The Canadian Horse descended from the French stock Louis XIV sent to Canada in the late 17th century. His goal was to develop a breeding program in the colony, and two stallions and 12 mares were sent in 1665. More shipments arrived until 1671, bringing the total number of horses to around 82. The exact origins of all the horses are unknown, with many believing most of the horses were of Breton, Norman descent, Andalusian and Barb ancestry. The horses were leased to farmers for money or in exchange for a foal (although they remained the property of the king for three years). By 1679, there were 145 horses. In 1696, the number of horses in the colony had tripled. By 1763, there were around 13,000 horses in New France. The horses thrived despite low comfort, hard work, and bad roads, and eventually developed the nicknames "the little iron horse" (French: petit cheval de fer) and "the horse of steel".
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 and stock for the growing stage coach lines. Others were exported to the West Indies for use on the sugar plantations. However, mass exports lead to a precipitous 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. The Canadian Horse Breeders' Association was formed in 1895.
In 1913, the Canadian government began a breeding center in Cap Rouge, Quebec. In 1919, this facility was outgrown so the breeding program was transferred to St. Joachim, Quebec, where it was operated jointly by the Canadian and Quebec governments.
In 1940, World War II brought an end to the federal breeding program at St. Joachim. At that time, the Quebec government purchased several of the horses and created their own provincial breeding program at Deschambault. In the 1960s, they worked to breed a taller, more refined horse, who would be suitable as a hunter or jumper. During this time, other private breeders worked to preserve the original type, the Henryville line being an example of this.
Eventually the Deschambault herd was sold at auction in 1981. The breed was in danger of disappearing for a second time, with less than 400 horses in the breed register, and fewer than 50 new registrations being recorded per year. However, dedicated breeders rescued the Canadian Horse. New registrations were around 50 per year in 1980 and rose to over 500 new registrations per year in 1999–2000. Since 2000, the new registrations are stable at 450-500 per year. There are now more than 6,000 horses registered.
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