In 1665, the government of King Louis XIV of France arranged for the first shipment of horses to the colony of Canada from the King’s own royal stables.
The colonists relied extensively on the hardy Canadien horse to clear and work the land, transport goods and people between scattered settlements, get to church in summer and winter, and for pleasure driving and riding. By 1760, there were an estimated 14 000 horses in the colony.
In the early nineteenth century Canadiens were shipped across the border into the New England states. Through crossbreeding they contributed to the development of well-known American breeds including the Morgan, Saddlebred, Standardbred, and Tennessee Walking Horse.
Thousands of Canadiens died during the American Civil War when the Union armies used them as cavalry mounts and to pull heavy cannon and supply wagons. Canadiens were also used on sugar cane plantations in the West Indies and served Canadian troops during the Boer War in South Africa.
Between 1913 and 1981, first the federal government and then the government of Quebec sponsored breeding programs to keep the breed alive. However, by the early 1980s the estimated number of registered Canadiens was only 400.
In 2002, the Parliament of Canada recognized the breed as the national horse of Canada. By 2010 it was estimated that there were between 5000 and 7000 Canadian horses in Canada and beyond.
In recent years there has been growing concern about the future of the breed as the number of annual registrations has fallen. For this reason, the Livestock Conservancy has described its status as Critical, its most urgent category.
The Canadien is renowned for its versatility and ability in a number of activities and equine disciplines including agricultural work, English and Western riding, jumping and dressage, pleasure driving, marathon driving, and ice racing.
Standing from 14 to 16 hands and weighing from 1000 to 1400 pounds, Canadiens are most frequently black in colour but can also be brown, bay, chestnut, palomino, roan, dun and even silver bays and silver dapple. Common descriptions associated with the modern Canadian horse include intelligent, inquisitive, sensible, friendly, sociable, robust, and easy to keep.