The Many Faces of Dressage: A Canadian Horse’s Perspective

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Join us on an exclusive first hand account of dressage riders, owners, and breeders and their unique mounts! This series will explore the dressage experience across a full spectrum of unconventional breeds, both large and small, with some familiar faces and some potentially unknown. These are the real life stories, from the humans that know and love them best.

The Canadian Horse is a little known national treasure of Canada.  This hardy breed descended from horses originally sent to the “New World” by King Louis XIV of France in the late 1600’s. The Canadian Horse can be called a general utility animal. From the very beginning of New France it was valuable not only for plowing, but also as a carriage horse. Breeders appreciated the qualities of strength, willingness, and small food requirements. Now, the breed is slowly gaining in popularity, and currently numbers just over 2500 horses in existence.  The Canadian Horse is still classified as “critical” on the American Livestock Conservancy list.

Owner and breed enthusiast Sheri Roberts gives us an account of what it’s like to support and love this exceptional and rare breed.

By Sheri Roberts

I discovered the Canadian Horse while doing freelance coaching. I arrived at a barn where a magnificent horse was showing off in his paddock. A long, gorgeous flowing forelock and mane, he was the kind of tall, dark, and handsome anyone would notice!! I made mention of his beauty and presence to the owner and asked if he was a Friesian or Friesian cross. I was informed he was a registered Canadian Horse stallion.

I had only heard of Canadians recently, and my first encounter was with a lady who was an enthusiast and breeder. She had several Canadians, and the fine creature I first noted was her stallion!

Canadians are descendants of horses sent to the New World by the French King Louis XIV in 1663. He sent them from his very own royal stables, and they came with strict instructions regarding breeding and fines if the rules weren’t followed. Regular shipments of horses came, and it is believed they were of the same ancestries as the Belgians, Percherons, Dales Pony, and Breton. These horses lived and thrived in harsh conditions almost exclusively for over 100 years, developing into the hardy, versatile Canadian Horses of today.

From that first shipment of twelve horses, their numbers grew to an estimated 14,000 animals in 1760. The French – English War, coupled with the surrounding terrain, ensured that no contact was made outside of the French colonies. Those horses developed into the Canadian Horse, a breed of their own.

Texas A & M did some work with numerous samples and found the Canadian Horse was the likely precursor to the Morgan Horse, as well as Standardbreds, Saddlebreds, and Missouri Fox Trotters. There is also evidence that Canadian Horse DNA played a roll in developing the American Quarter Horse! It seems only logical, as the Canadian Horses were readily available and were shipped south for breeding, work, and for war mounts. Several times, the breed suffered these mass exports, and in 1886 the stud book was opened to preserve the breed from extinction.

I find most Canadians have an above average conformation; suitable for almost any driven and under saddle work. The breed standard for the Canadian is as diverse as the horse itself; 14 to 16 hands and as a riding horse, harness horse, and a work horse. They are an extremely hardy breed with incredible hooves. Typically, they have long, flowing manes and tails, and most often are darker, although some chestnuts are also known, while gray is a rarity. They are strong and earned the nickname “Little Iron Horse”. In the famous Little House books written by Laura Ingalls-Wilder, her father once referred to her as, “Strong as a little Canadian Horse”! Canadians are tough, hardy, and excel at everything!

After coaching one small breeder who had aspirations in dressage with her favorite Canadian mare, I was offered that mare’s offspring. He was a cheeky gelding who, while handsome and well formed, was not what I thought I needed at my age. I was looking for something broke and older. As I continued to work with the breeder, she enlisted my help to start both the gelding and a filly who was only two weeks older than the gelding.

The filly was the clear winner in the easy, level-headed department. We had her going under saddle so quickly that we started hauling her to small local shows to get miles on her within mere weeks of sitting a saddle on her back! The gelding, however, was proving to be a bit more problematic. He seemed to be reactive and less than thrilled with the prospect of work or saddles. He loved people and was easy to handle, but each session with him was a good deal of repetition of previous sessions. By the fall of that year, the filly had been ridden on a trail ride, shown several times, and was coming along under saddle beautifully.

The gelding had only made it to the mounting block a handful of times. He was like a child full of fun and mischief and not ready to grow up. His breeder decided at his age, he needed to buckle down and get with the program, so she decided to board him for a couple of the winter months to insure he would be worked with consistently and, in Canada, an indoor arena is almost a must.

Never was there such a transformation!!! She called me to tell me she had hauled him to his temporary winter home and asked if I would come to work with them there. At our next meeting, it was astounding to see the difference that had occurred. He clearly grew up in a few short days of being in a new barn with new mates. When we decided on a plan of attack, I told her to go ahead and tack him up. Her response was an alarmed “But I’m not going to ride him…am I??” This horse had only a few experiences under saddle being led with a rider, and once on a lunge line at walk with a rider. Those occasions were often shaky at best. When he came into the indoor, it was a revelation! He walked in with confidence and pride! After doing some groundwork, I encouraged her to get on and I assured her I would lead him and not push. I thought I was being truthful, but in all honestly, he was more than ready. By the end of that very first ride in a strange indoor, she was walking and trotting all around the ring on the rail!

The breeder and I were overjoyed! I had never been so surprised by any horse. He had me contemplating him in a different light. When she then offered him to me once again, it was the last time she had to ask. I am now and have been the proud owner of Ironwood Promise Zephyr since March 2017, just before he turned 5. I call him Zephyr or Zee Man; he is still a bit foolish, and I also call him the goober. He’s been a “tough” start compared to most Canadians I have had a hand in helping. But once we got serious, he joined the program 150%. He impressed me so much. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being exceptional, I would rate the Canadian Horse a 10. He is by far the best horse I have ever owned or had the pleasure to develop. I am deliriously happy I bought him. My entire family loves him, and unlike my last gelding, he is not a one-person horse and works well for my daughter.

My daughter is schooling him to become her dressage horse. She showed him at a local dressage club series last year that uses carded judges. Canadians are strong and highly maneuverable. Despite their size and shape, they are agile. They naturally lend themselves to the sport of dressage. His inaugural year was pretty good for a greenie. His scores continue to climb and, as we anticipate his next show in a matter of days, I no longer fear he might do something completely wrong.  I know he will be his usual honest self and make me prouder than I have ever been!

Just A few more questions:

Is there specific show ring attire or considerations regarding this breed?

As for breed showing, I think because the breed numbers are so small and exclusive breed shows or classes are so few, the main consideration when showing a Canadian is clean and neat attire in line with traditional colored hunt coats and breeches to the higher levels with traditional dressage attire. The same can be said for each of the other disciplines Canadians can be found competing in. In-hand, there really is no set dress code, and it can be fairly casual with safety and common-sense prevailing.

Are there any challenges when it comes to tack fitting for this breed? What about shoeing?

Canadians tend to be easy keepers; this and the fact they are sturdily built on a good strong frame mean wide saddles are often the norm. Canadian Horses have great conformation and even better feet. I have honestly not come across one Canadian Horse that has been shod. They have big, strong, gorgeous feet. My farrier will attest!

What’s the best part of owning & showing this breed?

My favorite part of owning the breed is its versatility and their wonderful personalities. Friendly, patient, and forgiving are the first words that come to mind. It’s very easy to see the beauty of the possible baroque ancestors sent by the French King in the 1600’s with the long luxurious manes and tails and the presence they exude just grazing at pasture. I love folks asking what breed of horse mine is, so I can tell them!

What reactions do you & your horse tend to get at shows?

From the earliest shows and almost each time I have taken my horse to a show or event, be it a fall fair or a local schooling show or our latest forays into the beginner levels of dressage, I have been complimented on Zephyr’s beauty and presence. His movement, as he learns balance and rhythm, continues to improve. I am excited to see how far he can go in dressage. He is currently learning to extend his trot and his first attempts are quite surprisingly good. He appears to be very proud of himself after a ride.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get involved with this breed?

Do it…and do it sooner rather than later. Help preserve a breed that on first inspection may very well have a hand in every other North American breed! Don’t let this wonderful, friendly breed fall through the cracks of history. These horses deserve a rightful place at the forefront of sport and pleasure. They are a family horse of extraordinary abilities, and very amateur and family friendly. Canadian Horse were a strong helpful link to our past and should be allowed to come on our journey to the future.


For more information about Canadian Horses, visit the The Canadian Horse Breeders’ Association website.

Join us in April for the next installment of The Many Faces of Dressage!

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