How to write about The Queen … of horses

“Canadien Horse?  Never heard of it,” said the magazine editor down the phone to me, “but write it up and we’ll have a look.” I had just read an article about the breed in an obscure Canadian historical magazine and had fallen in love with these tough, hardy, talented “little iron horses” as they’re known.

Article about the Queen's horse

HM Queen riding her famous horse “Burmese”, given to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1969. Burmese was ridden by the Queen at every Trooping the Colour ceremony from 1969 to 1986. Many thanks for this image to Leonard Bentley.

Being Canadian myself, I was particularly enthused at the thought of introducing British readers to a Canadian product that’s lot more interesting than maple syrup, lumberjacks, or Toronto’s CN tower which once earned itself the dubious accolade of being “the largest free-standing erection in North America.”

I was also fascinated to learn more about what I imagine is, if not the only one, certainly one of the few North American “native” breeds not descended from horses left behind by the Spanish.

To learn more about the breed and its history, there are some excellent videos about it here on YouTube.

After that conversation I had with the editor, the process of researching the Canadien Horse took me on an incredible postal, telephonic and internet two-year journey in French and English across Canada, and even on a personal visit to the Queen’s Stud at Polhampton in UK.

During my research project I was told that the Queen’s black mare Burmese, given to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1969 and the horse which carried her for 18 “Troupings of the Colours” was in fact a Canadien Horse. True? Or maybe partly true?

So, supposedly was Centenial, also given to the Queen by the RCMP and famously ridden out one time for a hack with HM by a very uncomfortable-looking (late) Ronald Reagan. If any of you have seen a copy of the colour brochure given out by the Royal Mews in the late 1990s, you’ll find the photo I’m talking about – otherwise see below!

The Queen and Ronald Reagan hack out

In it our Ron was wearing a pair of long leather riding boots that positively glared at you with their newness, cream breeches that had never seen a saddle before, a crisp new tweed jacket and an expression on his face that hints at the need for a laxative. Poor old Ron.

For a former actor accustomed to doing a few movie scenes in chaps, jeans, cowboy boots and a cheesey smile on an obliging 15hh Quarter Horse before his double took over to do the tricky bits, going out for an “English” hack with HM on must have been a worrying prospect.

Article about the Queen and her horses

The late Ronald Reagan doing a grand job of coping with riding “English” … on Centenial, with HM Queen astride this time, on Burmese.

I don’t remember seeing media reports that he had fallen off Centenial so we assume he stayed in the saddle for the duration. But knowing that HM is a keen hacker-outer when she gets the chance (even today, aged over 90, on a Fell pony ) Ron must have been calling on all his thespian resources to maintain that cheesey smile.

Riding “English” when you’re used to “Western” must be as hard a transition as the other way around. And there speaks the voice of experience (ouch.)

The Queen’s horse Centenial in retirement

Anyway, Burmese died in 1990 but Centenial was still around when I was researching the Canadien. Having contact the Press Office at Buckingham Palace, I was redirected to the Royal Stud in Norfolk and finally to Polhampton, Hampshire.

Here, old Centenial was on babysitting duties in his retirement. My PA and I were given a wonderful tour of the stud by the resident headman, former groom to Burmese and a fund of extraordinary stories not about the Royal Family – oh no – but about their horses.

Centenial was turned out in a paddock a long way from the stud yard, and as we trudged through the intervening fields the headman pointed out the herds of the Queen’s yearlings and 2-year-olds.

Most of them trotted up to the fence to take a look at us new visitors as we trudged onwards into Centenial’s paddock, where he was stuffing his face with the lush spring grass alongside one of the late Queen Mother’s retired race horses, and a mischievous young gelding who was there to benefit from their elderly company.

Article about the Queen's horses

A Canadien horse more true to the original breed type – tough, versatile, handsome and not very big, although many breeders today are producing Canadiens of up to 16.2hh – 17hh.

Well, despite the impression I’d received from Canada that Centenial could have been a Canadien, once I took a good look at him I changed my mind. He stood at a hefty 17hh and like many horses emanating from the RCMP, was probably either a full or part Standardbred, or a Thoroughbred/Hanoverian cross.

Although some Canadien horses do reach 17hh these days (to the extreme irritation of the purists who breed them to their original size of 14.2-15hh) this kiddie was no Canadien. But he was lovely.

I so wish I could ask the Queen herself!

Looking at photographs of the late Burmese, on the other hand, you can certainly see a gleam in her kind eye and a look about her broad head and bushy mane which, now, are very familiar to me.  Was there some Canadien in her sturdy bloodline?

Her records don’t show anything about her breeding, and probably the only person who knows the answer is the Queen herself – someone I’m unlikely to bump into over a cup of coffee and a chat.

One day when funds and circumstances permit, I might just import a Canadien into the UK where I live. And unlike Ronald Reagan, I’ll be able to get on it in breeches and long boots and ride like the wind of the non-intestinal variety. I hope.

What experience do you have of the Canadien?

And had you ever heard of these horses before today? Please share your thoughts.