The spectacular Friesian horse of the Netherlands has been around since anyone can remember. It was long the valued steed of the soldier, beginning in Roman times and continuing on through the Crusades. But it was not just a warhorse. Its immense power and strength made it a good draft animal for farmers, as well.
The Netherlands were ruled by Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, the Friesian was greatly influenced by the Andalusian of Spain. This refined the breed and made it an attractive choice for both coaching and the advanced horsemanship taught in riding schools of the time.
Dutch emigrants brought Friesians to America in the early 1600s, but most of these horses were quickly absorbed into the general population of coach and wagon horses, most notably the Conestoga Horse. The breed’s subsequent development, therefore, continued in the Netherlands.
But even in the breed’s native homeland crossbreeding was a real threat. The upper classes kept some Friesians as status symbols, but the average farmer had started relying on heavy draft breeds to work the fields. Coaching was the primary use of the breed by the 1800s, and even in this arena crossbreeding became the norm as a faster, lighter horse was preferred.
In 1913, a handful of dedicated breeders set to work to save the breed. An organized breeding program was started, and the Friesian took a new turn. Now it grew heavier to compete with the large draft horses. As things turned out, this was just in time for World War II. Fuel shortages prompted many Dutch farmers to trade in machinery for horses, and the new heavier type of Friesian became popular once again.
But the Friesian had to continue to adapt to survive. Farmers returned to using machinery after the war ended, and by the end of the 1960s the breed was in need of a second rescue. This time the horse became more athletic, better suited for the equestrian sports that were becoming popular around the world.
The Friesian was reintroduced to the United States in the mid-1970s, where it became a resounding success. It is fairly popular today, with about 8,000 horses in North America. Most of these are found on the coasts, but the breed is scattered throughout the middle of the continent, as well.
There are two types of Friesian in existence today. The first is the classic heavy type, which is ideally suited for harness work of many varieties. This type excels at both driving competitions and farm chores. Its stately appearance also makes it a welcome addition to some funerals.
The second type is the newer, lighter version. It was bred to be ridden, particularly in the dressage arena, although it has had to work hard to gain acceptance in this sport due to its unusually high-stepping gait. However, this type of Friesian is a good choice for pleasure and trail riding, as well.
Both types of Friesian are popular models for photographers. They are also useful in creating and improving other breeds.
The Friesian is an interesting mix of spirit and tranquility. Its self-possessed and gentle demeanor makes it immovably calm in busy situations, particularly where children are involved. However, it is a smart and rather vain horse that needs to be handled in a kind but firm manner. It learns rapidly and is happy to please as long as too much is not demanded of it, but mental stamina is not its strength.
An unusual characteristic of this breed is its love of water. It will play for hours in water if left to itself.
Unfortunately, Friesians are affected by a large number of health problems. Many of them die prematurely.
The feathering on their legs can accumulate moisture and cause infection if not carefully groomed. Some Friesians are also prone to a chronic dermatitis on the pasterns that refuses to clear up even with proper treatment.
The sheer size of the breed can cause osteochondritis dissecans, a problem in which the cartilage at the end of the bones breaks down. This usually shows up in young, rapidly growing horses.
The Friesian shares a metabolic problem in common with the heavy draft breeds. Fortunately, polysaccharide storage myopathy can be avoided by offering a high-fat, low-starch diet.
A genetic defect present in the breed is dwarfism. Broodmares should be genetically tested for the defect before breeding.
Many of the serious health problems in the Friesian horse are actually related to its flashy gait. It appears that the exaggerated motions of the front legs are caused by laxity in the connective tissue caused by abnormal collagen structure. This can present itself in fatal ways. For example, an enlarged esophagus caused by abnormal connective tissue can interfere with the ability to swallow, eventually leading to obstruction and pneumonia. Structural defects in the aorta can lead to rupture and sudden death during exercise, which is extremely dangerous for the rider. Also, this collagen defect may be the root cause of foal death due to fluid buildup in the skull.
Finally, the breed as a whole appears to suffer from a weak immune system. Many Friesians are hypersensitive to insect bites, and broodmares may experience immune-related difficulties such as retained placentas.
- Fair availability.
- Economical feed requirements for the horse’s size.
- Extravagant prices (yearlings are more affordable).
- Need for experienced handling due to unique personality and many health issues.
- Extensive grooming requirements.
- Short lifespan.
- Fertility problems.
- Slow pace.
- Lack of stamina.