Though not the oldest breed of horse, the Friesian is thought to be descended from the primitive Forest Horse!
The picturesque Friesian is known for its flashy movement, beautiful black coat, and thick mane and tail. It is a popular carriage and dressage horse. It derives its name from its county of origin. It was developed in Friesland, which is an island off the coast of the Netherlands. There is evidence that the Friesian horses may have existed as far back as 1000 BC. It is thought that it may have descended from the primitive Forest Horse. The Roman historian Tacitus, in 55-120 AD, noted it as a powerful and versatile horse.
The Friesian carried both Friesian and German knights during the crusades. That brought it into contact with Eastern horses which lightened the breed. It was further improved with Andalucian and Barb influences while Friesland was under Spanish control in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Throughout this time it was a popular breed and also influenced the development of many other breeds including the Fell and Dale ponies, the Shire horse, and the Oldenburger.
Friesian horses are large in stature, but these high stepping beauties are quite versatile and willing to train. These great all-around horses also have a gentle disposition. They are commonly seen in entertainment shows like circus acts and exhibitions, as well as traditionally being used for horse drawn hearses in England. With the inclusion of the stallion, Othello, in the 1985 film Ladyhawke, they’ve become popular in the film and entertainment. More recently they have been used in the movie Eragon.
The Friesian is a light horse breed. Light horse breeds generally weigh under 1,500 pounds. They are typically used as riding horses for leisure and trail riding. Being agile and swift, many are also used on the racetrack, in the show ring, and for work on the ranch.
Light horses are grouped in a couple of different ways, one being the continent or country where they originated from. They are also grouped according to training, classified as either a stock type, hunter type, saddle type, or ‘other’. A body type is generally attributed to each class, with the ‘other’ classification being a bit of an odd ball. It includes those that are color breeds or those that may fit a body type of one of the training classes, but not be used for that type of training. The ‘other’ types can also include those that may fit into more than one of the type groups.
The horse class the Friesian fits into is the ‘other’ class as there are two distinct conformation types: the classic heavy type and the more modern sport horse type.
The Friesian horse was developed in Friesland, a provence in the northern Netherlands, and is thought to be descended from the primitive Forest Horse. Evidence suggests that the Friesian horse may have existed as far back as 1000 BC. In 55-120 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus noted the Friesian horse’s existence and found it a powerful and versatile horse. The Friesian has been influential to many other breeds, such as the Fell and Dale ponies, the Shire horse, and the oldenburger in the 17th Century.
It was a common mount for Friesian and German knights in the Crusades, and as a result Friesians contact with Eastern horses, which lightened the breed. The breed was further improved by Andalucian and Barb influences that occurred when the Netherlands became under the control of Spain in the 16th and 17th Centuries, adding stamina and better range of movement.
Despite its popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries and its influence on other breeds, the Friesian nearly went extinct during the early 20th Century. This was largely due to the popularity of trotting horses and the reduction of horses being used for agricultural work. By 1913, only three Friesian stallions still existed in Friesland, but interestingly the breed was saved by the WWII, when fuel shortages encouraged farmers to return to horsepower. A new breeding program was started using imported oldenburger stallions and the breed was revived.
Today’s Friesians are known for their beautiful black coats and their long, thick manes and tails. They generally have no markings, although they can usually still be registered if they have a small star on their forehead. They have â€˜feathering,’ or long hair on their lower legs, which is purposely left untrimmed. They can range in height from 14.2 to 17 hands high, but on average they stand about 15 hands high. They are compact and muscular, with a fine head and a thick, arched neck. Today, there are two distinct conformation types: the classic heavy type and the more modern sport horse type.
Horse Care and Feeding
Friesians need a great deal of grooming to keep them looking their best, since they have a very thick mane and tail, and feathers’ on their lower legs. Methods to care for these include:
- ‘Feathers’ on their lower legs: To keep their â€˜feathers’ looking neat and to show off their legs, clip the hair behind the knee and on the front of the cannon bone. You want to keep the hair around the fetlock and below, but trim feathers that drag on the ground too much. To keep the tail looking nice, cut the bottom evenly around the height of the fetlock to keep it from dragging on the ground.
- Tail: If the tail is not this long, the cut it evenly at the lowest point with enough hair to get the tail to stay thick until the very bottom.
- Mane: The mane on Friesians is usually left long, but do not cut it along the bottom because it will not be even. It is best to pull the mane, meaning pull out the longest hairs until you get to the desired length. You must do this fairly often to keep it at the desired length.
Horse Training and Activities
Friesians are incredibly versatile and willing, and although they are large in stature they are known for their elegance and high-stepping gait. This makes them ideal for use as harness horses, creating a powerful, agile, and flashy driving team. They are becoming increasingly popular as dressage horses due to their power, movement, and body control. They are also great all-around horses and have gentle dispositions.
Friesians have also become popular in the film and entertainment industry. The breed owes much of its current popularity to the stallion Othello, who appeared in the 1985 film Ladyhawke. Other films that have used Friesian horses include Eragon, The Mask of Zorro, and 300. They are also commonly seen in live entertainment shows such as circus acts and exhibitions.
In London, a team of Friesians is still used to pull the Harrods department store carriage for promotional excursions and deliveries. They are also traditionally used in funerals that require horse-drawn hearses in England.
Common Health Problems
Friesians are somewhat prone to a disease called Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) simply due to their size. OCD is a disease found in young, rapidly growing horses who will mature to be over 15 hands. It occurs when cartilage at the end of growing bones breaks down instead of turning into bone as it should. As a result of the break-down, small pieces of cartilage may break off and harden into bone cysts, causing inflammation and pain in the joint. Treatment includes joint injections and rest, and surgery is possible.
Dwarfism is a genetic disorder that can affect any breed and occurs the most in pony breeds, but is present in the Friesian breed. The disorder causes the body to be severely disproportionate and it is debilitating.
Friesians are disposed to an infection called scratches, which is scabbing that appears on the back of the pastern and fetlock. It is thought to be caused by standing in wet areas and the â€˜feathers’ cause the area to stay wet for a longer period of time. It can cause discomfort to the affected horse, but can be easily cleared up by shaving the affected area so that it can dry out and scrubbing with a cleaning solution such as an iodine scrub for several days.
Friesians are fairly available in Europe and the United States due to their popularity. They are fairly expensive if they are flashy and have some training. If they are bought as yearlings, they are more reasonable.
Featured Image Credit: OlesyaNickolaeva, Shutterstock