Friesians, which are also called Frizians, are a breed of horse that originates from the Netherlands, in the Friesland region. They have a conformation that is somewhat like that of a light draught horse, but with a certain level of added gracefulness and nimbleness for their size. They are particularly known for their high-stepping gait, long-flowing mane and tail, and classic profile.
Friesians are one of the oldest breeds in Europe. They were originally imported to North American in the 17th century, but crossbreeding destroyed the breed. It wouldn’t be until 1974 when Friesians would come back to the US and Canada. There are about 8,000 registered Friesians in North America right now, along with another 45,000 horses that are registered globally.
Although crossbreeding a purebred Friesian to another horse or to use Friesian bloodlines to improve other breeds is highly discouraged, there are several breeds that do have a stallion or mare from this breed as part of the foundational process. Using a purebred Friesian mare for crossing with another breed is strictly prohibited. This makes it a pedigree horse.
What to Know About the Friesian Horse Breeds
The Friesian is the only breed of horse that is native to the Netherlands. The history of the breed traces back to at least the 13th century, which was the start of the Christian Era within the region. Troops would use these horses in battle, with documentation from the wars with Britannia showing Friesian troops on horses that look remarkably like the current breed conformation.
There are illustrations from the 11th century which show soldiers riding horses that look remarkably like Friesians horses as well.
Although there is no definitive evidence, there are suggestions that during the Crusades and the Eighty Years’ War, Friesian horses were used to help improve and/or establish four current horse breeds.
- Oldenburgs. This warm-blooded horse is believed to have originated from Lower Saxony and was originally built upon a foundation of carriage horses and all-purpose agricultural breeds. Unlike other breeds, the breeding pedigree which is allowed within this breed is very liberal. Privately-owned stallions instead of stud-farm restrictions are in place with this breed, potentially started from its initial foundations in the 17th century along the Frisian coast.
- Holsteiners. This breed is thought to be one of the oldest warm-blooded breeds, with its foundations beginning in the 13th century. Many of these horses were used as war horses at the same time as Friesians, with larger horses being developed by local monasteries from the smaller horses that would become the breed foundations of those that would come out of this region. The modern Holsteiner is influenced by Thoroughbred lines as well, but their gait could be due to Friesian lineage.
- Andalusians. Sometimes referred to as a Pure Spanish Horse, this breed bears a remarkable resemblance to the Friesian breed. It has the same classic lines, long-flowing mane and tail, and even a similar high-stepping gait. The primary difference is in the shape of the body, as Andalusians tend to be somewhat more compact when compared to the Friesian, with a certain stoutness that lends to more strength instead of general athleticism.
- Groningens. This horse breed was developed for light draft work and some agricultural work, sharing its foundation with the Friesians that came from the East. This breed was informally developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it wouldn’t be until the 1900s when a formal process of organization and breeding would be developed. This breed was initially developed as a regional breed, which meant that if someone owned a horse in the Friesland area and it wasn’t an official breed, it could be registered as a Groningen. This breed almost went extinct, with the last remaining stallion almost sent to the butcher in 1978. Today there are 400 mares and 25 approved stallions.
There is some evidence to suggest that Friesians have also been influential in the development of the Neapolitan Horse. The Neapolitan was a particularly popular horse breed for over 300 years in Italy, with its foundations in the plains between Caserta and Naples. Many of the horses that are mentioned in the literature from that period tend to be Neapolitans. It was a horse that was considered to bring its owner great esteem and was often a reflection of personal wealth.
Neapolitan horses have the same mane and tail characteristics of the Friesian horse, as well as a gait that is somewhat similar. Their coat is uniquely different, however, and the head is proud and square. It is also a very rare and endangered breed today. Just 10 years ago, there were only 4 stallions and 20 mares registered to this breed.
Friesian horse breeds like these have unique characteristics which show their common heritage. Even if the look is a bit different, you will see a powerful build, a lively gait, and a certain energy within these breeds. They are sure-footed and sound, with a certain intelligence and willingness that is not always found in the warm-blooded breeds.
The Connection Between Friesians and Lipizzans
In 1767, a Neapolitan horse named Conversano was foaled and he would later go on to become a foundation sire for the Lipizzan breed. Two other Neapolitan stallions would also become foundation sires for Lipizzans, named Neapolitano and Maestoso, foaled in 1790 and 1819 respectively.
Lipizzans were bred exclusively by the Hapsburg Monarchy. It was considered a true “royal” horse, with more than 400 years of selective breeding helping to define the breed characteristics that have created such a mystique around the horse. The modern Lipizzan lines have Arabian bloodlines incorporated to strengthen the breed, with some lines still surviving in Eastern Europe and North America from these efforts.
What makes the Lipizzan so unique, especially when comparing the breed to its potential Friesian ancestry, is the difference in mandatory coat color. Friesian horses are required to be black. Lipizzans, however, are genetically a type of grey color. As a foal, they are born with brown, dark brown, or black coats that will gradually lighten as they get older. By the time they reach adult age, they have matured into a coat that looks quite white and is extremely dominant.
Only rarely is a brown or black mature adult produced, though 200 years ago, this was extremely common to the breed.
Until 1916, Lipizzans remained in the private possession of the Hapsburg Monarchy. The horses in this breed were always moved away from conflicts that might occur in the region. During these periods of movement, a horse or two might be given away or sold, but for the most part, this breed was confined to a few small Lipizzan farms within Austria.
There are fewer than 3,000 purebred Lipizzans in the world today, but their popularity is helping to keep the breed protected. It is especially suited for athletic equestrian disciplines and is a highly intelligent horse which likes to seek out harmonious connections with its handlers.
Separating the Friesian Breed from All Others
Beginning in the 18th century, Friesian horses began to be seen as an expression of wealth in its homeland. This limited the world’s access to the breed, as the horses that did exist in Friesland were often used to bring upper-class farmers to town or to church. Sometimes they would also be used for short-track trot racing.
In 1879, the studbook for the Friesian horse was established and it has controlled the destiny of this breed ever since. The goal of establishing the studbook was to create specific breeding profiles that would limit the influence of local heavy breeds, but this was more of an expression of wealth and influence at the time.
Upper-class farmers were looking to own horses that offered beautiful optics. Lower-class farmers were looking for animals that would work hard, plow their ground, and have enough energy to work on a daily basis.
This conflict of socioeconomic status would almost completely destroy the Friesian breed. By 1913, there were only 3 old-book stallions that were left for breeding purposes. As part of the compromise to save the breed, certain characteristics were bred into Friesian horses. Some of the athleticism was traded for pure horsepower, creating a smaller and heavier horse that would be suited to agricultural work.
Since the establishment of the studbook, there has been little in the way of using Friesian horses to establish or influence other breeds from an official standpoint. The bloodlines of this breed will always live on in others thanks to the efforts of the breed’s forefathers and the conflicts that plagued Europe during the Middle Ages, but continuing expansion has come into disfavor.
One thing is for certain: Friesian horses offer a specific look and athleticism which is unique to the equestrian world. When you look at the other Friesian horse breeds that have been benefitted from their influence, you will see the similarities that have been passed down from generation to generation.