The Friesian is an ancient breed. In the first century A.D., when the Romans made their way to the northern seacoast of what later became Holland and Germany, they found the area long settled by Germanic seafaring people who spoke Frisian language. As protection from flooding, the Frisians created mounds and built their villages on top of them. The Romans recognized the values of the large, powerful horses found in this frontier territory and incorporated them into their armies.
The Friesian horse reportedly dates back three thousand years, though the breed known today was developed in the 12th century in northern Europe. Friesians were ridden by Teutonic Knights and were used as warhorses for the crusades. They were always the mounts of aristocrats, owned only by noblemen and knights. Their original breeding and pedigrees were very closely controlled. The breed had a major impact on the horses in many countries.
In Friesland, monasteries bred and refined the Friesian horse. For a time during the 15th and 16th centuries, first Austria and then Spain controlled the Low Countries. Spanish Andalusian horses were used in breeding, giving the breed a lighter frame, a higher knee action, and a smaller head. The Friesian then became a desirable coach horse throughout much of Europe.
During the 1700s, Friesian horses had a variety of jobs. They did farmwork, raced and pulled carriages. By the 1800s, Friesians had fallen out of favor as horse racers were turning to Thoroughbreds, which were faster than Friesians. Larger, heavier draft horses were taking over fieldwork. The number of purebred Friesians dwindled.
In 1879, a group of Friesian owners in the Netherlands decided to save the breed. They started the Studbook Society to register Friesians which now maintains the Friesian Horse Studbook.
In the 1970s, breeders Thomas Hannon and Frank Layendekker brought Fiesians to the United States from the Netherlands. Later, the Friesian Horse Association of North America was started.
Today, these sleek black horses are top competitors in dressage and driving competitions. With its dramatic and stunning looks, the Friesian strikes the beholder as a breed apart. Its extravagant beauty is breathtaking and the impression it makes is profound to those observing it. With its lofty stance, shiny black coat, and draping mane and tail, it stands out in the crowd. Athletic ability, strength, kind and gentle nature, loyalty and elegance are its other outstanding gifts.
Friesians have long backs, low withers, and sloping hindquarters. Their short legs are feathered with hair around the fetlocks. The very strong and graceful Friesian stands 15 to 16 hh and has a naturally high-stepping movement, especially at the trot. It is not allowed under any circumstances to dock (cut short) the tail of a Friesian. In fact, even trimming the mane, tail, or fetlock hair is frowned upon. The Friesian is a truly black horse, and only a small white star on the forehead is permissible. A few white or gray hairs are allowed on the lips. No white marking on the legs are allowed even in the pedigrees of qualified stallions.
By 1983, the popularity of the Friesian in America had grown enough to support a national show, which is held each September at the Los Angeles County Fair in conjunction with a four-day open carriage competition. And to show that the Friesian has lost none of its versatility, the national show provides both halter and saddle classes as well as driving competitions. Judges from the Netherlands officiate for several classes. Back in its native land, the Friesian is a cherished part of Dutch culture and deeply appreciated.