Always black, 15-17 hands, powerfully muscled, agile with elegant action, thick mane and tail, feather on lower legs.
Alternative names: Belgian Black (UK)
Country of origin: Netherlands
This article is about the breed of horse. For military barrier called a Frisian Horse, see Cheval de frise. For breed of cattle which share the same name, see Holstein (cattle).
The Friesian (also Frisian) horse is a breed of horse from Friesland, a province of the Netherlands. Although the breed's conformation resembles that of a light draft horse, Friesians are graceful and nimble for their size. During the Middle Ages, the 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.
A Friesian stallion in show stance. The Friesian is most often recognized by its black coat color, though color alone is not their only distinguishing characteristic. Friesians also have a long, thick mane and tail, and "feathers"--long, silky hair on the lower legs, deliberately left untrimmed. The official breed rarely has white markings of any kind; most registries allow only a small star on the forehead for purebred registration. Though extremely rare, and not accepted for registration in most cases, Friesians are occasionally chestnut. The Friesian's average height is about 15.3 hands (63 inches or 1.60 m), although it may vary from 14.2 to 17 hands (between 58 in./1.5 m and 68 in./1.7 m) tall at the withers, and mares or geldings must be at least 15.2 hands (1.57 m) tall to qualify for a special 'star-designation' pedigree. The breed is known for a brisk, high-stepping trot. The Friesian is considered a willing, active, and energetic horse that is also gentle and docile. A Friesian tends to have great presence and to carry itself with elegance.
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. Their sloping shoulders are quite powerful. They have compact, muscular bodies with strong sloping hindquarters and a low-set tail. Their limbs are comparatively short and strong. To be accepted as breeding stock in the FPS studbook, a stallion must pass a rigorous approval process.
Today, there are two distinct conformation types. The baroque type has the more robust build of the classical Friesian. The modern, sport horse type is finer-boned. Conformation type is judged less important than correct movement, and both types are common, though the Modern type is currently more popular in the show ring than is the Baroque Friesian.
History of the Friesian:
Friesian horses are sometimes referred to as "Belgian Blacks". 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. It is also said that Romans obtained ancestors of the Friesian horse for riding and also took them to England, where the breed type may have influenced the Shire horse, Clydesdale, Fell Pony and Dales Pony.
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 shortly linked with Spain, there was less demand for heavy war horses as battle arms changed, Andalusian blood was added, lightening its weight and thereby rendering it more suitable (in terms of less food intake and waste output) for work as a more urban carriage horse. Friesians were also used by riding schools in France and Spain for high-school dressage, and they remain popular today for their gentle temperaments and proud appearance.
The 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.
The breed was especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were not only in demand as harness horses and for agricultural work, but also for the trotting races then so popular. The Friesian may have been used as foundation stock for breeds such as the Orlov Trotter, the Norfolk Trotter (ancestor of the Hackney), and the Morgan. In the 1800s the Friesian was bred to be lighter and faster for trotting, however this led to what some owners and breeders regarded as inferior stock, so a movement to return to pureblood stock took place by the end of the century.
The Friesian stud registry book, Friesch Paarden Stamboek (FPS) was founded in 1879 by a group of Dutch farmers dedicated to preserving the breed. Friesians had become popular for crossbreeding due to their excellent trot, presence, and color, and as a result, Friesian "purity" was severely threatened. The "Royal Society Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek" was founded to protect and promote the breed's bloodline.
In spite of the creation of the Society, Friesian horse populations continued to dwindle into the early 20th century partly due to displacement by petroleum-powered farm equipment and passenger vehicles. Due to fuel rationing during World War II the Freisian's farm and carriage use was revived, saving the breed long enough for both its population and popularity to rebound.
The Friesian also influenced other breeds. One example was the "Old Black Horse" of the U.S. farm belt (the Midwest) where unpredictable and unseasonal weather often limited the usefulness of less robust breeds. The Friesian also influenced the Dole Gudbrandsdal of Norway, and formed the stock base for Germany's Marbach stud, contributing to the development of both the Oldenburg breeds.
The Friesian today:
A Friesian in surcingle, showing at the trot. From the latter part of the 20th century until the present, demand for purebreds, particularly the "Modern style" finer-boned, taller, more agile version of the Friesian increased, so breeders have bred both purebreds and a lighter-weight crossbred horse with valued characteristics.
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 Friesian also remains popular as a carriage horse, as it is a powerful horse and its high-stepping action is eye-catching. It 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. Friesians are also good all-around horses, used for showing, driving, and general riding, and are also used as circus horses.
Due to its flashy appearance, the Friesian has become popular in the film industry. The breed owes much of its current popularity to the appearance of the Friesian stallion Othello in the 1985 film, Ladyhawke, which ignited a worldwide interest in these horses. Films such as Eragon, The Mask of Zorro, Alexander, and 300 have also featured Friesian horses. Though they are of dramatic appearance, sometimes their use in dramatizations of actual historical events is of dubious accuracy, given that the breed as it is known today only came into being within the last 400 to 600 years.