The Friesian is a variety of horse which came to be in the Netherlands during the Middle Ages. It’s an exceptionally large and powerful animal, but it’s also an exceptionally agile one, too – and it’s this versatility that makes it so enormously popular. In this article, we’ll investigate this breed – and see whether it might appeal to you, too.
If you’re at all familiar with the countryside, the name Friesian might ring a bell. It’s a name shared (at least in Europe) with the world’s most popular breed of cow. And, as you might expect, this is no accident – both animals can trace their ancestry to the same region of what is now the Netherlands. There, they existed under the stewardship of the Frisians, a Germanic ethnic group whose language is still spoken by around half-a-million people today.
It’s thanks in the main to geography that this particular region produced such popular animals; the grass there was rich and abundant, and therefore perfect for breeding animals. And it’s thanks to history that Frisian
livestock became so widespread; after the First World War, the United States was expanding at an exponential rate, and it was Friesland that met this demand with its high-quality livestock.
Like many breeds of horse, the Friesian’s original purpose was to carry armored knights into battle. Their grace and agility made them perfect for mounted combat during the early middle ages – but as time moved on, knights became more heavily armored, and heavier draft horses were called for. But as time progressed and warfare changed, they found alternative purpose as work horses, dragging carts and carriages around urbans centers.
Even under this new occupation, Friesians faced difficult circumstances during the latter half of the 20th century – mechanization meant that many of the tasks for which a work horse had traditionally been required were now being performed by tractors and other machines. This change prompted demand for their services to fall off a cliff, and stables had to adapt the breed. The Frisian, happily, survives to this day thanks to its use in recreation, and in equestrian disciplines.
In the main, horses can be divided into two different sorts – there are cold-blooded ones, and there are hot blooded ones. The former tend to be larger, and gentler, and are therefore suitable for beginners. The latter tend to be more agile, and capable of more extreme bursts of short-term exertion – but they’re also more unforgiving, and difficult to control.
Friesians fall somewhere between these two camps, and are therefore regarded as warm-blooded equines. They represent a perfect compromise between strength and quickness, and are used extensively in competitive sport. Intermediate riders looking to move away from cold-blooded draft horses should certain give the Friesian some consideration.
The Friesian is instantly recognizable – it has a long flowing mane and tail, and a uniquely high-stepping gait that makes everything it does seem incredibly dramatic. Friesians are predominantly black; though there are some chestnut and dark-brown animals out there, they’re generally not accepted as stallions. A Friesian is around seventeen hands high, and weighs around 1,500lbs, which puts it slightly larger than most horse breeds – but not quite so large as many draft horses.
The breed is distinctive for its gait. It’ll lift its legs much farther into the air than other breeds, which makes it ideal both for carriage work, and for film productions which call for exaggerated movement and grace.
The Frisian is an excellent all-rounder with a diverse set of abilities. It’s therefore capable of performing a variety of different tasks. Today, it’s most commonly seen in competition sports like racing and dressage – but it’s still put to work in areas where machinery can’t easily get to, like dense forests.
As we’ve seen, the breed is also used often in modern cinema. Their achingly stylish manes and tails make them perfect for those sweeping, dramatic chase scenes. Their mild temperament is advantageous for cinema, and so you’ll often find them appearing in fantasy and even some historical dramas. After all, the last thing you want on a million-dollar film set is a horse that’ll bolt when confronted with hundreds of unfamiliar crew members!
The Friesian is largely free from health problems. That said, they are still at a statistically higher risk of developing certain conditions. Let’s take a look at them in greater detail now.
Of all the disorders affecting Friesians, dwarfism is perhaps the best known. It manifests mainly as a lack of growth in the limbs, which become significantly shorter than those of a healthy animal. This causes the head and body to appear disproportionately large. Side-by side, a Frisian dwarf is around half the size of a healthy foal of the same age.
This is a genetic disorder which is apparent from birth, though there is currently no way of screening for it. The reason it’s linked so heavily to the breed is that, up until relatively recently, dwarf Friesians were still bred and used as mares. This practice has now been abandoned, but it will be awhile before the last vestiges of dwarfism are removed from the animal’s genome. Consequently, the condition is likely to persist in the Frisian population for a while yet.
This is a relatively uncommon disorder which affects around 0.2% of foals. This condition results from the jugular foramen (a hole at the base of the skull) becoming malformed, applying pressure to the jugular vein. This in turn can have a knock-on effect on cerebral spinal fluid, the special liquid which encases the brain, cleans it, feeds it, and protects it from trauma. In hydrocephalic horses, this fluid builds up, applying pressure to the brain. This causes headaches, nausea and blurred vision. This fluid can be drained using a shunt, but the root causes behind it will still be present, as will the danger of the condition manifesting once again.