Friesian horse


Friesian horse
Distinguishing features Black, 15 to 17 hands (60 to 68 inches, 152 to 173 cm), powerfully muscled, agile with elegant action, thick mane and tail, feather on lower legs.
Alternative names Belgian Black (UK)
Country of origin Netherlands
Equus ferus caballus

The Friesian (also Frisian) is a horse breed originating in Friesland, in the Netherlands. Although the breed's conformation resembles that of a light draft horse, Friesians are graceful and nimble for their size. It is believed that during the Middle Ages, ancestors of Friesian horses were in great demand as war horses throughout continental Europe. Through the Early Middle Ages and High Middle Ages, their size enabled them to carry a knight in armor. In the Late Middle Ages, heavier, draft type animals were needed. Though the breed nearly became extinct on more than one occasion, the modern day Friesian horse is growing in numbers and popularity, used both in harness and under saddle. Most recently, the breed is being introduced to the field of dressage.

Spelling and usage

In English, the word indicating origin from the Friesland region is typically spelled "Frisian". However, the alternative spelling with an "e" is used for Holstein Friesian cattle. During much of the history of the Friesch Paarden Stamboek breed registry, most breeders of the horses also were breeders of dairy cattle and the same spelling was also used for both animals, particularly by English-language breeding societies and registries.

Breed characteristics

A Friesian stallion in show stance

The Friesian breed is most often recognized by its black coat color, however, color alone is not the only distinguishing characteristic; Friesians are occasionally chestnut as some bloodlines do carry the "red" ('e") gene.[1] Friesians rarely have white markings of any kind; most registries allow only a small star on the forehead for purebred registration. To be accepted as breeding stock by the FPS studbook (Friesch Paarden Stamboek), a stallion must pass a rigorous approval process.

The Friesian's average height is about 15.3 hands (63 inches, 160 cm), although it may vary from 14.2 to 17 hands (58 to 68 inches, 147 to 173 cm) at the withers, and mares or geldings must be at least 15.2 hands (62 inches, 157 cm) to qualify for a "star-designation" pedigree.[2] Horses are judged at an inspection, or keuring, by Dutch judges, who decide whether the horse is worthy of star designation. The breed has powerful overall conformation and good bone structure, with what is sometimes called a "Baroque" body type. Friesians have long, arched necks and well-chiseled, short-eared, "Spanish-type" heads. They have powerful, sloping shoulders, compact, muscular bodies with strong, sloping hindquarters and low-set tails. Their limbs are comparatively short and strong. A Friesian horse also has a long, thick mane and tail, often wavy, and "feather" — long, silky hair on the lower legs — deliberately left untrimmed. The breed is known for a brisk, high-stepping trot. The Friesian's temperament is considered willing, active, and energetic, but also gentle and docile. A Friesian tends to have great presence and to carry itself with elegance. Today, there are two distinct conformation types — the "baroque" type, which has the more robust build of the classical Friesian, and the modern, "sport horse" type, which is finer-boned. Both types are common, though the modern type is currently more popular in the show ring than is the baroque Friesian. However, conformation type is considered less important than correct movement.

Friesian stallion

The chestnut color is generally not accepted for registration for stallions, though it is sometimes is allowed for mares and geldings.[1][3] A chestnut-colored Friesian that competes is penalized. However, discoloration from old injuries or a black coat with fading from the sun is not penalized.[1] The Friesch Paarden Stamboek began to attempt breeding out the chestnut color in 1990, and today stallions with genetic testing indicating the presence of the chestnut or "red" gene, even if heterozygous and masked by black color, are not allowed registration with the FPS.[4] Nonetheless, one registry, the American Friesian Association, allows horses with white markings and/or chestnut color to be registered if purebred parentage can be proven.[5] As of 2014 there are eight stallion lines known to still carry the chestnut gene.[4]

There are four genetic disorders acknowledged by the industry that may affect horses of Friesian breeding: dwarfism, hydrocephalus, a tendency for aortic rupture, and mega-esophagus. There are genetic tests for the first two conditions. The Friesian is also among several breeds that may develop PSSM.[6] Additionally, the breed has a higher-than-usual rate of digestive system disorders, and a greater tendency to have insect bite hypersensitivity. Friesian mares have a very high 54% rate of retained placenta after foaling. Some normal-sized Friesians also have a propensity toward tendon and ligament laxity which may or may not be associated with dwarfism. The relatively small gene pool and inbreeding are thought to be factors behind most of these disorders.[7]


Statue honoring the 100th anniversary of the modern Friesian studbook

The breed was developed in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands, where there is evidence of thousands of years of horse populations, and this breed is said to have descended from the primitive forest horse.

Ancestors of the modern Friesians were used in medieval times to carry knights to battle. In the 12th and 13th centuries, some eastern horses of crusaders were mated with Friesian stock. During the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Netherlands were briefly linked with Spain, there was less demand for heavy war horses, as battle arms changed and became lighter. Andalusian horses were bred with Friesians, producing a lighter horse more suitable (in terms of less food intake and waste output) for work as urban carriage horses.

Historian Ann Hyland wrote of the Friesian breed:

The Emperor Charles (reigned 1516 -56) continued Spanish expansion into the Netherlands, which had its Frisian warhorse, noted by Vegetius and used on the continent and in Britain in Roman times. Like the Andalusian, the Frisian bred true to type. Even with infusions of Spanish blood during the sixteenth century, it retained its indigenous characteristics, taking the best from both breeds. The Frisian is mentioned in 16th and 17th century works ... a courageous horse eminently suitable for war, lacking the volatility of some breeds or the phlegm of very heavy ones. Generally black, the Frisian was around 15hh with strong, cobby conformation, but with a deal more elegance and quality. The noted gait was a smooth trot coming from powerful quarters. Nowadays, though breed definition is retained, the size has markedly increased, as has that of most breeds due to improved rearing and dietary methods.[8]

The breed was especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were in demand not only as harness horses and for agricultural work, but also for the trotting races so popular then. The Friesian may have been used as foundation stock for such breeds as the Dole Gudbrandsdal, the Norfolk Trotter (ancestor of the Hackney), and the Morgan.[9] In the 1800s, the Friesian was bred to be lighter and faster for trotting, but this led to what some owners and breeders regarded as inferior stock, so a movement to return to pureblood stock took place at the end of the 19th century.

A Studbook Society was founded in 1879 by Frisian farmers and landowners who had gathered to found the Friesian Cattle Registry (FRS,[10] The Paardenstamboek ("Stud book") was published in 1880 and initially registered both Friesian horses and a group of heavy warmblood breeds, including East Friesians and Oldenburgers, collectively known as "Bovenlanders".[11] At the time, the Friesian horse was declining in numbers, and was being replaced by the more fashionable Bovenlanders, both directly, and by crossbreeding Bovenlander stallions on Friesian mares. This had already virtually exterminated the pure Friesian in significant parts of the province in 1879, which made the inclusion of Bovenlanders necessary. While the work of the registry produced a revival of the breed's popularity in the late 19th century, it also resulted in the sale and disappearance of many of the best stallions from the breeding area, and Friesian horse populations dwindled. By the early 20th century, the number of available breeding stallions was down to three.[12] Therefore, in 1906, the two parts of the registry were joined, and the studbook was renamed the Friesch Paarden Stamboek (FPS) in 1907."[11]

Friesian horses are sometimes referred to as "Belgian Blacks"

In 1913, a society known as the Het Friesch Paard was founded, dedicated to the protection and promotion of the breed. By 1915, the group convinced FPS to split the registries back up into two groups. By 1943, the breeders of non-Friesian horses left the FPS completely to form an entirely separate registry, which later became the Koninklijk Warmbloed Paardenstamboek Nederland (Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands (KWPN).[11]

Displacement by petroleum-powered farm equipment on dairy farms also was a threat to the survival of Friesian horse. The last draught function performed by Friesians on a significant scale was on farms that raised dairy cattle. World War II slowed down the process of displacement, allowing the breed's population and popularity to rebound. Important in the initial stage of the breed's rebound was the circus of the Strassburger family, who, having fled Nazi Germany for the Low Countries, discovered the show qualities of the breed and demonstrated its abilities outside of its local breeding area during and after the Nazi occupation.

Today, there are three modern bloodlines: Tetman 205, Age 168, and Ritske 202. Each of these sires traces his blood to Paulus 121, born in 1913 and entered into the Studbook in 1916. He, in turn, can be traced back three generations to the original 19th-century Studbook foundation sire, Nemo 51, born in 1885. All purebred Friesians trace back to these bloodlines.[11]

The Friesian today

A Friesian in surcingle, showing at the trot

From the latter part of the 20th century until the present, demand for purebred Friesians, particularly the "modern", finer-boned, taller, more agile version of the breed, increased, so breeders have bred both purebreds and a lighter-weight crossbred horse with valued characteristics, resulting in the Friesian cross and the Friesian Sporthorse.

Friesian horses are popular in both Europe and the United States, and are often used today for dressage competition, pleasure riding, and driving. Friesian horses can do well in dressage competition due to the breed's movement, trainability, appearance, power, and body control. The horse is popular as a carriage horse, with a powerful eye-catching, high stepping action, is particularly popular in competitions that require the driving of a team, partly because of its movement and disposition, and partly because it is easy to match teams of black horses, and as a circus horse.

Closeup of the head

Due to its dramatic appearance, the Friesian has become popular in the film industry although the historical accuracy of dramatizations using Friesians is dubious given the breed as it is known today only came into being within the last 400 to 600 years. The breed owes much of its current popularity to the appearance of the Friesian stallion Goliath (real name: Othello) in the 1985 film, Ladyhawke, which ignited a worldwide interest in these horses. Films such as Eragon, The Mask of Zorro, Alexander, The Chronicles of Narnia, For Greater Glory and The Wolfman have also featured Friesian horses. An episode of the TV series Lost featured a Friesian/Saddlebred cross. Most recently, Friesians were seen in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, where two horses named "Boech" and "Gallo" took turns playing the winged horse, Pegasus. Both were also used in the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian. Friesians were also used for the Tribute Parade in The Hunger Games and in Catching Fire

See Also


  1. ^ a b c "Friesian Breed Standard". USEF. 2014-03-20. Retrieved 2014-12-17. 
  2. ^ "KFPS > Home". 2014-03-19. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  3. ^ "Friesian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  4. ^ a b "CHESTNUT FRIESIANS or "FOX" FRIESIANS". U.S. Friesian Referral Service. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  5. ^ "Registration Rules & Regulations". American Friesian Association. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  6. ^ "Horse Health". Friesian Horse Association of North America. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Boerma, S.; Back, W.; Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, M. M. (February 2012). "The Friesian horse breed: A clinical challenge to the equine veterinarian?" (PDF). Equine Veterinary Education. pp. 66–71. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3292.2011.00302.x. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  8. ^ Hyland, Ann The Warhorse 1250-1600 UK:Sutton Publishing, 1998, pp 2-3
  9. ^ "Historic Notes". Friesian Crazy. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  10. ^ Bouma (1988) Het Friese Paard, p 25
  11. ^ a b c d [1][dead link]
  12. ^ P. de Boer, S. Minkema and A.M. Teekens. Judging of the Friesian Horse.