Canadian Horse Breeds – Horse Illustrated

The Newfoundland pony was developed from the Dartmoor, Exmoor and New Forest ponies of the British Isles. Photo by Rich Damboise/Courtesy Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center

Horses helped settle Canada centuries ago and continue to be an important part of Canadian agriculture. The distinct breeds of horses created by the challenges of Canadian weather and terrain are the pride of horse lovers across the country. The Newfoundland pony, the Canadian horse, the Canadian Warmblood and the Sable Island horse are the results of this story.

Newfoundland pony

The English, Scots and Irish who left the British Isles for the Canadian coast in the 1600s brought their beloved ponies with them. Dartmoor, Exmoor, and New Forest ponies—hardy ponies that had learned to survive the cold North Atlantic winters—would be needed on the island that would be called Newfoundland.

Newfoundland pony - Canadian horse breeds
The Newfoundland pony ranges from thin-boned to stocky and can be seen in a variety of solid colors. Photo by CLIX/Shawn Hamilton

Within a few hundred years of living and working on the island, Newfoundland ponies had become a distinct breed. Farmers and fishermen used them to plow gardens and fields, pull fishing nets and kelp from the shore, and serve as riding horses and carriages.

As with many working breeds, the Newfoundland has been superseded by modern machines. By the time the Canadian government stepped in to protect the Newfoundland pony, less than 100 individual ponies had survived. The Newfoundland Pony Society and the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center are two organizations working to preserve the remaining 400 ponies of this critically endangered breed, listed by Equus Survival Trust, Rare Breeds Canada and Livestock Conservancy.

Newfoundland ponies vary in type, from thin-boned to stocky. They stand between 11 and 14.2 hands and are available in bay, black, maroon, maroon, brown, gray and roan. Their mane and tail are thick, their baleen is feathered and their hooves are hard.

Those who live with this pony appreciate its temperament above all else. Their will, their bond with humans and their unflappable nature help them excel in all the disciplines that are asked of them: horseback riding, driving, transport, sledding and even therapeutic work.

canadian horse

In the early 1600s, early French settlers in Quebec struggled to grow enough food to survive the winter without the help of horses. They used their hands and primitive agricultural tools to till the soil during the short growing season.

canadian horse
The sturdy Canadian horse is versatile under saddle or in harness. Photo by CLIX/Shawn Hamilton

After decades of this harsh existence, King Louis XIV of France sent two small shipments of horses to the settlers. The horses that arrived bore the blood of the Norman, Breton, Arab, Barb and Andalusian breeds.

Only the toughest of these horses survived in this rugged country. In the 1700s, a breed perfectly adapted to the harsh Canadian terrain developed. Although small, this new Canadian horse plowed fields, pulled logs, carried young children and ran for sport.

The fame of the Canadian Horse (known as the Canadian Horse in the province of Quebec) has spread as far as New England. In the 1800s, Americans used them to improve their own horses. It also led to a smaller number of purebred Canadian horses.

As machinery began to replace horses in the early 1900s, the Canadian horse began to dwindle even further in number. By the 1970s, there were only about 400 purebred Canadian horses left, mostly in the province of Quebec. Thanks to the hard work of breed advocates, the Canadian horse now numbers around 2,000 horses, according to the Livestock Conservancy, with most of the horses located in the United States and Canada.

The Canadian horse has retained much of its original conformation over the centuries. The breed standard calls for a horse with dense bone, strength and noble bearing, with a short head, straight neck and a strong, short back. With 14 to 16 hands and weighing 1,000 to 1,400 pounds, they are mostly black, brown, bay and chestnut. A small group of breeders are working to bring back colors that have been lost, including cream and palomino. This year, the first Canadian double-dilution horse in over 100 years was born in Canada.

This versatile breed competes successfully in many disciplines, including dressage, hunter/jumpers, driving and western events. Their stamina, hardiness and unflappable temperament also make them excellent trail horses.

Sable Island Horse
The Sable Island herd has a difficult existence with harsh winters, but they average around 500 individuals on the 26-mile stretch of sand. Photo by JoeMWilson/Shutterstock

Sable Island Horses

Give wild horses time and they can learn to withstand the harshest environments. A perfect example of this adaptability is the Canadian Sable Island horse.

Brought to the 26-mile crescent-shaped Sable Island in the 1700s, the ancestors of today’s Sable Island horse learned to endure in this harsh land of sand, salty sea air and sparse vegetation. Located 196 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, Sable Island has winters that are unforgiving and continually challenge horses’ ability to survive.

Standing 13 to 14 hands tall and predominantly bay and chestnut in color, Sable Island horses are said to have Norman, Andalusian and Spanish ancestry. An average of around 500 horses live on the island at any one time. Researchers allowed to study horses on the islands for the past two years have shown that starvation and internal parasites cause between 5 and 25 percent mortality in horses from late winter to early spring.

Now protected by the Canadian government, along with the rest of Sable Island National Park Reserve, Sable Island horses were regularly rounded up during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As recently as the 1950s, they were sold almost exclusively for dog food, nearly wiping them out.

In 1960, horse advocates, including thousands of children who wrote to their lawmakers, stepped in to save them. Today, Sable Island horses only live in the wild. the last domesticated horse died in 2019.

Few people get to see the Sable Island horse in the flesh. Visitors to the island must pre-register with Parks Canada and arrange their own transportation by sea or air.

Canadian Warmblood

What happens when you take European Warmbloods, like the Hanoverian, Holsteiner, and Oldenberg, and breed them in Canada? You get a Canadian Warmblood. Add Canada’s unique breeding conditions of wide open spaces and often harsh winters and you have a Warmblood bred the way nature intended with strong bones and an even temperament.

Canadian Warmblood
WH Coconut has been named an elite ambassador to represent the Canadian Warmblood nationally and internationally. Photo by Cathy Crang/Courtesy of Watcher Horses

In 1991, the Canadian Warmblood Breeders Association (CWHBA) incorporated under the Animal Pedigree Act. The goal was to unite breeders in an effort to advance Warmblood horse breeding in Canada. The association works to unite breeders, owners and friends of Warmblood horses in Canada; maintain the Canadian Warmblood Stud Book; maintain a consistent breeding program for Warmblood horses in Canada; promote breed shows and representation at shows; and to encourage public understanding of the Canadian Warmblood horse.

The CWHBA asks its breeder members to strive for a medium-sized, well-bred Warmblood that has natural talents for the Olympic and related equestrian sports: dressage, show jumping, driving, eventing, and hunters. Their goal should be a horse with the correct conformation for strength and longevity in one of these sports. Canadian Warmblood breeders should also work towards a horse with an even temperament that will serve as a willing partner for both amateur and professional handlers.

Using the lines of the great European Warmblood studbooks combined with the meticulous work of Canadian breeders, the country is making its mark at the international level (FEI). Canadians are seeing the results of this effort. Over the past 20 years, Canadian Warmbloods have become ubiquitous at regional and national shows and have made a name for themselves at the Olympic Games and the FEI World Equestrian Games.

This article about Canadian horse breeds appeared in the October 2020 issue of illustrated horse magazine. Click here to subscribe !

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