Friesian- The Black Horse of Friesland
by Crystal A. Eikanger
The Friesian Horse, one of Europe’s oldest domesticated breeds, originated in Friesland, a province of The Netherlands. It is considered to be a Warmblood because of its easy-going temperament with a companionable nature. The Friesian horse is also a talented show horse when it comes to dressage. This is due to its intelligence, willingness to learn and to please, and readiness to perform.
It is difficult to date the precise origin of the Friesian but it is believed to be descended from the ancient Equus robustus (big horse). Frisian horsemen served in the Roman Legions, e.g. the Equites Singulares of Emperor Nero (54-68), and in Great Britain near Hadrian’s Wall which was built in 120 AD. There is certainty that the horse was well-known in the Middle Ages since it is found in art work of that era. Breeding horses was very important for the Frisians and before the reformation, the monks in Friesland monasteries did a lot of horse breeding.
In the 1600’s it was adopted to carry heavy weight under saddle. During the 16th and 17th centuries, and maybe earlier, Arabian blood was introduced through the Spanish Andalusian horses. This gave them the high knee-action, the small head and the craning neck. The Friesian horse has had no influence from the English Thoroughbred and during the last two centuries it has been bred pure.
Through the centuries, the Friesian Government has made many regulations in order to safeguard breeding and now the Dutch Horselaw of 1939 (modified) gives rules for studbook and breeding. Systematic breeding has restored the breed’s quality and its numbers are now increasing. The horse is now being exported to other countries and its popularity is growing.
The Friesian horse was originally imported to North America in the 17th century but the purity of the breed was totally lost in North America due to crossbreeding because due to its splendid action at the trot, the Friesian was bred to be lighter in weight. This, unfortunately, limited its use in agriculture and led to its decline in the early 1900’s. It nearly died out before World War I, when the number of Friesian stallions was reputedly reduced to only three. The breed was rejuvenated by introducing the Oldenburg horse.
Thanks to a few Dutch Friesian admirers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, purebred Friesians are now seen and enjoyed around the world, with the majority being in the Netherlands and Germany, followed by North America where it was reintroduced in 1974. The result has been the establishment of “daughter” societies of FPS around the world.
In conformation, the Friesian horse resembles the ancient western European horse and the knights’ horse called destrier. Most memorable is their impressive stature. Friesian stallions must be at least 15.3 hands by age four with mares and geldings reaching at least 14.3 hands in order to be registered in the adult studbooks. Many are 16.0 hands or more, and weigh 1300 + pounds.
The fine head of the Friesian is carried quite high on an elegantly curved neck with outstanding crest, but compared to the body, the head seems relatively small and either straight or slightly concave. The face is expressive with big eyes, and small ears are typical. The breed has a broad chest with lightly accentuated croup. Tough legs with good bone structure, and hind quarters that are muscular yet smooth, result in an enduring and surefooted horse.
The modern Friesian has long, heavy, luxuriant mane and the extra-long tail; these are never cut and often reach the ground. The breed also has abundant feather and long Shire-like leg hair reaching from the middle of the leg. When performing, these features combine with the feathers and the low set of the tail to emphasize the breed’s powerful and elastic gait.
Up until the turn of the century about twenty percent were chestnut or bay, and gray also occurred in the breed, but black is now the only recognized color, but this may range from very dark brown or black-bay to true black. Many Friesians appear to be black bay when their coats are shedding or when they have become sun or sweat bleached. White markings have been minimized by selective breeding and the only white marking that is allowed on a studbook-registered horse is a small white spot or star between the eyes.
The Friesian has a powerful, high-stepping gait, but aside from its high knee action and elegant performance, the Friesian horse was also used as a trotting race horse for the short distance of 80 rods (325 m). In the 18th and 19th centuries these horse races were very popular in Friesland. For important races the prize was a silver or a gold whip. The Friesian Museum at Leeuwarden has a fine collection of them. The races at Leeuwarden ended in 1891 when H.M. Queen Regent Emma awarded the golden whip for the last time. The Friesian horse influenced the breeding of the Russian Orloff, along with English and American race horses. Since these horses were bred and used for racing only and were faster, this brought Friesian horseracing to an end.
The modern Friesian is slightly taller and lighter on its feet than its coach-bred ancestors, which has allowed the Friesian to re-emerge as both a champion dressage and driving performance horse.
Driving one or more Friesian horses has become increasingly popular in the past few years. Harness events in shows are usually driven with a high-wheeled gig called the “sjees”, for singles, pairs, and tandems. The oldest original sjees were built in the late 18th century. The sjees derives its elegant form from the two slender, high wheels and the small seat suspended between them on leather straps. The two-person seat has ornately molded, carved, and painted panels, back, front, and sides, with a bit of a Rubenesque look to it. An especially impressive show is the Friesian quadrille which is comprised of 8 sjees, drawn by Friesians, driven by gentlemen accompanied by a lady, both dressed in traditional 1850’s costumes. Complex patterns are driven, showing the drivers’ trust in the obedience of their horses. Driving with four-wheeled show carts is also becoming popular.
The Friesian Horse Association of North America (FHANA) was founded in 1983 and is the North American representative of the original Friesian horse association, Friese Paarden Stamboek (FPS). The FPS is recognized as the world-wide authority on the Friesian Horse. This studbook is the oldest in the Netherlands. It was founded May 1, 1879. There are more than 45,000 Friesians registered worldwide in the FPS with approximately 4,000 of those horses in North America. Tongue-tattooing, once voluntary, became mandatory in 1989.
The rules of FHANA strictly forbid the breeding of FPS registered Friesian horses with other breeds and only Approved Studbook Stallions can sire horses that are eligible for entry in the main studbook registers. There are approximately 75 Approved Stallions in the world today and about a quarter of those are in North America. The selection and testing requirements are so rigorous that only a handful is approved each year. Four years after approval, the stallion’s offspring must demonstrate to the studbook inspectors that the Approved stallion is making a positive impact on the breed or his approval will be withdrawn. This insures that only the very best stallions will influence the future of the Friesian horse.
The naming conventions for the Friesian Horses are quite involved and often require a foal to be renamed with a Friesian word when it becomes an approved breeding stallion. Names of fillies cannot be duplicated in the same calendar year, but its ok for colts to have the same name as other colts. Each calendar year a foal’s name must begin with specific letters of the alphabet as designated by the FPS. For example, names for foals born in 2008 must begin with the letters A, B, or C, and should be relatively simple, consisting of a single word. Explicit details for all naming rules can be found on the FPS website.
The Friesian horse is equally skilled at multi-level dressage, trotting, and driving, singly or combined. The same blood lines that run through the Lipizzaner are present in the Friesian, but unlike some other European warmbloods, Friesians have not been bred as jumpers.