The Friesian Horse Society

Friesian History

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. At the start of the Christian era, the Friesian was used in battle1 and Friesian troops were documented in Britannia. In the 4th century, English writer Anthony Dent1 wrote about the presence of Friesian troops at Carlisle and their horses. Both cases probably involve Friesian mercenaries mounted on Friesian stallions. Anthony Dent and other writers indicate that the Friesian horse is the ancestor of both the British Shire breed and the Fell pony.

Since the 16th century, Friesians have been in Neaples. Jan van der Straat’s 1568 painting shows “Phryso” owned by Don Juan from Austria.

In the 11th century, Willem de Veroveraar1 used horses that had a remarkable resemblance to the Friesian breed. From this period, there are many illustrations of knights riding Friesian-looking horses.

During the crusades and later, in the course of the Eighty Years’ War, it is very probable that the Friesian breed was crossed with Arabian and Andalusian horses.

The first written evidence of use of the name “Friesian horse” was an announcement in 1544 that German Elector Johann Friedrich von Sachsen came to the Reichstag in Spiers riding a Friesian stallion3. Three years later, he rode the stallion in the Battle of Muhlberg and was recognized from afar by Emperor Charles V. Also an etching dating from 1568 of the stallion Phryso1 belonging to Don Juan of Austria in Napels is very well known. During the 17th century, the Friesian horse was well represented at the various riding schools where the haut école of equitation was practiced.

Use of the Friesian horse, however, became increasingly limited to the current Dutch province of Friesland over the 18th and 19th centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the presence of the Friesian horse in the countryside of Friesland became an expression of the owner’s wealth with the breed used mostly to bring upper-class farmers to church. The horse was additionally used for entertainment in the form of ridden short-track trotting races2. In these races, the horse was traditionally ridden with just a small orange blanket on its back. During this period, the Friesian horse was very likely used in the breeding of the Orlov as well as American trotters.

On May 1, 1879, in Roordahuizum, the Friesch Paarden-Stamboek (the studbook of the Friesian horse) was established, which has registered Friesian horses ever since. Registration of the limited number of Friesian horses remaining proved somewhat of a stimulus to the breed, but the popularity of the heavier breeds, the so-called “Bovenlanders”, nonetheless continued to undermine the Friesian. Supporters of the Bovenlanders were often unnecessarily harsh in their judgements of the Friesian horse that was said to “dance” too much in front of the plough and therefore wasted useful energy. There was some truth in what they said, but they failed to appreciate the history of the Friesian horse and the profound affection between master and horse that is so often seen with the Friesian breed3.

In the 17th century , the Marquis De Newcastle mentioned Friesian horses as being very qualified for dressage and high school riding.

At the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century, a very difficult period ensued when the Friesian had to struggle to compete with the heavy breeds. The “dancing show horses” of the landed farmers were in fact less suited for heavy work. Farmers finally switched over to the heavier breeds or crossed the Friesian horse with these breeds, which proved almost fatal for the Friesian breed. By the start of the 20th century, Friesian numbers were dwindling rapidly. In 1913, there were only three older studbook stallions available for breeding4.

Fortunately there were people in Friesland who wanted to save the native Friesian horse breed from extinction. They bought the remaining quality purebred colts and the Friesian was saved from disaster4. Among others, the Royal Stables in Borculo and the De Oorsprong breeding farm, which had been established by the family Van Eysinga at Huis ter Heide in 1885, played a role in this2.

After 1913 and the Friesian’s competition with heavier horses, some of its luxuriance was compromised for more horsepower. The Friesian therefore became a bit smaller and heavier horse. As a result, a type of Friesian horse emerged that was different from what is more desirable today, which has the original long lines of its forefathers4.

In the 1960’s the crisis resulting from farm mechanization made the agricultural horse redundant. Most farmers lacked the money to keep a horse for pleasure only, which meant that the horse disappeared from the farm yards. In 1965, only some 500 mares were registered in the studbook3. Fortunately there were now also great lovers of the breed who brought the horse to the attention of others. In 1967, the national riding association, De Oorsprong, began a crusade through the Dutch province of Friesland to promote the Friesian horse. From March 28 to April 1, a parade of lovers of the breed traveled with their Friesian horses from Huis ter Heide to Workum2>. The impact of the promotion campaign was evident in the rapid expansion of the breed in the two ensuing decades.

Since then, many people have discovered the fabulous characteristics of the Friesian breed and purebred Friesians are now seen and enjoyed around the world with the majority being in the Netherlands. As of 2007 more than 40,000 horses were registered by the Koninklijke Vereniging “Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek” (KFPS) and some 7,000 breedings are now documented every year1. The result has been the establishment of “daughter” societies of KFPS outside the Netherlands. Most Dutch members are associated with breeding societies, which organize a large number of activities each year3. The Friesian has recently become one of Europe’s most respected performance horses. Because of continued steady growth in number as well as a tremendous surge in popularity, the Friesian’s survival is now virtually guaranteed.

A consistent breeding policy has produced the Friesian horse more familiar today, exhibiting the unique characteristics of the breed and continuing to bear close resemblance to its ancestors. There are three modern bloodlines: Tetman 205, Age 168, and Ritske 202. Each of these sires trace their blood to Paulus 121, who was 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. Today all purebred Friesians trace back to these bloodlines.

Multipurpose Utility Breed: Midway through the last century the Friesian horse was used mainly as a harness horse in farming operations. Because there is a close relation between an animal’s intended use and its exterior, Friesian horses that were bred for use in agriculture were more short-legged and compact than their ancestors, with forelegs a bit behind the vertical and a broad chest. With this broad chest, the horse was better able to throw itself “into the harness” and in so doing develop more pulling power. These exterior characteristics are less functional these days in the riding arena or in harness and driving horses. Nonetheless, the heavier and short-legged type is still much in evidence, partly because this type was bred for so many years and multiple generations are needed before it disappears from the breed.

These days Friesians are kept for purposes of recreation, breeding and sports, and often for some combination of these objectives. The Friesian is often seen in the dressage ring and in driving sports. Some of the more common uses are for ridden work under saddle and as a harness horse or driving horse. For work under saddle and driving sports, a functional build is key. The horse’s body must have an “uphill” slope. With this uphill build, the distribution of weight is brought more onto the hindquarters in motion, enabling the horse to carry more with its hindquarters. For an uphill build, a relatively long foreleg is important, as well as the stance of the foreleg. The stance of the foreleg is linked to the shoulder, whereby an angled and long shoulder provide the horse with space to extend its foreleg far out to the front. The harness horse often has a bit more vertical neckline than the riding and driving horse.

For an all purpose horse, the Friesian must move fluidly through its entire body, with powerful hindquarters that transmits movements forward, enabling the horse to “grow” in front, a desired trait for both riding under the saddle and for driving in front of the wagon. For harness horses, a lot of knee action is desirable (but not this alone, as it must be combined with spaciousness of gaits and “carrying” hindquarters), while for riding horses and also driving horses, extravagant knee action is not always appreciated. For all purposes, a correct leg stance is a must.

The Friesian horse has increasingly developed into a sports horse over the past decades, and in so doing is returning to its origins before the agricultural interlude. It is fast becoming the luxuriant aristocratic carriage horse it once was. Typical of these Black Pearls are the front, the majestic mane and feathering of the lower legs, the jet black color 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 breed2. Today, thanks to its typical functional characteristics, the Friesian horse now competes with other breeds at the highest levels of equestrian sports4.

1: Taken from “The Friesian Horse History” by Koninklijke Vereniging “Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek

2: Taken from “The Friesian Horse History” by Koninklijke Vereniging “Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek

3: Taken from “Information about the KFPS” by Koninklijke Vereniging “Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek

4: Taken from “Information about the KFPS” by Koninklijke Vereniging “Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek

1 Het Friese paard, ir. G.J.A. Bouma, E. Dijkstra and A. Osinga
2 Friese stamhengsten deel I, E. Dijkstra (citation from Dr. Geurts)
3 Article R.J. Zethoven, former boardmember of the KFPS
4 Judging of the Friesian Horse, by P. de Boer, S. Minkema and A.M. Teekens :