The Friesian horse embodies powerful agility and elegance. If you've ever seen a muscular, yet graceful, black horse in a film or TV program, there's a good chance it was a Friesian. Recently they features in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire as part of the Tribute Parade.
The flat lands and temperate climate of the Netherlands made it an ideal home for wild horses and the early Friesian horse is believed to have descended from them. To begin with the Friesian is believed to have been almost a draught breed and was used in the heavy warfare of the medieval period. Even by the 12th Century, however, there was interest in making the Friesian lighter and this interest increased dramatically in the 16th Century as horse-based warfare was still a reality but the nature of it had changed, favouring lighter horses. The Friesian was therefore cross-bred with the Andalucian. This resulted in horses which kept all the essential features of the Friesian put in a much lighter package. This became what we would recognize as the modern Friesian and became a popular carriage and trotting horse right up to the 19th Century.
By the end of the 19th Century however the pure-bred Friesian was in danger of disappearing largely though the influence of cross-breeding with other local breeds such as the Alt Oldenburger (the foundation of the modern Oldenburg breed). In 1879 a studbook was formed and worked to try to revive the breed, but in spite of their efforts, numbers continued to fall and the advance of mechanization did not help their cause. Ironically, although World War Two decimated many of the native British breeds, it actually helped the Friesian horses. Firstly it slowed down the march of mechanization and gave them a continued role as draught horses. Secondly it brought the breed to the attention of the Strassburger family who sought refuge from the Nazis in the Netherlands, where they discovered the breed. They were instrumental in publicizing its qualities after the war. By the mid 20th Century the Friesian breed had re-established itself. Although it is still popular for cross-breeding to create lighter animals, there is still a healthy demand for the pure-bred horses.
Although the vast majority of Friesians are black (leading to their somewhat inaccurate nickname of Belgian Blacks). Very occasionally they are born chestnut, bay or grey although horses in these colours are not used for breeding. The registry requires Friesians to be 15.2 and upwards to be fully approved although again there are some smaller animals, which can be as small as 14.2. Although the Andalucian influence of previous centuries generally just made Friesians lighter rather than changing their physical appearance, modern Friesians do tend to resemble their Spanish ancestors in their heads. These are much more refined than would be expected from such a powerful breed and have short, pert ears. The Andalucian influence may also be partly responsible for the luxurious manes and tails typical of the Friesian breed. They also have the silky feathers associated with draught horses. Traditional Friesians, also sometimes called Baroque Freisians, have sturdy, muscular bodies with relatively short, thick legs. There is also a modern variation known as the Sport Friesian, which is lighter of both body and bone. Both types are currently considered acceptable. It's important to note that in this case “Sport” means dressage or harness activities. Friesians are only moderate jumpers and are unsuited to contests of speed or endurance.
Friesians combine presence and patience. One of the reasons why they are so popular with film crews (and as performing horses in general) is that they keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs – or at least pretending to. In spite of their calm natures, they are equine athletes, with plenty of energy, who enjoy being active. They are also highly intelligent. This combination makes them easy to train, which is another reason they are popular as performance and competition horses. Friesians are also commonly used for niche activities where horses have to perform challenging activities and riders or drivers have to have absolute trust in them to do it. These include contests of “Tilting at the ring”, which is essentially a modern re-enactment of a Medieval sport. It requires the horse to gallop in an exact straight line (which is much more difficult than it sounds) while its rider tries to spear rings of ever-decreasing sizes. Another example is the Friesian Quadrille in which teams of 6 traditional carriages perform intricate manoeuvres to display the excellence of the partnership between humans and Friesians.
Even though at one point (many years ago) the numbers of Friesians dropped to the point where there were only 3 breeding stallions left, the Friesian was robust enough to avoid hereditary genetic defects. This was partly because blood from similar lines was used to help rebuild the breed until there were sufficient horses to have an efficient breeding population. In terms of health, Friesians are probably best thought of as very refined cobs. It is highly unusual for them to have health issues and those that they do experience tend to be related to overfeeding. Although not quite as economical to keep as true cobs, Friesians are still very good doers as horses go and their weight does need to be watched. It's also important to note that young Friesians are slow developers and so young horses may need a little longer to reach their full height before starting proper training. On the other hand, once they do start training they are very quick learners.
Caring for a Friesian
In terms of physical care, Friesians are relatively undemanding horses. Generally speaking they can winter out, with the help of rugs as they grow thick coats to protect them from the elements. They are also very economical to feed. It is important, however, to realize that Friesians love company, particularly human company, so they need to be given lots of it in order for them to be happy.
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