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History of the Friesian Horse

Friesland is the province in the far north of the Netherlands where the Friesian horse originated. Friesland took its name from the Friesian Sea, now known as the North Sea, which lapped its shores. Before the Reformation there were many monasteries in the province and the monks were enthusiastic breeders of the early Friesian horse. The history of the Friesian horse is a checkered one as it nearly disappeared on two occasions but fortunately was saved each time by enthusiastic and devoted breeders who appreciated the character and beauty of this wonderful breed.

From bones discovered by Labouchere (1927) it has been decided that the Friesian horse is descended from the Equus robustus (big horse) line. Through the development of the Friesian horse it is interesting to see that it has become a good mix of a cold-blood horse – (a horse used more for pulling, with a good temperament) and a warm-blood horse - (a horse used for its sporting ability and agility).

In the 4 th century, the English writer Anthony Dent writes about the Friesian horse being ridden by the Troops at Carlisle. Anthony Dent and other writers indicate that the Friesian horse is the ancestor of the British Shire and the Fell pony.

Willem de Veroveraar in the 11 th century, used a horse that looks very much like a Friesian. During this period in History there are many illustration of knights riding Friesian looking horses.

Another early reference to the Friesian in the pages of history is when the knights of the Crusades , who needed a strong and brave horse, rode them into battle. The Italian Guicciardini wrote of the Friesian - it is “beautiful and good and especially good as a warhorse”. Records also show that the Hungarian King Louis II went to war on a black Friesian stallion in 1526. In the 16 th and 17 th centuries riding schools were opened to teach the “High School art of Riding” in which moves needed in battle such as the Piaffe, passage and levade were taught. Nowadays we see these performed in high levels of dressage and in the performances of the Lipizzaner's.

An etching by Stradanus (Jan van der Straat , 1568) shows a Friesian stallion Phryso, from the stables of Don Juan of Austria. The monthly magazine of the KFPS is named Phryso. There are also other references to Friesians in ancient writings ( 1251) and many drawings which picture horses with obvious Friesian characteristics.

In the mid 16 th century it was decided that the Friesian was too heavily built and so a move to a lighter animal started. The eighty year war (1568 – 1646) between the Dutch and the Spanish resulted in some Spanish Andalusian stallions being used with Friesian mares. This influence can still be seen today particularly in the swan-like neck, dish nose bone and elevated knee movement.

From as early as 1568- 1624 there are records that show that Friesian stallions were exported to Austria, Prussia and Denmark. In 1625 Friesians were sent to New Amsterdam which was founded by the Dutch, in what was to become modern day America. New Amsterdam was later, in 1664, abandoned to the English and re-named New York. So even in those early days Friesians were making their mark around the world. But crossbreeding meant that the pure bred Friesian was quickly lost in this area.

The presence of the Friesian horse became more limited to the Dutch province of Friesland over the 18 th and 19 th century. It was towards the end of the 19 th century that the Friesian horse became more of a status symbol and therefore a breed for the upper class and was used mainly as a means of transport to and from church. At this time the Friesian was also used for entertainment particularly for Show Trotting. In these races the horse was traditionally ridden by young men with just a small orange blanket on its back. The aim was to win the race without breaking into a canter. The prize for the winner was either a gold or silver whip. Originally the races were on horseback but later became carriage races using the Friesian carriage called a ‘sjees'. These were two wheeled carriages named after the French word for a chair (chaise) as they looked like a chair on wheels. They are usually highly decorated in the rococo style, drawn by one or two Friesians and driven by a man and a woman dressed in traditional costumes of the 1860's. The ‘sjees' is the only carriage in which the driver is seated on the left hand side. At this time the Friesian was used in the breeding of the Russian Orlov Trotter as well as the American Trotter.

During the Victorian (19 th Century) era Friesian stallions were used to draw the carriage hearses for funerals . As many as 700 stallions were employed for this use in the London area alone. Their magnificent blackness made them extremely suitable for such work. They were known as ‘Belgium Blacks' as they were exported through the Belgium port of Antwerp.

With the Friesian being used more as a pleasure horse and heavier breeds such as the Uplander, proving to be more suitable for heavy farm work, the Friesian was ,sadly, of little use to it owner. Towards the end of the 19 th century this situation proved to be almost fatal for the Friesian.


The Friesian horse Studbook “The Friesian Horse Association” (Het Friesche Paard) was started in Roordahuizen in 1879, by a group of people concerned about the future of this old breed. In an effort to control and develop the Friesian horse, two books were established A Book for Friesians and B Book for crossbreeds. By 1913 only three approved stallions remained – Prins 109, Alva 113, and Friso117. It was at this point that a few breeders came together at the Orjanje Hotel in Leeuwarden and founded in addition to the Studbook, an association to save the Friesian horse. The aim was to encourage the breeding of purebreds in an effort to protect and improve the breed. It was this strategy of buying and rearing good quality, purebred colts, that saved the Friesian from disaster.

Their efforts were successful and as a result the Studbook ,in 1915, again opened two registration books – A Book for Friesians and B Book for BovenlandsePaarden. In 1916 the Association bought the stallion Paulus 121 who is regarded as the patriarch of all current Friesian stallions. He fathered Vredestichter 127 and Arend 131.

It was at this time that the Studbook saw the necessity to compete with the Uplander. The Friesian became less modern and luxurious and had to have increased strength which lead to the development of a heavier, smaller horse. This is not the kind of Friesian we look for today. But ,these changes met the demands of the time, without losing the characteristics of nobility and the basic genetics. This clever planning, saw the Friesian survive this traumatic time. Sadly however, this was not the last time we would see the Friesian in crisis.

In 1938 there was another split within the Studbook when the Friesian owners formed their own Board within the Studbook . In 1943 breeders of non-Friesian horses left the Studbook which meant that the Friesians finally obtained their own Studbook. Since that time the ‘Royal Society the Friesian Studbook' registers only purebred Friesian horses. Queen Juliana became its patroness in 1949 and the ‘Royal' title was added in1954. The maintenance and improvement of the Friesian Horse world-wide is supervised continually by the “Koninklijke Vereniging Het Friesch Paarden-Staamboek” (KFPS)


However, in the 1950/60's the existence of the Friesian was again threatened when mechanization became an even greater feature of modern farming . Horses were no longer used to the same extent and became too expensive to maintain. As a result there was a drop in the number of horses ,with only 500 mares registered and 3 Stallions Age 168 , Tetman 205 & Ritske 202 , (who are seen in many of the bloodlines of today). These sires can be traced back to Paulus 121, and Paulus can be traced back three more generations to the original 19th century Studbook sire Nemo 51 born 1885 . In 1967 a ‘crusade to save the Friesian Horse' was started and a weeklong parade of horses was organized through the province of Friesland. A Mr. Cees Faber was the initiator of this move - he also promoted the need to “breed for versatility while keeping the breed characteristics'.
Insert pic of Age, Tetman and Ritske - from book

So the Friesian was saved again and has since then, risen in popularity around the world. In 1979 the Studbook celebrated 100 years of existence which surely shows the strength of the breed to overcome difficult times. The KFPS, together with many other successful associations and organisations such as the FPSSA, strives to ensure the continuation of the Friesian breed around the world. Together they are continually working together to improve the breed and ensure the future of the Friesian Horse.


Timeline of the Friesian Horse- Compiled by Laurie Kasperek
Friesian History – Friesian Horse Association of NorthAmerica
Het Friese Paard by G.J.A. Bouma, 1979
Het Friese Paard –Koninklijke Vereniging Het Friesch Paarden Stamboek, Drachten,1999
Royal Dutch Friesian Horse Studbook KFPS
Introduction to Judging a Friesian Horse
Friese Stamhengsten Deel 1
Pictures courtesy of the KFPS