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.


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.

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.