History of the Friesian Horse
The Friesian horse breed is native to one of the northernmost provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland. The Friesian is one of Europe’s oldest horse breeds, its lineage tracing back nearly 3,000 years to the ancient horse, Equus Robustus, an enormous horse that once roamed Northern Europe. It was from these heavy horses that the Friesian took its draft horse characteristics.
Friesian monks where well known for their horse breeding in the middle ages. They reputedly bred the blood of West German and Andalusian (and thereby Arabian) horses into the Friesian horse, streamlining the breed, giving the Friesian horse greater grace and refinement, and establishing the Friesian’s famous high-stepping gait. The Friesian horse became known for its incredible strength and agility, coupled with a willing, kind and lively disposition.
From its strength, docility, loyalty and endurance, the Friesian horse became valued by medieval nobility. Armored knights favoured Friesians for their strength and agility when going into battle. As early as around 150 AD, Roman historians made mention of Friesian cavalry in Brittania near Hadrian’s Wall on the border between Scotland and England, and William the Conqueror used horses showing a remarkable resemblance to Friesian stallions at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. Friesians carried European Knights during the Crusades to the Middle East, and were imported and prized by the likes of Don Juan of Austria and Prince George William of Prussia during the 16th and 17th century.
During the 17th century, the Friesian horse was well represented along with Spanish breeds in the various riding schools of Europe where the Haut École of Equitation was practised. However, during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of the Friesian horse became more and more limited, particularly with the declining need for heavy cavalry horses. Friesians became increasingly seen as an expression of the owner’s wealth, with the breed used mostly just to bring the upper-class farmers to church. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century an emphasis on the need for thick heavy drafts for farm work was nearly fatal to the Friesian breed as many farmers finally switched to the heavier breeds, in particular the Bovenlanders. This was almost the end of the Friesian breed.
On May 1, 1879, with great concern for the future of this ancient breed, the Friesch Paarden-Stamboek was founded, which became the first Friesian studbook in the Netherlands. By 1913 there were only 3 registered Friesian stallions available for breeding with little prospects for adding young stallions to their numbers. It appeared as though the breed was doomed to extinction. The breed was slowly and meticulously brought back by the Friesian people who founded a Friesian horse association, in addition to the studbook, to save the breed through scrupulous breeding practices. However, some of the Friesian’s refinement and grace was sacrificed to breed heavier and stonger horses to compete with the Bovenlander.
The 1960s was yet another era of crisis in the breeding of horses due to the rapid mechanization of farming. Most farmers lacked the time and money it took to keep horses simply for pleasure. Once again, the Friesian breed was being threatened. In 1965 the studbook contained only about 500 registered mares. It was the dramatic upturn in the world economy at this time that contributed significantly to saving the breed. With the increased opportunities made possible by being able to devote time and money to relaxation, the Friesian horse became a horse enjoyed simply for the pleasure of the breed. Soon the potential of the Friesian horse for pleasure riding and equine competition became well established, and again the breed was meticulously brought back from the brink of extinction by the Friesian people