The palaeontological record indicates that horses evolved in North America, but they became extinct on this continent and were absent for several thousand years until reintroduced by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. David Thompson, one of the first explorers to cross the Rocky Mountains, saw wild horses near the headwaters of the Columbia River in 1807, attributing their presence to losses from local First Nations herds.
In particular, wild horse populations have long been established along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, and in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of interior British Columbia. Although numbers are subject to control for range management purposes, current estimates indicate that both of these locations continue to be inhabited by wild horse populations of several hundred or more animals.
Wild ponies also roam in the Bronson Forest of northern Saskatchewan where they received provincial protection in 2009. “The wild horse is a charismatic animal with a long and illustrious history in Alberta,” said Catherine Beats, CHF Founder and CEO.
But even more fundamental, and perhaps most important, is the fact that the evolutionary history of horses puts them at home right in the heart of North America. That wealth of knowledge in the scientific community has furthered the belief that wild horses should be recognized as reintroduced native wildlife species.
They contend that wild horses overpopulate ranges, compete with wildlife and livestock for grass, and impact tree regeneration and the health of habitats. Ultimately, the genus of the modern horse Equus (which also includes asses and zebras) appeared in the fossil record some four million years ago and gave rise to a branch of cabal line (true) horses that appeared about two million years ago.
Around the same time, some Equus species dispersed into Eurasia across the Bering land bridge, and some return migrations back and forth followed. Over millennia, a wide variety in size and type of the modern horse continued to evolve throughout North America, and some populations migrated to Asia and spread to Europe.
Fossils of ancient horses have been unearthed in the Dawson City area of the Yukon (Equus samba), a small tabloid horse carbon dated to 10,000 years ago, and in southern Alberta (Equus conversions), dated to 11,300 years ago and killed by early hunters. They rapidly populated the prairies and Great Plains where they settled into their ancestral grassland niche, contributing to the biodiversity of habitats and instinctively forming complex, social, hierarchical bands that defined the ancient behavioral patterns of their ancestors.
According to Jay Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., Director of Zoo Montana’s Science and Conservation Center, the most current molecular research and mitochondrial DNA analysis from Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. has shown that today’s modern horse Equus Catullus is genetically equivalent to the Yukon horse Equus samba. “The Government of Alberta works to maintain sustainable horse populations through humane, regulated capture activities.
Actual trapping licenses are issued to persons who set up and bait capture pens to lure the wild horses in. Once entrapped in the pen, most of the horses are transported for slaughter at a kill floor located in southern Alberta.
ESD trusts the trappers to use methods considered humane in the capture and transport of the horses of Alberta.” But there are ways to control and lower population numbers without ever having to cull, trap, or kill a single horse.
Humane population management has been shown to be extremely effective through fertility control, or immunocontraception, a method developed over 20 years ago by Kirkpatrick and his team. The strategy has been used with great success to control the population of Maryland’s wild horses on Assateague Island off the U.S. east coast.
There, since 1994, the National Park Service has used the fertility control vaccine pig zone pellucid (Pop) annually on targeted mares. “BLM wants a contraceptive that you can administer once and get three to four years of fertility control out of it,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that this research is still a work in progress.
Horses are grassland grazers and their digestive system allows them to graze on a wide variety of vegetation from coarse grasses to wetland reeds. Their movements create trails through the cover, opening up tracts of meadow that direct sunlight to the exposed ground, and trigger the sprouting of seeds and growth of young shoots.
Wild König horses imported from Holland in 2002 formed part of a conservation grazing program for damaged marshes and meadows in the U.K., with dramatically positive results. Despite this, and other similar programs around the world, the use of wild horses as a habitat enhancer has not yet gained traction in Canada.
Seeing a great, natural conservation opportunity, Wildwood Trust in Canterbury, Kent, imported a band of 12 Monks from Holland in 2002 and used them to graze the damaged marshes and meadows of the River Tour. The results amazed biologists as rare birds returned to the ecological niches of grasses, edges and reeds created by the horses grazing patterns.
Today, bands of König horses are grazing damaged wetlands and meadows from southern England to Scotland. On the African Savannah, herds of zebras not known as picky eaters will move into regions ahead of other grazing species to graze on rough grasses and woody plants, opening the ground to sunlight where seeds sprout into young shoots that draw in other grazers such as gazelle and wildebeest.
Zebras play a critical role in triggering the pattern of plant succession for the benefit of an entire community of animal species. The concepts of conservation grazing and the use of horses and other large mammal grazers as habitat enhancers have not yet gained traction in Canada.
But with proper management protocols, the program could go a long way toward economically improving damaged habitats and generating a rich biodiversity for the benefit of an entire wildlife community. “We plan to bring ongoing awareness through the use of media, education programs, and monthly newsletters to Canadians from BC to Newfoundland,” said Beats.
We are currently working on a new initiative to bring the wild horses into the Canadian classroom, beginning right here in Ontario. And there is a federal petition in both official languages calling for Alberta’s wild horses to be designated a Canadian Heritage animal.
But in reality, the horse, with its long, rich genetic heritage, is quite simply a reintroduced native North American wildlife species. Descended from draft and light riding horses imported to Canada in the late 1600s, it was later crossed with other British and American breeds.
These exports decreased the purebred Canadian population almost to the point of extinction, prompting the formation of a studbook and the passage of a law against further export. In the 1980s, concerned with the declining population numbers, interested breeders undertook a promotional program, which resulted in renewed interest in the breed.
By the 1990s, population numbers were higher, and genetic studies in 1998 and 2012 found relatively high levels of genetic diversity for a small breed. However, livestock conservation organizations still consider the breed to be at risk, due to low population numbers.
Most Canadian Horses are dark-coloured: black, bay, or brown. A few chestnuts are found, occasionally with flaxen manes and tails, and the cream gene appears in the breed as the result of the genetic influence of one stallion.
While some sources state that the gene for gray is no longer found in the breed, after the genetic bottleneck of the late 20th century, the preservation society for the breed states that they can be “rarely gray”. Their height averages 14 to 16.2 hands (56 to 66 inches, 142 to 168 cm) and stallions average 1,050 to 1,350 pounds (480 to 610 kg) in weight, while mares weigh 1,000 to 1,250 pounds (450 to 570 kg).
The Canadian horse has a rather short, high-set head with a broad forehead. The neck is arched and graceful, and the chest, back and loins broad and strongly muscled.
Their heavy and wavy mane and tail, arched necks and finely boned heads are all reminiscent of Andalusian and Barb ancestry. Unlike most breeds, there is a set naming system that is used to identify individuals based on the registration format employed by the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation.
Some older horses do not fall under this naming strategy, but it is now mandatory in naming registered offspring coming from purebred Canadian lines. The Canadian Horse descended from the French stock Louis XIV sent to Canada in the late 17th century.
The initial shipment, in 1665, consisted of two stallions and twenty mares from the Royal Stables in Normandy and Brittany, the center of French horse breeding. The exact origins of all the horses are unknown, although the shipments probably included Breton's, Normans, Arabians, Andalusian's and Barbs.
The horses were leased to gentleman farmers or religious orders for money or in exchange for a foal, and they remained the property of the king for three years. During the 1700s, the “French Canadian Horse” spread through what is now eastern Michigan and Illinois in the United States, and lived a generally feral existence, with many escaping human control completely.
In the late 18th century, imported horses from the US and the British Isles were crossbred with existing Canadian stock. By the 19th century, they were found performing light draft work, as well as riding and driving duties.
Cornelius Kirchhoff, a 19th-century Canadian painter, was known for his works featuring the Canadian horse, who he usually showed in association with the French habitants, as opposed to the English settlers in the area. His paintings generally portrayed the Canadian horse in a utilitarian, workhorse role, often in winter scenes.
In 1849, there were estimated to be more than 150,000 Canadian horses, and many were exported from Canada annually. Some were shipped to the West Indies, where they possibly contributed to gained breeds such as the Pass Fine.
By the middle of the 19th century, Canadian horses had spread through the northeastern US, where they were used for racing, as roadsters, and, due to their stamina, to pull freight wagons and stagecoaches. Many played a role in the development of other breeds, including the Morgan horse, the American Saddle bred and the Standard bred.
By 1880, through exports and war casualties, Canadian horses had almost become extinct. In 1885, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was formed to inspect and approve breeding stock with the aim of creating a studbook for the breed, and in 1886, further export from Canada was forbidden by Quebec law.
In 1913, an experimental breeding program was begun at Cap-Rouge by the Canadian government. The program's goal was to breed larger horses that retained the endurance and vitality for which the breed was known, and succeeded in increasing the size of stallions to 15.2 to 16 hands (62 to 64 inches, 157 to 163 cm) high and 1,200 to 1,500 pounds (540 to 680 kg) in weight, with mares slightly smaller.
However, mechanization, combined with World War I and World War II, ended the federal breeding program, and in 1940 all breeding stock was sold at auction. The program lasted there until 1979, when the herd was again disbanded and sold at auction.
By the 1970s, the popularity of the breed had decreased significantly, and there were approximately 400 Canadian horses worldwide, with only around five annual registrations between 1970 and 1974. Several interested breeders began a campaign of preservation and promotion, which resulted in a Canadian team winning the 1987 North American Driving Championships.
Popularity began to increase, and by the mid-1990s population numbers were between 2,500 and 3,000, and The Livestock Conservancy, which had classified the breed as “critical”, changed its designation to “rare”. With the increase in popularity came pressure for the breed standard to change to meet modern show and market trends, by breeding for taller horses with more refinement.
In 2002, the Canadian Horse Heritage and Preservation Society was formed in response to these pressures, with a goal of preserving the original Canadian horse type. It is also responsible for inspecting breeding stock before they are registered with the studbook.
The studbook is maintained by the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation. In a study of mitochondrial DNA published in 2012, the Canadian horse and the Newfoundland pony were found to be the most genetically diverse of the Canadian breeds studied, which also included the Sable Island horse and the Lac La Croix pony.
The Canadian horse showed high haplotype diversity, sharing haplotypes with all Canadian populations, as well as draft breeds, Nordic pony breeds and British mountain and moorland pony breeds also tested in the study. The Canadian horse had been shown to be related to draft horse breeds, including the Percheron, Belgian and Clydesdale, in previous micro satellite loci studies.
The high levels of diversity in the Canadian horse supported the conclusions of a 1998 study, which determined that the small population size and historical genetic bottlenecks had not resulted in a significant loss of genetic variation. The 1998 paper also stated that the Canadian horse did not show inbreeding any more significant than other, more popular, breeds.
The Canadian horse is a common animal symbol of Canada. In 1909, the Parliament of Canada declared it the national breed of the country, and in 2002 was made an official animal symbol of Canada by Parliamentary Act.
In 2010, the provincial legislature of Quebec named it a heritage breed of the province. During the peak popularity of the breed, three main types could be distinguished.
All three are now considered extinct, having disappeared or been merged back into the main Canadian horse population. The first, the Canadian Heavy Draft or St. Lawrence, which disappeared by the late 1700s, probably developed from Shire and Clydesdale crosses.
They were probably a popular export to New England, which bred large numbers of horses for Caribbean plantations. The second, the Trencher, sometimes also called the St. Lawrence, was a trotting horse known for its power and speed, resulting from crosses with Thoroughbreds.
An American Saddle bred, a descendant of the Canadian Pacer, in the early 1900sThe third type was the Canadian Pacer, which was historically better documented than the other two types. Pedigrees were not maintained, so early breeding histories are often impossible to trace.
The Canadian Pacer influenced the Tennessee Walker, the American Saddle bred and the Standard bred. Commonly called “Canucks”, the fastest members of the breed came from Quebec near the St. Lawrence River.
They instead moved to local rivers, whose smooth, frozen surfaces provided useful raceways, and the resulting contests drew attention to the pacers from Quebec. In the early 1800s, a roan colored stallion named Copper bottom was imported to Lexington, Kentucky from Quebec, through Michigan.
He began to be offered for stud service in 1816, and his progeny spread throughout the eastern US. Known mainly as saddle stock, they also included several pacing horses.
Appearing in Kentucky in 1824, he was offered for stud, and his offspring (many of whom carried on the family name, being differentiated only by the name of the owner) began the family of Standardized that included Little Brown Jug, Brown Hal, Star Pointer, Adios and Good Time, all champion harness racing horses. Another pacing import to the US was a black stallion named Old Pilot, said to have been bred near Montreal, who originated the Pilot family of trotting horses.
Old Pilot produced a son, also named Pilot, who was acclaimed as a sire of trotting horses, as well as being a successful harness horse himself. Story's Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America.
Canadian Horse Association Rocky Mountain District. The Official Horse Breeds Standards Guide: The Complete Guide to the Standards of All North American Equine Breed Associations.
Recalling Early Canada : Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production. ^ Krystyna, Jaclyn Mercedes; Hind, Pamela; Cochran, E. Gus; Plant, Yves (May–June 2012).
“Maternal Lineages in Native Canadian Equine Populations and Their Relationship to the Nordic and Mountain and Moorland Pony Breeds”. “Using Genetics to Pinpoint Endangered Canadian Horse Breeds”.