Friesian Horse Origin and Characteristics

There may not be a horse that is more visually striking than the Friesian. With the black coat color, along with the long mane and tail, this breed is one of the few that comes close to the natural high-knee action and free-flowing movement of the Hackney.

Friesians are nimble, graceful, and majestic for their size.

Origins of the Friesian Horse

The Friesian is named after the region of The Netherlands where the breed originated. There are cattle that share the name as well, though originally a “z” was used for the horse breed spelling and the “s” was used for the Holstein cattle. Most of the horse breeders were also breeding the dairy cattle, so the same spelling was used for both animals and it eventually became the common practice.

Their story is one that is thousands of years old, though the Friesian became established as a modern breed in the 12th century. Noblemen and knights in the region needed a horse that was fast, but calm under pressure, and strong enough to carry someone who was in full armor. That led to the development of the modern Friesian.

These initial horses were large, strong-boned, and very courageous. When the 16th century came around and there was less demand for a heavy war horse, breeders in The Netherlands took advantage of their connection with Spain to bring in Andalusian bloodlines into the Friesian breed. This helped to lighten the overall size of the breed, especially in terms of food requirements, but didn’t lessen the strength of the horse.

This led the Friesian to become an essential multi-purpose horse for many families. It could work in the fields all week and then bring the family into town for errands, religious services, and other needs.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for trotting horses that could race began to increase as well. Friesians would become the foundation stock of several trotting breeds, including the Norfolk Trotter, which is an ancestry of the Hackney. It could be argued that the high-knee action in the natural walk of the Hackney comes from the genetic profile of the Friesian.

The first stud book would be formed in 1879, organized by local farmers and property owners who would register Friesians and other local warm-blooded breeds. This created an initial breed that was referred to as the “Bovenlander.”

Purebred Friesians were still in-demand, but the Bovenlander was more popular because of their overall versatility. It could be a trotting racer, a farm worker, and a harness horse all in one. By the time the stud book was formed, there were areas of Europe where purebred Friesians were virtually extinct. 

By 1913, the desire to create Bovenlanders was recognized as being dangerous to the Friesian, so there was a desire to save the breed. Over the next two years, an effort to split Friesians from Bovenlanders helped to split registrations into two groups. Then, during World War II, non-Friesian horse breeders left the stud book completely to form their own association.

Like many breeds after the war, the 1940s and 1950s were a difficult time for the breed. Population numbers dwindled dramatically, though its localization to the region did have a persevering effect on the breed. The Strassburger family, who fled the Nazi regime, had discovered the qualities of the breed and incorporated them into their shows. The family has continued to be instrumental in the survival of the Friesian.

Jewish Circus Traditions and the Survival of the Friesian Horse

The Circus Strassburger began in the days of World War I, but the family sold it off in 1916 because of the financial struggles of the conflict. After the war, the family would start a new circus. Two brothers, Leopold and Adolf, would travel throughout Europe performing. With more than 100 horses, including a dozen Friesian stallions, the circus grew to fame because they had trained a tiger to ride on the back of one of the horses.

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, the Circus Strassburger faced an immediate boycott because of their heritage. Even when the brothers retreated from the board to allow their non-Jewish sons to run the circus, the government continued to put pressure on the family.

The circus would perform from until 1963, though there were several gaps in the performing schedule. When the Nazi regime began their purge of Judaism, the Strassburger family fled to the Low Country with their circus and continued their shows.

While on the run, the circus saw many of their animals killed by governmental authorities. There was a conscientious effort to save the Friesian stallions, to the extent that the circus broke down in 1944 and the family continued to protect the herd, despite the Hunger Winter that year.

In the western provinces of The Netherlands, German blockades made it impossible to move food or fuel into the region. At the same time, an unusually cold and harsh early winter set onto the continent, so canals became frozen. Animals, including horses, were poached regularly. Food stocks ran out everywhere. The Strassburger family maintained their position, sheltered in place, and helped to bring the Friesian back to prominence over the next two decades.

Characteristics of the Friesian Horse

The black coat color is the trademark characteristic of the Friesian horse. There are alternative coat colors allowed for the breed, however, as both bays and chestnuts have been seen in the past. No matter what the solid coat color may be, however, there are rarely any white markings that can be found on the horse. For a purebred registration, only a small forehead star is allowed for registration purposes.

Chestnut stallions are not usually accepted for registration, but some geldings and mares may be allowed if other conformation factors are met. Friesians that compete with a chestnut coat are penalized, however, so the coat color is not usually desired.

Stallions must undergo a thorough and rigorous approval process to be accepted as breeding stock. This includes verification of all physical characteristics.

Friesians can be up to 17 hands high, though there is a minimum requirement of 14.2 hands high. The average Friesian is a little over 15 hands. Mares and geldings must be at least 15.2 hands high to be given a star designation on their pedigree.

During an inspection, a team of judges, referred to as a “keuring,” will determine if the star designation should be allowed.

A Friesian should have a powerful appearance that is distinctive through strong bone structure. The shoulders are sloping, but with strength, while the body of the horse is compact and muscular. There is feathering below the knee, along with wavy, thick hair in the mane and the tail. These are left uncut to contribute to the flowing appearance that the horse provides.

Friesians are known for their energy and spirt, but there is a certain gentleness to their activity. They are willing, relatively docile, and carry themselves with elegance in everything they do.

Two different types of Friesians are recognized today.

  • The “classic” Friesian, which offers a dynamic visual appearance with strength and stoutness is referred to as the Baroque-type Friesian.
  • The Sporting Friesian has a finer bone structure than the classical type, but with a similar build.

Both types are balanced well within the population of the breed. The Sporting Friesian tends to be more popular in the show ring, however, but the emphasis on showing is on correct movements instead of meeting a specific conformation demand.

Health Issues with the Friesian Horse

There are four genetic disorders that are associated with the Friesian breed.

Less than 1% of Friesians are affected by dwarfism. When this occurs, the horse has a broader chest, a long back, very short limbs, but with a head that is of normal size. Hydrocephalus is about equally common within the breed. Genetic testing is available for these two conditions.

Friesians are also prone to aortic rupture and a larger-than-normal esophagus. The latter condition makes it difficult for the horse to swallow its food because the muscles of the esophagus do not engage as they should. Because horses do not usually vomit, a Friesian with this condition will suffer from colic on a frequent basis.

Friesians have higher rates of sensitivity to insect bites than other breads, have more frequent digestive system disorders, and more than half of the mares have a retained placenta after foaling. Some Friesians show the ligament and tendon laxity that is seen in dwarfism, despite their regular size.

The limited gene pool that helped to establish this breed after its initial decline is thought to be a contributing factor to this issue.

Although there are still some struggles ahead for the Friesian as a breed, its striking looks, gentle demeanor, and overall athleticism make it one of the most popular horse breeds today. As efforts continue to preserve and refine the breed, the Friesian looks to have a bright future ahead of it.