A History of the Friesian Horse

History of ‘Het Friesch Paard’


In medieval times it took days, but more often weeks or months before news from elsewhere reached towns and villages. And maybe the location of Friesland, so far away for the rest of the Netherlands, was the cause of the development of a special horse breed through the centuries. Black, a proud stance, a beautiful swan neck, a small head with big eyes, a voluptuous mane and tail, dry legs, intelligent, friendly and with the royal trot this breed is so well known for. The Friesian Horse, named after the province it stems from and whose history is so notably parallel with that of this different part of the Netherlands. In the long history of the Friesian horse it was often famed and forgotten, but it has always stayed true to itself.
During the Crusades, knights used (among other horses) Friesian stallions. They were big and strong and they needed to be. Knight and harness together weighed more than 250 kilos. The road to Jerusalem was long. On the way there the necessary battles had to be won and that asked not only for endurance but also for strength and courage of the knight’s horse. During this time and later, in the course of the Eighty Years War, it is very probable that the Friesian breed was crossed with Arabian and Andalusian horses.

In the 11th century, Willem de Veroveraar used horses that had a remarkable resemblance to the Friesian breed. From this period, many illustrations are known of knights riding Friesian-looking horses.

Early export

Even in 1276 there’s notice of trade in Friesian Horses at the market in Münster (Westfalen, Germany). Friesland was Catholic in that time and held many monasteries. These had a lot of ground and it is not impossible that monks held a fair part in the horse breeding there. Plus, Friesland was part of the diocese of Münster, so the fact that Friesians were offered in Münster isn’t really that strange.
Next, to the trade in Friesians to Germany until far into medieval times. They were also shipped to England. But Friesian horses travelled even further west. In April 1609 Henry Hudson sailed for the “Oost Indische Compagnie” on the ship “De Halve Maen” into the, later named after him, Hudson River. Strongholds were built in New Amsterdam (New York). The Frisian Pieter Stuyvesant was governor in the area called New Netherland between 1647 and 1664. It is a fact that Friesians were brought to New Amsterdam before 1625. From New Amsterdam they spread further over the east of America.
The Friesian horse had a large influence on the Morgan horse. The resemblance with Friesians, as well often in colour as in type and movement, is striking.

Spanish influence

Back to Europe, back to Friesland, land of the breeding. In the period between around 1300 and 1550 the Friesian horse kept its good reputation in large parts of Europe. Even through the invention of gunpowder in 1338, people kept using horses in battles in Europe. The Italian Guicciardini wrote about the Friesian that is was “beautiful and good and especially good as a warhorse.” The chronicle of Dubravius tells that the Hungarian King Louis II took off to war on a black Friesian stallion on June 15, 1526.
Even though all of its power and the beloved black colour, people thought the Friesian was too heavy in the mid 16th century. And just like we have our trends now, it was in fashion then to breed a lighter, almost “modern” Friesian. This change came at the same time as the Eighty-Years War (1568-1646) between the rebellious Dutch and Spain. In those 80 years the Spanish used complete armies and many battles were fought. We [the Dutch] didn’t want to be part of the almighty Spanish kingdom of King Phillips II, but form our own nation under Prince Willem van Oranje, forefather of our Queen Beatrix.
However, this war brought the greatest influence on the development of the Friesian horse in its already long history. The Spanish Dukes and army commanders rode Andalusian stallions in battle. These had been influenced by Arabian stallions in the time of the Moores. The Andalusian stallions of the Spanish “Grandes” (dukes) and generals were taken after victory in battles, also to Friesland. The stallions were used with the native mares. Even today the influence of the Andalusian and the Arabian on the Friesian is evident. Not in the colour, because that stayed mostly black, but mostly in the small head with big, brown eyes, the somewhat shaped face sometimes even with a real “Arabian dent”, the swan-neck, and the elevated knee-action.


The oldest known picture of a Friesian horse stems from 1568. Jan van der Straat made an etching of Phryso, the Friesian stallion of Don Jaun of Austria who was ruling in Naples. A copy of this picture is on the beautiful tile painting at the entrance of the Fries Paarden Centrum in Drachten. Also the monthly magazine of the KFPS, which appears since 1950, is named after this royal stallion “Phryso.”

The first written evidence of use of the name ‘Friesian horse’ is an announcement in 1544 that German Elector Johann Friedrich von Sachsen came to the Reichstag in Spiers riding a Friesian stallion. Three years later, he rode the stallion in the Battle of Muhlberg and was recognised from afar by Emperor Charles V.

Undoubtedly, as leftover from the arts of war with horses from medieval times, riding schools were started in the 16th and 17th century. The horses in these schools had to have strong muscles and joints for training in the classical movements and jumps. Especially the levade and the courbette, jumps that were so successfully used in battle, ask enormous amounts of strength of the horse. Next to Spanish horses (forefathers of the Lippizaners, Napolitaners and Kladrubers) Friesian horses were often used. The Duke of Newcastle had a riding school in the Belgian Antwerp around 1650, and worked with Friesian stallions. Rubens student Abraham van Diepenbeeke illustrated an instructions book of the English Duke. His pictures from 1658 show us horses that look a lot like today’s Friesians. The duke was pleased with the Friesian stallions in his school. “They are lighter of build (than Spanish horses) and have a greater knee-movement.”

Start of the Friesch Paarden-Stamboek

Use of the Friesian horse became increasingly limited to the current Dutch province of Friesland over the 18th and 19th centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the presence of the Friesian horse in the countryside of Friesland became mostly an expression of the owners wealth, with the breed used mostly just to bring the upper-class farmers to church. The horse was additionally used for entertainment, in the form of ridden short-track trotting races. In these races, the horse was traditionally ridden with just a small orange blanket on its back.

During this period, the Friesian horse was very likely used in the breeding of the Orlov as well as of American trotters. At the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century, a very difficult period ensued. The Friesian horse had to compete with the heavy horse breeds. The dancing ‘show horses’ of the landed farmers were in fact less suited for heavy work. Farmers finally switched over to the heavier breeds or crossed the Friesian horse with these breeds. This proved almost fatal for the Friesian breed.

On 1 May 1879, in a tavern called ‘De Drie Romers’ in Roordahuizum, the Friesch Paarden-Stamboek (the studbook of the Friesian horse) was established. Registration of the Friesian horses that still remained proved somewhat of a stimulus to the breed, but the popularity of the heavier breeds, the so-called ‘Bovenlanders’, nonetheless continued to undermine the Friesian, and by the start of the 20th century the breed was again dwindling rapidly. In 1913, there were only three older studbook stallions available for breeding.

Fortunately in Friesland there were people who wanted to save the native Friesian horse breed from extinction. They breathed new life into the breeding, by implementing a well-considered strategy for buying and rearing the still-existing, qualitatively good, purebred colts. The strategy succeeded, and the Friesian was saved from disaster. Among others, the Royal Stables in Borculo and ‘De Oorsprong’ breeding farm, which had been established by the family Van Eysinga at Huis ter Heide in 1885, played a role in this.

Next to its fantastic exterior, the Friesian horse’s character is marked by friendliness, intelligence, adaptability and an enormous willingness to work. It is this character especially that has drawn people, throughout history, to be willing to go through fire for the breed. ‘Supporters’ of the Bovenlanders were often unnecessarily harsh in their judgements of the Friesian horse: They were said to ‘dance’ too much in front of the plough and therefore to waste useful energy. In actuality, they was some measure of truth in what they said, but they failed to appreciate the history of the Friesian horse and the profound affection between master and horse that is so often seen with the Friesian breed.

In 1913, a society known as the Het Friesch Paard was founded, dedicated to the protection and promotion of the breed. However, after 1913, no other choice was left: The Friesian would have to be able to compete with the Bovenlander. Some of the breed’s erstwhile luxuriance was compromised for more horsepower. The Friesian therefore became a bit smaller and heavier horse. As a result, a type of Friesian horse emerged that was different from what we like to see today; what now want is to have back the original luxuriant long lines of its forefathers. By 1915 the group convinced FPS to split the registries back up into two groups.

By 1943, the breeders of non-Friesian horses left the FPS entirely to form an entirely separate registry which later became the Koninklijke Warmbloed Paardenstamboek Nederland (Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands (KWPN).

In the sixties the next crisis in breeding ensued. The mechanisation of farm operations made the horse redundant. Most farmers lacked the money to keep a horse for pleasure only, which meant that the horse disappeared from the farm yards. In 1965, only some 500 mares were registered in the studbook. Fortunately there were now also great lovers of the breed, who brought the horse to the attention of other individuals, many of whom had not been raised with horses. In 1967, the national riding association ‘De Oorsprong’ began a crusade through the Dutch province of Friesland to promote the Friesian horse. From 28 March to 1 April a parade of lovers of the breed travelled with their Friesian horses from Huis ter Heide to Workum. The impact of the promotion campaign was evident in the rapid expansion of the breed in the two ensuing decades.

Today, the Friesian Studbook recognizes three different stallion lines, that of Age 167, Ritske 202 Preferent, and Tetman 205. But in actuality, all three of these stallions’ sire lines trace to Nemo 51, and therefore are technically from the same line. The Nemo 51 line is the only unbroken stallion line still existing in the Friesian breed. There are a handful of other stallions whose genetics have survived through mare lines or through their approved sons’ daughters. Most notably, those of Graaf Adolf, Landzoon, Onsta, Prins Hendrik, and Willem de Zwijger. Ultimately, however, any direct male line to these stallions was lost when an approved stallion in the line did not have any approved sons.

The fact that there were very few horses left by 1913 with which to resurrect the breed led to inevitable inbreeding. Sadly, however, the deleterious consequences of inbreeding were not fully understood at the time. In 1913, when the remaining population had decreased to only 37 individuals which included only 3 breeding stallions – Prins 109, Alva 113 and Friso 117. The long term health and success of the breeding population had already been severely compromised. Inbreeding depression (the decline in vigour in the offspring of organisms that are closely related) was inevitable. The inbreeding of the Friesian population can be seen in the pedigrees of the three FPS stallion ‘lines’ of Age 167, Ritske 202 Preferent, and Tetman 205. For example, Tetman’s pedigree can be traced to Nemo 26 times, Graaf Adolf 25 times, Landzoon 17 times and Prins Hendrik 10 times — and this is only what is recorded. There may actually be more crosses to these stallions. Additionally, Tetman’s dam was byAge 167, making Tetman closely related to Age. Too close, in our opinion, to be considered a completely separate ‘line’. Ritske 202 was also closely related to Age and Tetman. Ritske’s pedigree can be traced to Nemo 25 times, Graaf Adolf 25 times, Landzoon 15 times, and Prins Hendrick 12 times. This shows that, not only are the three recognized FPS stallion lines closely related, but they themselves were also, in our opinion, exceedingly inbred.

Thankfully, many people discovered the fabulous characteristics of the Friesian breed and put the Friesian horse to use for many and varied purposes. As of 2008 more than 40,000 horses were registered by the KFPS and some 7,000 breedings are documented every year.

Leave a Reply