The Friesian is a historic driving and riding horse breed from the province of Friesland in The Netherlands. Once seen, the boldness and elegance of the Friesian is unforgettable.
Friesians descend from the “Great Horses” native to northern Europe. These horses were strong and agile enough to carry heavily armored knights on the Crusades. During the 1600s, Dutch horses were crossed with Andalusians from Spain, and the stylish horses that resulted were called Friesians. They were selected for the action and trotting ability desirable for carriage driving, racing, and circus performance. These horses were also exported throughout Europe and used to improve a variety of breeds, especially those used in harness. For the past two hundred years, the Friesian breed itself has been kept free from outside blood, making it a genetically distinctive member of the “warmblood” group of horse breeds.
The Friesian nearly became extinct in the 1900s when the market for multi-purpose horses disappeared. By the middle of the 1900s, the population stood at about 500. A riding association called De Oorsprong (The Source) was then formed to promote the breed. Members mounted a crusade throughout the country, taking Friesian horses around to remind people of the breed that was their heritage. Interest was rekindled, and today the Friesian is in a period of revival. There are about 25,000 Friesians globally, most of them in The Netherlands.
Friesians are quite consistent in appearance. The horses average 15-16 hands (60-64″) at the withers. They are compact and strong, weighing 1,200-1,400 pounds. The color is solid black, though past registry records also list the color “blue,” which may have included blue silver dapple, roan, or possibly gray. The mane and tail are long and wavy, and abundant hair (or “feathering”) is found on the lower legs. The head is small and the neck is set high onto the shoulder.
Friesian horses were brought to North America by Dutch settlers in the 1600s. These horses likely had an influence on several American breeds, including the Morgan and the Standardbred. A separate purebred population was not maintained, however, and the Friesian became extinct in this country. Three hundred years later, in the 1970s, the breed was reintroduced to North America by driving enthusiasts. The Friesian Horse Association in the United States was founded in 1983. Only those horses which are approved by Dutch standards may be registered, and stallions to be used for breeding must pass a rigorous inspection of their conformation and performance ability. As of 2014, the U.S. population was estimated at more than 8,000, with a global population of more than 60,000.
The Friesian breed graduated from The Livestock Conservancy’s priority list in 2014.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.