Friesians, the “Black Pearls” of the equine world are, like all pearls, perfectly at home in the water. Take care when fording rivers or streams atop these luminous steeds or you might just go for an unplanned swim! The Friesians’ affinity for water dates back to the breed’s birthplace in the Frisian Islands, an archipelago a few kilometers off the coastlines of Holland, Germany, and Denmark. During low tide, the short distance between the mainland and islands can be traversed on foot or horseback via muddy strips of land that arise from beneath the ebbing sea.
The Friesian’s predilection for getting wet was exploited as far back as the Roman Empire, when the Equites Romani rode the dramatic midnight colored mounts through water as well as on land, the horses’ long flowing manes, tails and forelocks flying like war flags. The precursors to the Friesians, with their glossy, pitch black coats, are thought to date back two or even three thousand years to a cold-blooded native forest horse, Equus Robustus, that once roamed Northern Europe. Though the modern Friesian is considered warm-blooded due to its temperament, the nomenclature aptly describes the impressive stature and draft horse characteristics still dominant in the breed today.
Fossil evidence of the Friesian’s early ancestors were discovered in the Fries area of Holland, a grassy northern province from which the name “Frisian” originates. Many of the original horse breeders in the area also raised Holstein Friesian cattle, using the added “e” for the cattle designation. Eventually, they adopted that particular spelling for their horse stock as well. The simpler spelling, “Frisian” is often used in other contexts, but both spellings are acceptable and have been used interchangeably.
The colorful history of this iconic breed includes their early use as draft horses, transporting the local farmers’ famous Friesian potato crops. Many of the early horses were carefully bred by monks in Friesian monasteries and as the breed’s visibility rose, they were increasingly appropriated as the preferred mount of early warlords and kings. In the middle ages, the jet black horses became the chosen steeds of the Teutonic knights during the Crusades. The breed’s large size afforded them the ability to bear the weight of heavy armor without sacrificing their natural agility or speed.
Even the infamous Don Juan of Austria (the illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, not the licentious fictional character of 17th century Europe) rode a Friesian. A well known etching of his stallion, “Phryso,” dates back to 1568. Phryso is also the name of a popular magazine in Holland about the Friesian breed. Friesians were also depicted in numerous paintings of 15th century artists of the Flemish school, further evidence of the breed’s widespread appeal and influence.
The Friesians’ fate shifted when Spanish forces occupied the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries–the time of the Eighty Years War. Andalusian and Oriental blood were introduced into the Friesian bloodline, passing on both a graceful high-stepping trot and a lighter weight, making the breed more suited for work as urban carriage horses. 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 suited 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 Friesians are famous for possessing a “golden character,” a gentle and sweet disposition. This highly desired trait granted them high standing in the 17th century European riding schools that were dedicated to the practices of The Haute Ecole of Equitation. At the same time the need for heavy cavalry horses greatly diminished, accelerating a further reinvention of use.
Nimble, with an evolving and beautiful trot due to the influx of the varied bloodlines over time, the Friesians enjoyed the spotlight in ridden short track trotting races as well as under harness. Their use in agricultural work continued into the 18th and 19th centuries, alongside their employment as foundation stock for a variety of breeds, including the Oldenburg, the Orlov Trotter, the Norfolk Trotter (ancestor of the Hackney), the Fell Pony and the Morgan. Over time, heavier horses that were less dramatic and more efficient became dominant in farming.
The “dancing show horses” as the Friesians had come to be called, with their feathered fetlocks, fluid high-step and undulating manes, were soon eclipsed in agrarian use. Concern for the future of the breed began to coalesce. An effort to return the ancient breed to pureblood stock was undertaken. On May 1, 1879, the Friesch Paarden Stamboek was founded. It would become the first Friesian studbook in the Netherlands.
In 1913 with only three registered Friesian stallions, extinction loomed perilously close. But slowly and surely, with devotion and meticulous breeding practices, the efforts at preservation began to gain ground. Though the mechanization of farming in the early 1960s would produce another significant challenge to the breed’s survival, the rise in the world’s economy in the mid 1960s would offer a reprieve. With more money for recreation and leisure time, pleasure riding and equine competition increased. The Friesian is now more widely known and beloved and less threatened by extinction–though it is still considered rare.
The spectacular characteristics of the Friesians include their jet black color (with a possible tiny white star) and their luxurious, sometimes curly manes, tails and forelocks. A distinguishing trait is the long feathering in the fetlock area of the lower legs. The neck is upright and crested with a narrow throat latch. The head may be fine, long and baroque, or short and delicate, with small and alert ears. Powerful shoulders and sloping hindquarters with a low-set tail complement the compact muscular body. The legs are short and strong, thick and clean jointed; hooves are hearty and of a blue-black horn.
There are theoretically three basic variations of the Friesian horse: Lightweight, medium weight, and heavyweight. The Friesians most people are familiar with are the heavier “Baroque” body type of the classical Friesian, or the modern “sport horse” type, which is finer-boned. The animals average height is 15.2 hands to 16.0 hands. Today, exacting and strict breeding practices ensure the integrity, specificity, and legacy of these attributes.
The Friesians impressive bone structure, docile, amiable personalities, and stunning beauty have made them the darlings of Hollywood, with roles in such movies as Eragon, The Mask of Zorro, Alexander, The Chronicles of Narnia, Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian, and particularly, Ladyhawke, which ignited worldwide interest in the breed.
For more information on these charismatic horses please contact: Friesian Horse Association of North America; fhana.com.
Photographs by Cally Matherly.
(Originally published in the October/November 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).