In 1988 when the Canadian Warmblood Horse Breeders Association was first conceived there were relatively few Warmbloods in Canada and even fewer breeding stallions. So how did the Warmblood horse, a horse that is indigenous to Western Europe find a foothold and ultimately thrive in Canada?
The answer is pretty straight forward; excellence in sport and rideability. By the time Warmbloods began appearing in North America in the 1970’s, they had successfully been transformed in Europe, from the earlier farm/military horse to the preeminent sport horse. During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, equestrian fans in Canada saw, up close, the strengths and abilities of such greats as Granat, Warwick Rex, and many others. Canada’s only medal was a show jumping silver with Michel Villancourt on the Thoroughbred, Branch County. The writing was on the wall.
It is not necessary to chronicle what followed with Canadian riders, such as Ian Millar on Big Ben, Gail Greenough on Mr T and Mario Delaurier on Aramis. Their exploits are well remembered. What is less well known is the adoption by Canadian breeders of the bloodlines and methodologies of the successful European Warmblood studbooks. That journey took full flight with the formation of the CWHBA, bringing the pioneer Warmblood breeders together with a common goal.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s importation proceeded steadily and with such a large country it was clear that success would only come if Canadian breeders worked together under one organization. Like many countries, Canadian legislation requires that breed societies in Canada are based on sound genetic principles that produce consistent phenotypic animals. In short they must be closely related and breed consistently.
Although Warmblood horses are produced in a large number of countries, under regional names, it was not difficult to demonstrate that Warmbloods, regardless of their region or country of origin, are genetically and phenotypically one breed. It was fascinating to discover how widely travelled some of the early stallions were and how quickly their sons and daughters spread throughout the various studbooks. With the advent of frozen semen the gentic relatedness within the Warmblood population has continued to increase. It is not surprising that Canadian Warmbloods reflect the gentics of their European counterparts, nor is it surprising that there is so much homogeneity.
There is no doubt that Warmbloods now dominate the equestrian sports of jumping, dressage and even hunter and eventing in Canada; just as they do throughout most of the sporting world. So the question is not so much will they continue to dominate the sport, but how will Canadian breeders respond to the evolving demands of the market and issues confronting the industry.
In the past couple of decades breeding has become specialized between jumping and dressage. In some studbooks this specialization has become formalized within the grading and approval process. The North American market is even more multi faceted with a strong hunter presence along side the interest in jumping, dressage and three day event. In response to this reality the CWHBA is testing an approval process that allows stallions to be nominated for approval by discipline. This evaluation adjusts for the particular requirements of each discipline and avoids the trap of trying to fit everyone into the same box.
A second issue is changing technology. Frozen semen has become reliable and routine, embryo transfers common and frozen embryos widely available. Cloning, once considered a significant development has not really taken hold, but ICSI is looking like an important development that could have wide reaching effects, especially regarding genetic diversity. These technological advances may contribute to excessive concentration of genetics so the CWHBA, like many studbooks, provides an inbreeding coefficient calculator to assist breeders in planning matings.
Although these technologies present competition for local stallion owners, use of frozen semen and embryos ensures that Canadian breeders will continue to stay current with the trends world wide. At the same time they do provide opportunities for Canadian stallions to access broader markets.
Since that beginning in 1988 over ten thousand horses have been registered and Canadian bred Warmbloods have competed in the Olympics, the World Championships and World Cup competitions. Of course every breeder dreams of producing an elite sport horse, however it takes more than just good genetics. Sometimes it requires the luck of getting the horse into the right hands.
Competing on a Canadian Warmblood is particularly common at all levels in Canada and increasingly evident in the USA. Not only do Canadians travel to California, Florida, and Arizona for the winter show season, but more and more American riders are looking north to find a suitable mount. The CWHBA hosts the longest continuous running Warmblood horse auction in North America. Since 1994 over one thousand horses have sold to buyers from across Canada and the United States and some even to Europe. The sale, run by the Alberta Chapter of the CWHBA, moved online when covid hit in 2020.
Many American buyers realize that in Canada you get Warmblood horses of equivalent depth of pedigree and quality, with the added advantage of direct transport and no quarantine requirements. An added bonus is the, often times, advantageous currency exchange rate.
It is too soon to suggest that Canadians are putting a particular stamp on Warmblood horses born in Canada, but is there anything that makes Canadian Warmbloods unique you might ask. The answer is yes. First, Canadian bred horses often grow up under conditions that promote strong constitutions and good minds: large pastures with natural terrain, cold winters and high quality feed. Canada has unparalleled natural resources to breed and rear quality Warmbloods.
Second, Canadian breeders are familiar with the exacting requirements of the North American style of riding: refined, responsive and highly rideable with a good disposition. Canadian breeders are knowledgeable about and able to select for the hunter discipline and equitation classes complimentary to the traditional selection for jumping and dressage. Consequently these horses can be considered tailor made, through selective breeding programs, to meet the needs of Canadian and American amateurs and professionals.
The numbers speak for themselves. Of the current population of Canadian Warmbloods under the age of fifteen, approximately 22% are owned by Americans. Since the CWHBA sales went online 20% of the horses sold have gone to U.S. buyers; including foals, prospects and advanced competition horses.
The Warmblood horse is now well established in Canada and the future looks bright. All this is evidence of why the Canadian Warmblood Horse Breeders Association continues to grow and gain in popularity and why the Warmblood horse is at home in Canada.