricted diet may benefit from this supplement to help maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
  • MSM is a natural supplement that supports the normal homeostatic regulation of inflammation in joints and muscles.

Submit your Canadian horse’s diet online for a free evaluation, and consult with our experienced equine nutritionists for help with formulating a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Khanshour, A. et al. The Legend of the Canadian Horse: Genetic Diversity and Breed Origin. J Heredity. 2014. View Summary
  2. Prystup, J.M. et al. Maternal Lineages in Native Canadian Equine Populations and Their Relationship to the Nordic and Mountain and Moorland Pony Breeds. J Heredity. 2012. View Summary
  3. Jones, R. The Old French-Canadian Horse: Its History in Canada and the United States. Canad Hist Rev. 1947.
  4. Prystupa, J. et al. Genetic diversity and admixture among Canadian, Mountain and Moorland and Nordic pony populations. Animal. 2011.View Summary
  5. Behara, A.M.P. Genetic diversity in Canadian horse breeds based on microsatellite analysis applications for livestock conservation. University of Guelph. 2000.
  6. Sack, A. et al. Equine Influenza Virus—A Neglected, Reemergent Disease Threat. Emerg Infect Dis. 2019.
  7. McGowan, C. Welfare of Aged Horses. Animals (Basel). 2011. View Summary
  8. Norton, E. et al. Heritability of metabolic traits associated with equine metabolic syndrome in Welsh ponies and Morgan horses. Equine Vet J. 2018. View Summary
  9. Nicholls, V. et al. Dental Disease in Aged Horses and Its Management. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2016. View Summary
  10. Cipriano-Salazar, M. et al. The Dietary Components and Feeding Management as Options to Offset Digestive Disturbances in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  11. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  12. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  13. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.