The Friesian (also Frizian) is a horse breed originating in Friesland, in the Netherlands. Although the conformation of the breed resembles that of a light draught 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 armour. In the Late Middle Ages, heavier, draught 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 "Frizian". However, the alternative spelling with an "s" is used for Holstein Friesian cattle. During much of the history of the Friesch Paarden Stamboek, the breed register, 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.
The Friesian breed is most often recognised by its black coat colour, however, colour alone is not the only distinguishing characteristic; Friesians are occasionally chestnut as some bloodlines do carry the "red" ('e") gene. 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 stands on average 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. 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 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.
The chestnut colour is generally not accepted for registration for stallions, though it is sometimes is allowed for mares and geldings. A chestnut-coloured Friesian that competes is penalised. However, discoloration from old injuries or a black coat with fading from the sun is not penalised. The Friesch Paarden Stamboek began to attempt breeding out the chestnut colour in 1990, and today stallions with genetic testing indicating the presence of the chestnut or "red" gene, even if heterozygous and masked by black colour, are not allowed registration with the FPS. The American Friesian Association, which is not affiliated to the KFPS, allows horses with white markings and/or chestnut colour to be registered if purebred parentage can be proven. In 2014 there were eight stallion lines known to still carry the chestnut gene.
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. Approximately 0.25% of Friesians are affected by dwarfism, which results in horses with a normal-sized head, a broader chest than normal, an abnormally long back and very short limbs. It is a recessive condition. Additionally, the breed has a higher-than-usual rate of digestive system disorders, and a greater tendency to have insect bite hypersensitivity. Like some other draught breeds, they are prone to a skin condition called Verrucous pastern dermatopathy and may be generally prone to having a compromised immune system. 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 inbreedingare thought to be factors behind most of these disorders.
The Friesian originates in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands, where there is evidence of thousands of years of horse populations.
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 crossbred with Friesians, producing a lighter horse more suitable (in terms of less food intake and waste output) for work as urban carriage horses.
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. 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 Fries Rundvee Stamboek (FRS) The Paardenstamboek ("horse stud book") was published in 1880 and initially registered both Friesian horses and a group of heavy warmblood breeds, including Ostfriesen and Alt-Oldenburgers, collectively known as "Bovenlanders". At the time, the Friesian horse was declining in numbers, and was being replaced by the more fashionable Bovenlanders, both directly, and by crossbreedingBovenlander 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 society led to a revival of the breed 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. Therefore, in 1906, the two parts of the registry were joined, and the studbook was renamed the Friesch Paarden Stamboek (FPS) in 1907."
In 1913 a society, Het Friesch Paard, was founded to protect and promote the breed. By 1915 it had convinced FPS to split registration into two groups. By 1943, the breeders of non-Friesian horses left the FPS completely to form a separate association, which later became the Koninklijk Warmbloed Paardenstamboek Nederland (Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands (KWPN).
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 population and popularity of the breed to rebound. Important in the initial stage of the recovery of the breed 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.
As use in agricultural pursuits declined, the Friesian became popular for recreational uses. Today, about seven percent of the horses in the Netherlands are Friesians.
The Friesian horse today is used both in harness and under saddle, particularly in the discipline of dressage. In harness, they are used for competitive and recreational driving, both singly and in teams. A traditional carriage seen in some events designed for Friesian horses is a high-wheeled cart called a sjee. Friesians are also used in ventures such as pulling vintage carriages at assorted ceremonial events.
Because of their colour and striking appearance, Friesian horses are a popular breed in movies and television, particularly in historic and fantasy dramas. They are viewed as calm in the face of the activity associated with filmmaking, but also elegant on-camera.