2010 Local Heroes: Neirin

Neirin Canada’s national horse.

November 23, 2010 | | Back Issues | Horses In The Hills | Leisure | Winter 2010

Click here to read the profiles of our other Local Heroes for 2010.

Canada’s little iron horse

By Jeff Rollings, Photography by Pete Paterson

Meet Neirin of Erin.

He’s a real stud, and a true Canadian. Not just by place of residence, but also by breed.

Neirin’s life’s work is to help rescue his own family, the Canadian horse, from extinction. It’s an enviable set-up: he’s a national hero thanks to his dating activity.

His ancestors first came to Canada in 1665, when King Louis XIV selected stock from his own stables and sent them to the New World. The breed became well established here, but life was just as difficult for livestock as it was for settlers. Often horses were left to fend for themselves in the bush, only being brought in for work.

Over the next 150 years, hard work, poor care and harsh winters meant only the toughest animals survived. Canadian horses became more compact and muscular. Standing an average of fourteen to sixteen hands, they resemble a small draft horse. Most are black, though shades of brown also occur.

Their use was widespread in eastern Canada and Ontario, and they were noted for their versatility, serving as an all-round family horse. Moreover, they were renowned for their stamina. There are accounts of Canadian horses, when teamed with other breeds, literally working their harness-mates to death, sometimes outliving several in succession.

As a result, they became known as The Little Iron Horse, or in some places, The Horse of Steel.

Eventually the Americans figured out that we were on to a good thing. Many animals were shipped south to serve in the Civil War, for use on stage coach lines and as work horses. Others were shipped to the West Indies to work on sugar plantations.

U.S. demand for pure Canadians, combined with cross-breeding in this country, meant that as early as the mid-1800s their numbers had dwindled to a handful in Canada. It was not until 1886 that proper breeding records were first kept, and in 1913 the federal government opened a breeding centre in Quebec. That was taken over by Quebec’s Department of Agriculture in 1940.

Still, the breed teetered on the brink, with only 383 animals registered in 1976. Things got even worse in 1979, when Quebec announced it was shutting down the breeding operation.

A small group of private breeders took up the cause of keeping the Canadian horse alive, and ever so slowly, numbers began to climb. There are about 6,000 Canadian horses today, though that is still a tiny percentage of the roughly one million horses in Canada.

In 2002, the federal government officially declared the Canadian as this country’s national horse.

Neirin is owned by Brenda Pantling at Hidden Meadow Farms in Orton. Brenda has been breeding Canadians since 1988. Her operation is small, producing only two horses a year. “We decided to focus on quality over quantity,” she says. “At this point it’s important for the breed.” All thirteen Canadians on her farm exhibit the calm, friendly, curious and intelligent traits of their heritage.

So here’s to you, Neirin. Your clan were among the first immigrants. They built this place we call home as surely as any of the other pioneers. They fought for survival, and they learned to live with the cold.

Pretty much what being a Canadian is all about.

Click here to read the profiles of our other Local Heroes for 2010.

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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