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History: Horses where they’re needed

Reprinted from the May 1951 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

By J.W.G. MacEwan

Canada’s horse population, according to recent figures, stands at 1,700,000 head. That’s an average roughly, of 21/2 horses per farm or a little less than the equivalent of two work horses and a saddle horse for every Canadian farm. It makes strange contrast with the 3,610,494 head recorded in the census of 1921. In the United States the decline in horses has been even more pronounced; the 1919 total for horses and mules was 26,436,000 and in January 1951 the corresponding total was at 6,753,000. Relative to number of farms, the United States has even fewer horses than Canada.

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This rapid withdrawal of the horse and his more humble half-brother, the mule, from North American grain fields is a feature of the most amazing revolution in agricultural history. The decline in the farm use of horse power was so rapid and sweeping that it caused people to say, rather recklessly, “the horse is on the skids; he faces extinction; pretty soon he will be little more than a museum specimen.”

But before making irresponsible statements about the horse’s destiny or anything else for that matter, the facts should be examined. In some recent Manitoba surveys, nearly 75 per cent of those co-operating reported that they would want and need at least two horses for general teaming

There is another side to the horse industry that is often overlooked. It was a matter of particular interest and, indeed, some surprise when 58 per cent of the Manitoba farmers included in a 1947 survey answered “yes” to the question, “Will a saddle horse be required on your farm?”

It is a reminder that while mechanical power has largely supplanted the draught horse, there is still no substitute for a stock horse on the farms and ranches where livestock are kept. Most Canadian farms classify as mixed farms and as such they have cattle to handle. And in Southwestern Saskatchewan, Southern Alberta and the Interior of British Columbia, where ranching is a dominant enterprise, the stock horse is a prime essential. When it comes to rounding up the herds, recovering cattle from the hillsides, the brush and the swamps and conducting the intricate business of cutting and sorting, neither a car, a tractor, a truck or a jeep can do the job like a well built, well trained saddle horse.

Breeding policies directed at the production of suitable saddle horses are needed. It is a significant fact that no class of livestock in Canada has received so little guidance and support from policy makers as the stock horse. There is no tested breeding formula for getting Canadian stock horses. The ones in use are the product of scores of different breed combinations, many of them unplanned and haphazard.

The stockmen, especially the ranchers know what they want; they have an ideal in saddle horses, but there is no single breed that seems to meet all requirements of an all-round stock horse and very little has been done to evolve either a breed or a uniform breeding program.

Somebody will say that the Quarter Horse breeders have the proper approach to Canada’s stock horse problem. Perhaps so. At least the American Quarter Horse is proof that a substantial number of horsemen in the United States are conscious of the need for a breed qualified by type, speed and temperament, to carry the nation’s stock saddles. The American Quarter Horse Association was formed at Fort Worth as recently as 1940; since that time the association conducted selective recording, although strain foundation traces to horse stock in the American Colonies, a hundred years before the Revolution. Saddle horses were a necessity, racing was popular and breeding was directed toward horses with speed, stamina and versatility. Ideals were not unlike those of the present day stockmen.

The point is that whether Canadians set out to achieve top saddle stock by means of one breeding program or another, it would be well to take a leaf from the book of the Quarter Horse founders and work toward a four-way horse, one that is well put up with rugged muscling, one that possesses soundness and wearing qualities in feet and legs, one that is fast and one that is intelligent. Such a horse would not be out of place at a spring roundup, a rodeo or on a course for short racing. That animal will be short in coupling, well developed in the region of thorax to ensure freedom of heart and lung action, flat in bone, clean cut and hard about the hocks, brisk in walking, straight and free but not overly high in trotting action, slow and collected at the canter and a regular fireball at the gallop. Most stockmen will favour a horse weighing 1,000 to 1,250 pounds and standing between 141/2 and 151/2 hands. There are not too many of the good ones and some of the best are worth their weight in gold.

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