Little Horse of Iron: A Quest for the Canadian Horse


Part history, part memoir, this tale of Canada's heritage horse is a moving odyssey into the past -- and one man's heart.

Saving what's left of our history often falls to a passionate few. This is the case with a group of horse breeders who have pledged to re-establish Canada's heritage horse, aptly called the Canadian -- a breed descended from the Norman horses that took European knights into battle. Habitants of old Quebec called this ...
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Part history, part memoir, this tale of Canada's heritage horse is a moving odyssey into the past -- and one man's heart.

Saving what's left of our history often falls to a passionate few. This is the case with a group of horse breeders who have pledged to re-establish Canada's heritage horse, aptly called the Canadian -- a breed descended from the Norman horses that took European knights into battle. Habitants of old Quebec called this uncommonly strong breed le petit cheval de fer -- the little horse of iron -- and in many ways the tumultuous story of this horse mirrors the history of Canada.

Little Horse of Iron tells the story of one man and his horse. At the age of 50, Lawrence Scanlan bought his first horse -- a Canadian called Saroma Dark Fox Dali. A spirited and untrained young Canadian gelding, Dali taught Scanlan a great deal about patience, fear and courage. Always candid and often amusing, the year-long diary of their relationship deftly explores the joys and sorrows as both horse and human struggle to trust and understand each other.

Along the way, we meet the people who prize the Canadian horse's unparalleled contributions over three centuries -- on the family farm, on the battlefield, on the race track and in the show ring. Marvellously detailed and rich in character, Little Horse of Iron is a heart-warming celebration of one horse, and of his breed -- Canada's own.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679310471
  • Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
  • Publication date: 10/9/2001
  • Pages: 368

Meet the Author

Lawrence Scanlan is the author of five best-selling books, including Wild About Horses. He is the co-author, with Ian Millar, of Riding High, and two books for younger readers, Big Ben and Horses Forever. Scanlan worked closely with Monty Roberts on his acclaimed book The Man Who Listens to Horses. Winner of three National Magazine Awards for his journalism, Scanlan lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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Read an Excerpt


The Sun King sent to New France 2 stallions and 20 mares from the royal stables . . . The ship was much weighed down by its cargo of horses, their ample fodder, 80 maids of honour and 70 workers. "The whole," wrote one historian, "formed a sort of Noah's ark."

My folks' house in east Toronto harbours an eccentric collection of old toys to keep grandchildren amused during visits. Some items date back to when I was a boy growing up there in the 1950s: an astonishingly resilient Etch-A-Sketch, a plastic set of ball and bowling pins, a tiny wooden hammer and its companion pegboard. One of the sturdiest toys, and most called upon, is a palomino rocking horse made of rigid plastic with red stirrups set over a metal stand on heavy coiled springs. Acquired for nothing years ago at a yard sale down the street, my mother recalls. The lineup to ride that horse is always long and queue jumpers risk being set upon.

The attraction speaks to the ancient and primal bond between humans and horses. And all children -- whether rural or urban, whether they've ever seen a real horse or not -- seem to know about it. Little Horse of Iron harkens back to my own boyhood desire to ride.

The local riding establishment, called Hilltop Stables, was half an hour away. I rode there occasionally in the early 1960s with my brother Tommy and over the protests of my mother. Her upbringing on rocky farmland north of Kingston in southeastern Ontario cured her of any romantic notions about horses. Besides, she would point out, trail rides cut deeply into our paper-route money. My favourite mount was a big horse aptly called Chocolate, and Iwell remember his gentle nature and the thrill of gallops back to the barn.

I remember, too, vividly, riding a smaller horse across busy St. Clair Avenue as part of a trail ride one bright summer day when the blue sky seemed to have beckoned us to the stable. My horse paused in the middle of the road as a bus crested the hill and bore down upon us. It's funny how moments such as this, which endure only thin seconds, occupy fat folders in one's memory banks. The other riders had all gone ahead and were safely out of the way, their horses settled in the low hills beyond the road, and I can't recall whether my horse paused and I tried to move him on, or whether he simply froze and I did likewise. What I do remember is cold panic. Perhaps the trail guide was shouting as the bus kept coming, kept coming.

By then my focus had shifted from the horse to the bus. I could see the driver's face. Then the guide, a boy likely not much older than I, dashed out from the roadside, circled my horse and lashed out at the poor creature with the length of chain he held in his hand. Only later did I wonder why he carried such a thing, but it did have the desired effect. My horse charged forward and I managed to stay on, though my heart was beating furiously and was not where it should have been, but in my mouth.
I was not one of those who grew up on a ranch or a farm and who took to riding as a tadpole takes to swimming. I liked horses but the art of riding was not something I studied or pondered. The Hilltop barn was eventually swallowed by malls and bungalows and I didn't ride again for a long time.

In my late thirties, I took up riding more formally when I was asked to help the prominent equestrian Ian Millar write his memoirs. It seemed I could have no real entry into this man's heart and mind until I had mastered at least the rudiments of correct riding. I was living in the country then, took riding lessons once weekly and continued doing so for years. I later went on a cattle drive in Alberta and twice rode the Wyoming outback on rugged week-long treks.

By my late forties, I had written several books and magazine articles about eminent horses and riders and trainers. I had developed a special interest in all this; some mistakenly called it expertise. I knew, or thought I did, a great deal about the history of horses and horsemanship, but my knowledge was long on theory, short on practice. If I was a rider, I was only a fair one. And I could not, by any stretch, call myself a horseman, for I had yet to realize a long-held dream -- to ride my own horse.

At the age of 50 I finally bought my first. That I came to buy a Canadian horse owes everything to a librarian named Patricia Cooper, who lives north of Toronto near Palgrave. She owns two Canadians, a young chestnut mare named China and an older black gelding called Tom, and she wrote me several years ago, wondering if she and I might collaborate on a children's book about the Canadian horse. I knew the heritage breed only vaguely but I did agree to go to Patricia's house, meet her horses, and look at her research.

Patricia is a modest, soft-spoken woman, but there is a sense of mission about her. Over tea in her airy kitchen, we talked about the breed, my interest now warming in the face of Patricia's own zeal. She had compiled eight binders of magazine and newspaper articles and other historical documents, all logged and cross-referenced on filing cards in a plastic box the colour of dark amber. She was, after all, a librarian and she was urging me to take over her project.

I carried away this great load in a cardboard box and we agreed to confer again. What I read took my breath away. The Canadian horse is a storied but unheralded breed and I knew immediately that I would buy such a horse and tell the history of his kin. Over time, what took shape in my mind was not a kids' book at all, but one that would weave two tales -- the history of Canada's national horse (or is it Quebec's?), and my own tale of taking on as my first horse a young, unschooled, peppery one.

Hardy, quick, and pound for pound perhaps the strongest horse on the planet, the Canadian has been called "the little horse of iron" yet few know about the breed, whose roots go back 350 years to the very early days of colonial Canada.

Twenty years ago, the Canadian horse almost disappeared, but the numbers are surging now, with some estimates putting the count of registered Canadian horses at more than 4,000. Still, the breed is rare and two decades ago was endangered. Despite the low numbers and their reputation as multi-purpose horses, Canadians have won North American and world championships in the sport of combined driving.

The Canadian makes a fine trail horse, some are capable eventers, others are notable jumpers or endurance horses. Their bloodlines played a pivotal role in forming the Standardbred, the Morgan and several other well-known breeds. And, of course, their proud history as farm horse and warhorse goes right back to the very beginnings of New France. The more I read of this horse, the more I came to appreciate him.

Being a Canadian, though, the horse has historically been admired elsewhere and undervalued at home. Cecily Ross once wrote a piece in Harrowsmith magazine about this heritage breed. It was entitled "The Little Horse That Could." "I wonder," she wrote, "how a country so hungry for symbols and unifying myths has managed to overlook such a great Canadian." We know the Pony Express saga but not an equally proud bit of horse history closer to home. Even American author Bonnie Hendricks, who wrote the definitive book on international horse breeds a few years ago, called the Canadian horse "one of the best kept secrets of the twentieth century."

It's possible, and intriguing, to view Canadian history through the eyes of this horse. If the horse-proud Louis XIV has a place in the story (for he sent the first horses to New France), so do all these elements: a small cavalry unit fighting for the French on the Plains of Abraham, les habitants racing each other in cutters on frozen lakes, Cornelius Krieghoff painting horse-rich pastoral scenes, and the many thousands of chevaux canadiens who perished in the American Civil War or who turned heads on Kentucky racetracks. The Queen's Plate, that famous horse race that feels so English, so rooted in Toronto, was first run in 1836 at Trois-Rivières as the King's Plate and its prize of 50 royal guineas was restricted to horses bred in Lower Canada, many of them horses whose ancestors were a gift of the king to a distant colony more than a century and a half earlier.
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Table of Contents

1. The Gift of the Sun King
2. Wanted: One Little Horse of Iron
3. The Great Sell-Off
4. Riding High on a Little Horse
5. the Canadian Horse as Warhorse
6. Coming to Blue Haven
7. On the Brink of Disaster
8. "He Won't Blow Over in a Stiff Breeze..."
9. Horse Rescue
10. The Education of Saroma Dark Fox Dali
11. Show Time
12. "He's So Quiet..."
13. The Canadian Horse as Sport Horse
14. Seven Falls Makes a Rider
15. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Rider
16. Dark Fox Dali in the Year 2000
17. The Canadian Horse Hall of Fame
18. The Sweet Second Summer
Image Credits
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