History of the

Friesian Horse


`Reference credit: "Het Friese Paard", Koninklijke vereniging Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek, Drachten, 1999

 The Friesian horse is gentle, honest, sober, high-mettled, and clever. It descends from the westen European horse that has been found generally from the earliest days on, and that attained its highest perfection in the Knight's horse, the destrier.

For a long time it has been preserved in Fryslan only. Since 1980 there is an increase of numbers outside Fryslan, and in the nineties a considerable increase can be observed outside the Netherlands as well.  

The Friesian horse descends from the Equus robustus. During the 16th and 17th centuries, but probably also earlier, Arabian blood was introduced, especially through Andalusian horses from Spain. This has given them the high knee-action, the small head, and the craning neck. Because of their temperament the Friesian horses are considered warm-blooded.

 

Through the centuries the Frisian Government has made many regulations in order to safeguard good breeding. Now the Dutch Horse Act of 1939 (modified) gives rules for studbook and breeding.
From records of the past we know that the Frisian horse of old was famous. There is information from 1251 (Cologne), 1276 (Munster), 1466 (Aduard), 1617 (Markham), 1771 (Kladrup), and there are books in which Frisian horses were mentioned and praised from 1560 (Blundeville), 1568 (Guicciardini), 1629 (Pluvinel), 1658 (Duke of Newcastle), 1680 (De Solleysel), 1687 (von Adlersflugel), 1734 (Saunier), 1741 (Gueriniere), 1744 (Oebschelwitz), 1779 (Le Franq van Berkheij), 1802 (Huzard), and 1811 (Geisweit van der Netten).The Frisian horse has been kept free from the influence of the English Thoroughbred. During the last two centuries the breed has been kept pure. Breeding horses and dealing in them was very important for the Frisians. Also the monks in the many monasteries in Fryslan before the Reformation did a lot of horsebreeding.

Export of Frisian horses

According to the chronicle of Dubravius, the Hungarian King Louis II used a heavy Frisian stallion when he took field against the Turks on June 15th 1526, a campaign which culminated in the battle of Mohacs (August 29th 1526). An etch by Stradanus (Jan van der Straat 1568) shows a Frisian stallion, Phryso, from the stables of Don Juan of Austria. Because of their good qualities Frisian stallions were imported, e.g. by the Elector George William of Prussia in 1624, later by the famous Danish stud at Fredericksborg, by the stud at Salzburg, and by the stud at Kladrup in 1771 and again in 1974 (stallion Romke 1966 FPS 234).

The well-known English writer on horses, Anthony Dent, and others are of the opinion that the Friesian horse influenced the Old English Black Horse and the Fell Pony. Dent proposes that the Norwegian Dole hest (Gulkbrandsdal horse), which shows great likeness to the Frisian horse, must have got there from Fryslan either as booty or by regular trade. The Northern Swedish horse was greatly influenced by the Norwegian Dole. Dent also suggests a Norwegian influence on the English Dale pony. In the Pyrenees in southern France there is a pony Ariege called after Merens' ('Ariege dit de Merens') that looks remarkably like a small Frisian horse. The resemblance of the types mentioned can be traced back in some cases to the influence of Friesian horses. In other cases the similar way of breeding may have caused the similarity.


As early as 1625 Friesian horses were imported into what later would become the United States of America. The Dutch founded New Amsterdam in the region they discovered in 1609, but in 1664 the English took over the colony and changed its name to New York. Advertisements in the papers (e.g. 20.5.1795 and 11.6.1796) offer trotters of Dutch descent. These must have been Frisian horses. The able writer Jeanne Mellin proposes in her books 'The Morgan Horse' (1961) and the 'Morgan Horse Handbook' (1973) the possibility that this well-known American horse is of Friesian descent. The ability to trot fast, the heavy manes, the long rich tail, and the fetlocks at the feet of the original forefather of this race may be an indication. Again in 1974, 1975, and 1977, nine Friesian horses in all were imported into the United States, by Thomas Hannon, Frisian Farms, Louisville near Scranton, Ohio.

The Friesian horse as a trotter.

Apart from its high knee-action and elegant performance, the Friesian horse was sought-after as a trotting horse for the short distance of 325 m. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and probably earlier as well, these horseraces were very popular festivities in Fryslan. For important races the prize was a silver or even a golden whip. The Frisian Museum has a fine collection of them. In many villages and towns these races were held regularly. Between 1800 and 1850 there were 2847 advertisements of these races in the papers. At first the races were on horseback, but later on they also included the Frisian 'sjees'. May 31st 1823, King William I founded an horserace that was to be held at Leeuwarden each succesive year in the beginning of August. It became known as 'the King's-Whip-Day', because the King awarded a golden whip each year as a prize. The race was to be held in remembrance of the battle of Waterloo in Belgium, June 18th 1815, in which the French Emperor Napoleon was beaten, and Europe regained its freedom. These races at Leeuwarden always attracted many visitors. They ended in 1891 when H.M. Queen Regent Emma awarded the golden whip for the last time. Russian and American horses, bred and used for racing only, were faster, and this brought Friesian horseracing to an end. Only now and then demonstrations of horseracing with Frisian horses are organized. So, a group in Wolvega tries to get trotting races with these horses going again.
The Friesian horse influenced the breeding of the Russian Orloff and of English and American trotters.

The Frisian horse in the circus.

Once the Circus Strassburger began, in 1939, training Friesian horses in the Academy style of riding and put them very successfully through various performances, many circuses followed suit. Their intelligence and their gentleness make Friesian horses extremely suitable for this purpose. The stately black hair gives the show a touch of eminence.

The Studbook.

By the middle of the 18th century crossing in horsebreeding became a fashion. At the very start, on May 1st 1879, of the first Studbook in the Netherlands, opinions differed whether only horses of the Friesian race should be registered, or cross-breds as well. The problem was solved by opening two registration books: Book A for Friesian horses, Book В for crossbreds. From 1884 till 1896 the Studbook was also open for the registration of horses from the adjecent Provinces of Groningen and Drente. For this reason the name of 'Frisian horse' was temporarily changed into 'Inland horse'. By 1896, however, Friesian horses had nearly disappeared in those provinces: in Groningen altogether, in Drente a few years later. The fashion of crossing grew to such an extent that the decision was taken, in 1907, to close the separate books and to register all the horses in one book. This could have been the end of the Friesian horse. However, a tiny group of true lovers of the Friesian horse started the society 'The Frisian Horse' ('Het Friesche Paard'). This society worked in close cooperation with the Studbook and succeeded in keeping and improving the Frisian horse. They bought good Friesian colts, and they gave awards for good types of horses. In 1914 the board of the Studbook decided, at the request of the Society, to open two registration books again: Book A for Friesian horses and book В now for 'Upland horses' ('Bovenlandse paarden'). In 1939, when the number of Friesian horses had increased considerably, the Friesians got a board of their own within the Studbook. Finally, in 1943, the breeders of non-Friesian horses left the Studbook. Since that year the Royal Society 'The Frisian Studbook' (the designation 'Royal' was added in 1954) registers only purebred Friesian horses. H.M.Queen Juliana honoured the Studbook by becoming its Patroness in 1949, and now H.M. Queen Beatrix is its Patroness.

A condition for registering a Friesian horse is that it must be 2.5 years old. A stallion must then have a height of the withers of at least 1.58 m; at the age of four of 1.60 m. Mares must be 1.50 m, 'star' mares 1.55 m, 'model' mares 1.58 m, and geldings 1.50 m. A further condition is that the horse must have been registered in the 'Foalbook'. Only foals with a document proving the mating of the sire and dam are included in this book; moreover, both parents must have been registered in one of the registers of the Studbook. To be registered a horse must have no fault and it must be true to the type of the Friesian breed.

Keurings, or judgings, are held each year across the USA to determine the status of the friesian for foalbook registry. Foals under one year are examined and awareded "premies" based on their conformation and movement. Adult horses are also examined for entrance into the studbook, again based on their movement and build, and are also awarded designations based on their relationship to the "ideal" Frieisan.

The Friesian horse nowadays is bred exclusively black. The only white allowed is a small, white spot between the eyes. In bygone days Friesian horses could have different colours.

In 1969 Dr R.H.J.J. Geurts, a medical doctor at Heerlen in the province of Limburg in the South of the Netherlands, wrote a doctoral thesis at the University of Utrecht on the breeding and genealogy of the Frisian horse. In 1968 he also wrote a book, called 'Friese Merriestammen', about the families of mares in the Studbook. Dr J. Hendrikse and drs. W. van der Hoist, of the Clinic of Vetenarian Obstetrics at the University of Utrecht, developed the artificial insemination of horses in the Netherlands, choosing the Frisian breed. Semen of Frisian stallions is being collected and frozen in at several semen collecting stations to be used world-wide for insemination of mares.

Paintings.

There are a great many paintings and pictures, dating back some centuries, showing Princes of the house of Orange-Nassau and other leading people with horse remarkably like the Frisian horse.

The Friesian 'sjees'

From the middle of the 18th century, possibly earlier, date the elegant, two-wheeled carriages called 'sjees' after the French word 'chaise' (chair), indicating a chair on wheels. This French name does not imply a French origin: the upper-class of the times often used the French language as being very fashionable. The wheels of a 'sjees' are about 1.50 m high. They have 14 spokes. The elegant little body is suspended high above the ground on solid leather thoroughbraces. The body has nicely bent panels and ornaments in the rococo style, also called after the French King Louis XV. Later 'sjezen' may also have Louis XVI ornaments. Probably, these 'sjezen' were developed in the Netherlands, perhaps in Fryslan. A registration book for these 'sjezen', called 'Frysk Seaze Stambook', has been established, in which 26 measurements of every 'sjees' are recorded. Every 'sjees' gets a registration number. Over a hundred 'sjezen' have been registered. A Friesian 'sjees' drawn by one or two Friesian horses is an impressive sight at a horse show. The 'sjees' is manned by a gentleman and a lady dressed in the traditional costumes of the 1860's. With that costume goes a solid golden casque for the lady that covers almost the whole of the back of her head. Over it she wears a lace bonnet. The gentleman wears, among other things, knickerbockers and a black tophat. The Friesian 'sjees' is the only carriage, apart from agricultural wagons, in which the driver is seated on the left-hand side. He keeps his lady on the right as being the place of honour. At the 'Frisiana', the great exhibition at Leeuwarden in 1963, the quadrille involving eight Friesian 'sjezen' was ridden for the first time. It was an unforgettable spectacle.

Use of the Friesian horse.

There is a growing interest in the use of Friesian horses for sport and recreation, primarily for drawing carriages and for dressage. That the Friesian horse is able to achieve great performances has been shown by the fact that during the demanding marathon championships for four-in-hand teams in 1977 as many as five teams of Freisian horses participated. Tjeerd Velstra from Deurne (Noord Brabant) became Dutch Champion and, in the same year, Reserve European Champion at Donaueschingen (Baden -Wurttemberg in Western Germany).

The maintenance and improvement of the Frisian horse world-wide is supervised continually by:
de Koninklijke Vereniging 'Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek' (the Royal Society 'The Frisian Studbook').