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The little iron horse: Canada’s national treasure

Canadian horse pride - LEFT: Brenda Pantling shows her Canadian pride atop her Canadian horse. RIGHT: A mare and her foal at Hidden Meadow Farms.  submitted photos

The little iron horse: Canada’s national treasure

by Kelly Waterhouse

ORTON - When people think of Canada’s national animal, they think of the beaver.

Few seem to know the other animal with official national status is the Canadian horse.

Nor would many know the role local Canadian horse breeders Brenda and Geoff Pantling played in ensuring the Canadian breed obtained official national status in the House of Commons.

“We made Canadian history,” Brenda said.

Geoff acknowledged that  for most people, the heritage and value of the breed “was unknown” before 2002, but the couple were determined to preserve the Canadian horse’s place in history.

In the House of Commons  the issue to make the Canadian horse a national symbol became a political debate between separatists and federalists, given the breed’s heritage here, which originated in Quebec.

“The Bloc Quebecois wanted to make it Quebec’s heritage horse,” Brenda said. In an interview on CBC radio she was asked about the French-English issue, to which she gave the most Canadian of responses: “Why can’t it be both?”  

In the spring of 2002, Bill S-22 was brought to the Parliament of Canada, with intent to establish the National Horse of Canada Act, recognizing the breed’s contribution to the building of this nation.

Championed by Senator Lowell Murray and MPs Murray Calder of Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey and Don Boudria of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, the process was supported by the Pantlings and other Canadian horse breeders from coast to coast.

The bill received Royal Assent, officially becoming law, on April 30, 2002.

The Act states “the Government of Canada wishes to recognize the unique place of the Canadian horse in the history of Canada.”

It also acknowledges that since 1885, efforts have been made to re-establish and preserve the breed, noting, “The Canadian horse was at one time in danger of being lost through interbreeding or as a casualty of war, but has survived these perils.”

Brenda explained the breed can trace its lineage to the King of France Louis XIV, who first introduced the horses, sent from his own stables to New France from 1665 to 1670.

The horses were sent to appease the “habitants” who settled in the harsh terrain of the new colony, and needed an animal that could help them conquer the land.

The King’s horses were of Norman, Breton and Andalusian bloodline decent.

Brenda said life in Canada was no easier for these horses than it was for the settlers. Not enough hay was cured for all the livestock, so horses were often turned loose to fend for themselves in the bush, only being brought in when needed for work.

“When they first came to Canada, they had to be efficient,” said Brenda.

Over the years, the heavy work and poor conditions, along with the harsh Canadian winters, led to a natural selection in favor of the hardiest animals. The Canadian horse, or Cheval Canadien, became smaller and tougher, earning the nickname “The Little Iron Horse”.

“The Iron Horse name refers to their heartiness, stamina and solid foot and leg,” Brenda said.

In her research, Brenda discovered the Canadian horse bred in isolation for the next 150 years.

Whatever the job was, Canadians did it. Whether it was pulling plows, moving goods or taking the family to church, the Canadian horse was known to perform its duties with eagerness and stamina.

“They were a small warm-blood, genetically, but it was the conditions here that turned them into what they are today,” Brenda said.

In the 1800s, large numbers of horses were sent to the United States for use in the Civil War.

“The Canadian was the preferred horse on many U.S. stage coach lines,” Brenda confirmed. Noting the use of the horses in rebellion at home, she added, “Louis Riel had Canadian horses.”

The horses were used for crossbreeding to improve the strength and hardiness of other breeds, and helped to found such North American breeds as the Morgan, Tennessee walking horse, standardbred and the American saddlebred.  

The Canadian horse also served in the Boer War and was shipped to the West Indies.

Brenda notes the importation of other horse breeds  into Canada, as well as the export of the Canadian breed meant that by the second half of the 1800s, the Canadian horse was in danger of disappearing.

In 1886, a group of Canadian horse breeders began a campaign to preserve the breed by opening the first stud book for Canadian horses.

“We are the oldest North American pure breed,” Brenda said. “The stud book has been closed. I can trace my stallion’s pedigree right back to the first stud book.”

In 1895, the Canadian Horse Breeders Association was launched.

In 1913 a breeding centre was opened on the Federal Experimental Farm at Cap Rouge in Quebec, and later moved to St. Joachim. The facility was closed in 1940, and the Quebec provincial Department of Agriculture re-established the stud at Deschambault, Quebec.

 In 1907, under the leadership of Dr. J.G. Rutherford, the Canadian government’s livestock commissioner, a new stud book was started with improved standards.

When the Quebec operation closed in 1979, the Canadian horse was once again threatened with extinction. Farming technology also played a role in the decline of the breed.

By the early 1970s, there were fewer than 400 Canadian horses in existence, and even fewer registrations recorded in the stud book.

Canadian horse breeders again took control of the situation, and today the horse has gained in popularity with more than 5,000 Canadian horses registered across the country.

“The Canadian horse today is very much the same as the original Canadian horse,” said Brenda. “They are an all-purpose horse. They should be able to do anything you ask them too.”

For 23 years, Canadian horses have been Brenda’s full time passion, including breeding and training. Geoff has recently retired to be more hands-on at the farm.

The couple owns Hidden Meadow Farms, a 47-acre property complete with an indoor arena and trails for cross country and sleigh rides.

“Some of the horses that were bred here return for training. We breed one or two a year, on the very rare occasion we will have three,” Brenda said.

When asked why she chose this breed over any other, Brenda declared, “The history and heritage is really interesting, but they are really an all around sensible horse.”

She adds, “They are extremely intelligent. They are a confident horse, easy to train. Once they catch something, they’ve got it. They remember.”

Today, the Pantlings are active members of the Upper Canada District Canadian Horse Breeders (UCD), where Brenda is secretary and treasurer. The group includes some 50 members from across Ontario. They also belong to the Canadian Breeders Association.

Each fall, the premier Canadian horse UCD show is held and throughout the year, UCD members enjoy “fun day” events. The 2012 UCD Futurity and Show is another event welcoming members to gather, connect and compete.

Last month Hidden Meadow Farms hosted the Canadian Horse Pageant.

“We want to promote the breed to the public. We had demos, driving, jumping, wagon rides, all to raise money for the club. It’s important to continue the education of what we do,” Brenda said.

Education is an important factor in promoting the Canadian horse breed.

“When we got into Canadian horses, nobody knew what they were,” said Brenda. “We are starting to make progress.”

“Whenever we can get to an event, like a museum or fair, we go,” said Brenda. “We’re not just promoting our breed. We have to promote the breed but also the fact we have a national horse. Not many people know it.” Part of that education involves participating at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, where the Canadian horse is represented in the Breeder’s Showcase.

But the Canadian horse really shows best by proving its worth in all disciplines.

“You can do everything with them,” Geoff said. “With these horses each individual horse does many things.”

From dressage and jumping, to pulling, driving, English and Western riding - whatever is required, a Canadian horse can fill those shoes, without actually needing shoes.

“None of my horses are shoed,” Brenda points out.

She explains it is both the conformation and the temperament that make the breed so versatile.

“They are an all-purpose horse, so they have to be able to do everything, but there is no reason they can’t be pretty,” Brenda said.

She explained approximately 80 per cent of Canadian horses are black or bay in colour, though she has one that is a silver dilute, and chestnut or brown are possible, though less common.

The average height for a Canadian horse is 14 to 16 hands.

“They are good, solid, well-built horses,” Brenda said.

While they may be good for driving, the Canadian horse also has the agility and grace of movement to compete in various equestrian sports.

“They have a very smooth trot. They are very light on their feet, very agile,” Brenda said. “They have amazingly strong feet.”

The Pantlings are proud of their breeding stallion, Hidden Meadow Adanac Neirin, (Adanac is Canada backwards), or Neirin for short. They consider him a classic example of a Canadian horse.

“He has a very lovely head and neck and he’s passing that to his foals,” said Brenda. “It’s one of his attributes that makes him a good stud.”

A Canadian horse is judged based on perfect conformation, good straight legs and good movement, she points out.

“Neirin has a refined head and neck but he still maintains a good bone, and a good solid leg.”

The stallion’s success includes being named the 2005 Grand Champion Futurity Stallion, 2006 Reserve Champion Futurity Stallion, 2011 Supreme Canadian and 2012 Reserve Supreme Canadian.

Neirin has been a barrel racer, has competed in both English and Western riding and is trained to drive and jumped a three-nine in competition, though he is just 15 hands high.

Size and stature are important, but so is the horse’s temperament, and the Canadians are renowned for being smart and composed.

“They are very stable-minded. Nothing really upsets them a great deal,” Brenda said. “These horses are very energetic and love to work. They are a very sensible horse.”

Amy Davies is a trainer from Hillsburgh who has worked with Hidden Meadow Farms for six years. Raised working with thoroughbred horses, she finds working with the Canadian horse to be a good challenge.

“You have to have a lot more patience,” Davies said, adding she considers Canadian horses to be “level-headed.”

“They are a lot smarter than our race horses and they aren’t flighty, like a thoroughbred who would run first and see what is ahead. You can’t scare (a Canadian) into  doing something for you. They are not nervous horses.”

For Davies that means persistence is key.

“They are a very smart horse and if you know how to use that, it can be good,” Davies said, noting one has to be clear and persistent. “They do what you ask them to do. They like to work and they’ll trot all day long.”

Brenda agrees. “The only issue with Canadian horses is they will learn bad habits as fast as good ones.”

But her love of the breed is clear. “Literally, these horses, you can throw them in the deep and they’ll do anything for you.”

Davies said the Canadian breed is a safe, solid horse.

“They are great for English riding or pleasure driving for sure,” she said. “They don’t have a choppy trot. They trot like a big horse.”

Their hardy heritage also makes the Canadian horse’s constitution strong, much like its personality.

“Canadians are easy keepers. They are just very efficient in their digestion ... They make very good use of their food.” said Brenda, who noted a mineral supplement is added to their simple diet.

“They are quite healthy because of their hardiness,” she explained. “They rarely have issues with lameness.”

Geoff said the success of the breed continues to grow.

“There is actually quite a dedicated following in the United States,” he said, noting they’ve sold horses to many farms there.

It seems the British like them too. Brenda introduced her Canadian horses to Queen Elizabeth during her 2002 visit to Canada, and the Duchess of Cornwall at the Royal Winter Fair.

Even “Captain Canada” Ian Millar has posed for a photo next to Canada’s national horse.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” said Brenda, who admits she has enjoyed every minute of it, and knows there is still much work to do.

“We’re continuing the legacy with the Canadian horse,” Geoff said, proudly.

For more information on Hidden Meadow Farm and its Canadian horses, visit www.canadianhorses.com.

July 26, 2013

 
 

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