The first ones were given to religious orders and to gentlemen who had an avid interest in agriculture (although they remained the property of the king for three years). A notarized contract obliged the new owners to breed the animals, maintain them, and return a foal after three years to the Attendant. This foal was then entrusted to someone else who was then bound by the same conditions of care and reproduction. In case of breach of contract, there were provisions for fines of one hundred pounds. This much regimented breeding system allowed for their rapid development in the French colony. The horses thrived despite low comfort, hard work, bad roads, and eventually developed the nicknames “the little iron horse” and “the horse of steel”.
From 1665 to 1793, the horse population in New France grew from 12 animals to 14,000 animals. To the end of the French regime in 1760, the horses sent from France are the only ones to be developed in the colony. Contact with the English to the South was forbidden because England and France were at war. The topography of the Appalachian Mountains was also a formidable obstacle to outside communication. At that time there were no roads and the only means of long distance travel was by foot or by canoe. For almost one hundred years, these horses multiplied in a closed environment without the benefit of other blood lines. Their common source, lack of cross breeding, and their rapid reproduction created a particular genetic group giving rise to a unique breed: the Canadian horse. During the 19th century, breeders bred different types of Canadian crosses such as the Canadian Pacer, an amalgamation with the Narragansett Pacer, the “Frencher”, a Thoroughbred cross with hotter blood used as saddle horses or roadsters, and the “St. Lawrence”, a much heavier draft type, in order to meet a variety of needs. Later, thousands of horses were exported to the United States for both the Civil War and also to use as breeding stock to create roadsters leading to new breeds such as the Saddlebred, Standardbred, Missouri Fox Trotter, and the Morgan. These mass exports lead to a huge drop in the breed population in Canada in the 1870s, and the stud book was opened in 1886 to preserve the breed and prevent possible extinction. In 1895, veterinarian Dr. J.A. Couture set breeding standards for the Canadian Horse and founded the Canadian Horse Breeders Association which still operates today. In 1913, the Canadian government began a breeding center in Cap Rouge, Quebec.
In addition to the Beaver, the Canadian Horse is commonly seen as an animal symbol representing Canada, especially in connection with images of the Mounties. On April 30, 2002, a bill was passed into law by the Canadian Government making the Canadian Horse an official symbol of Canada. As the Canadian Horse is also “closely associated with the historical origins and the agricultural traditions of Québec”, a similar law was passed by the provincial legislature in November 2010, recognizing the breed as a “heritage breed of Quebec”. Why Canadian? Because in 1867, the year of Canada’s confederation, the generic term ‘Canadien’ solely referred to French speaking. At that time, it was natural for the horse, being originally from France and having started its spread through the French colonial area of the St. Lawrence Valley, to be named ‘Canadian’.