On Friesian Horses

Breed Profile
The Friesian horse is the only horse breed native to the Netherlands, where the Friesian has been known since as far back as the 13th century. A consistent breeding policy has produced the Friesian horse we are familiar with today, exhibiting the unique characteristics of the breed and continuing to bear close resemblance to its ancestors.

Typical of these Black Pearls are the front, the majestic mane and feathering of the lower legs, the jet black colour and the spacious, powerful elevated gaits. The harmonious build and the noble head, set on a lightly arched neck, complete the aristocratic and fiery appearance. Its amicable character is the key to a great utility breed.

The Friesian horse has increasingly developed itself as a sports horse over the past decades, in so doing in fact returning to its origins before the agricultural interlude. The Friesian’s origin is of a luxuriant and aristocratic carriage horse. Today, thanks to its typical functional characteristics, the Friesian horse now competes with other breeds at the highest levels of equestrian sports. (Courtesy KFPS)

Breed History
As well as being a very old breed, the Friesian horse is possibly the only surviving indigenous breed in the Netherlands.

Originally, the Friesian horse was favoured for military service. Roman historians recorded mounted Friesian troops at Hadrian’s wall in around 150 A.D. and Anthony Dent describes the presence of independent Friesian troops at Carlisle in the 4th Century which probably related to mercenaries with Friesian stallions. Dent also mentions that Friesian horses were probably the foundation for the “Old English Black”, the ancestor of the Shire horse and of the Fell Pony. The latter shows a remarkable resemblance.

During the 17th Century, Friesian horses were found amongst Spanish breeds at various riding academies where the art of classical riding was practised. Even then, the Friesian horse was very much in demand as a carriage horse as well as being a popular high-school dressage horse.

In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries the Friesian horse became restricted to the province of Friesland where the horse was used for pleasure purposes such as trotting races. Some of these trotting horses were quite famous and almost certainly the Friesian horse was used for breeding Russian Orlov and American trotting horses. Finally, at the end of the 19th century, the start of the 20th century the Friesian horse with “the blood of a nobleman and a talent for dancing” had to be used on the farms and compete with the heavier horse-breeds, the so called Bovenlanders. This competition almost proved fatal.

On 1st May 1879, the first horse studbook of the Netherlands, the Friesian Horse Studbook was established aimed at saving the Friesian horse from apparent doom. After a short revival it decreased rapidly and in 1913 only 3 old studbook stallions remained. The breed was almost extinct.

After the all time low of 1913, there was no other choice: the Friesian horse would have to be able to compete with the Bovenlanders on the farms. So the unwelcome change in breeding policy was an unavoidable adaptation to the demands of the times. Some luxury had to give way and additional power added resulting in a smaller and heavier type of Friesian horse which is no longer desirable. Today the demand is for luxurious and long lined horses.
In the 60s the Friesian horse was hit by a worse crisis than even that of 1913 with the world-wide abolition of horse-power on the farms and the introduction of mechanisation. Most farmers lacked the money and time to keep their horses solely for pleasure.

The situation was worse than ever and in 1965 only 500 mares remained in the Studbook registers. However, just in the nick of time, the unstoppable influence of an improving economy came to the rescue of the Friesian horse and it was rediscovered for leisure activities.

Again it was its fabulous exterior and its superb nature characterised by kindness, intelligence, adaptability and tremendous willingness to work that proved so well suited to those who were not familiar with horses.

Within a short period the Friesian horse proved itself as a driving horse, even competing at top international level with drivers like Leo Kraayenbrink and Tjeerd Velstra; as a dressage horse, as well as in ….the circus!

At long last the Friesian horses were allowed to dance again.