Friesians: The Story Behind the Black Pearls of Frysland
By: Joca van der Veen DVM
Beautiful jetblack horses are galloping in green pastures, feathers flying in the wind and mane jumping up and down in the air. The breathtaking sight of Friesians has stolen many hearts all over the world. Meeting one of these majestic animals often starts the search for “a Friesian of my own”. A steadily growing number of people has found this impressive breed a perfect match for them.
It can be quite a task to find out more about the history of the Friesian breed. Thus a history overview was thought to make a good first subject for “The North American Friesian Magazine”. How old is the breed and where do Friesian horses come from, why does North America have two Friesian studbooks and what are the differences, are a few questions that will be answered in this edition.
Friesian horses originally come from Friesland, a province in the northern part of the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a rather small country, and also called Holland by some. To be correct, the country should be called the Netherlands. Holland may refer to North-Holland and South-Holland, which are two provinces in the Netherlands; Holland thus only refers to a small portion of the country. The Netherlands can be translated as “low lands” and this explains the fact that the main part of the country is below sea level. Dikes protect the country from flooding. Friesland is an old “country” bordering on the current North Sea, and has been mentioned in historical books since 500 years B.C.
People in the Netherlands speak Dutch. Friesland has its own culture and language or dialect, which can be difficult to understand by people from the other provinces in the Netherlands. The Friesian people view their province as a country of its own. Friesland has its own horse breed, as well as its own dog breeds. Friesian people are said to be proud people, attached to tradition, sensitive, and passionate about their horses. The Friesian horse is part of Friesland’s history and culture. The people oftentimes lovingly refer to their horses as “black pearls”, a very fitting nickname for the great Friesian.
Many people still think of Friesian horses as a breed threatened with extinction. At the moment, the Friesian horse is very popular, and the days of extinction lingering are long gone.
In the 1960s however the breed was going through serious crises. Only about 500 Friesian horses were registered, an absolute down time in the history of Friesian breeding. With the development of the tractor, not many horses were needed to work on the land anymore, resulting in a vast decrease in horse numbers. Moreover, cars were making horse and carriage more and more an unnecessary item to keep around.
It is only to the credit of some committed breeders that the Friesian horses are available as a purebred breed these days. A number of valuable horse breeders stayed loyal to the breed and did not cross their beautiful Friesians with other breeds.
Later in time, in the 1970s, the Friesian horses became popular for use as competition horses, both in dressage and in driving. This was a change from the previous use of the horses as “farm equipment”, and resulted in an increase in popularity of the Friesians. People had more time for pleasure, and horse riding and driving were great ways to have fun. This also explains the transition from the horse type that was built for heavy pulling work on the land to a more elegant, lighter-bodied, sport horse type.
First, popularity increased within the country, and then spread to the rest of the world. Today, Friesian horse associations can be found in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, North America, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The Friesian breed has been purebred for the last two centuries. Long ago, in the 16th and 17th century, Friesians were crossed with Andalusian horses from Spain, and this way Arabian blood entered into the breed. This has given the Friesians the high knee-action, the small head and swan-like neck, all breed characteristics in the Friesian as we know it today. Friesians are considered warm-blooded horses because of their disposition. Horse breeding in the Netherlands is done under strict rules and regulations from the government and FPS studbook.
Friesians have an expression that sets them apart. With an impressive stature, long mane and long, thick tail they make people stop and stare. The gentle look in their big eyes holds people’s attention. Many Friesians are very show sensitive: the more people watch the better they like it. In movement, the low tail-set and floating feathers show off their powerful supple gaits.
The head should be small and have small ears that are pointed towards each other with curling tips. The head should have a straight or slightly concave profile; a roman nose is not appreciated. Friesians should have strong legs with good bone structure.
Friesians are supposed to be groomed without pulling or cutting anything that might make it look like another breed. Manes can be grown so long that they reach the ground. Feathers enhance the nice leg movements, with the typical knee-action.
Friesians are bred to be exclusively black; the chestnut color is not appreciated in the Friesian horse and young stallions carrying the chestnut gene cannot be presented for new breeding approval with the FPS. Up to the beginning of this century about twenty percent of Friesians showed a bay or chestnut color.
The only white spot allowed on the body is the star; completely black color is preferred over black with some white. FPS publishes lists showing the percentage of offspring of approved stallions showing white markings (allowable white versus non-allowable white).
The modern, lighter-bodied sport horse type is preferred over the heavier draft-type of older days. The modern type is slightly taller and lighter-boned than the drafty type. This lighter type is able to excel in competitions/ shows and is showing to be able to compete with the best in both driving and dressage all over Europe. Friesian horses have even been successful at the highest levels of dressage, the Grand Prix dressage tests. Also, Friesians have been shown in driving in international combined driving competitions and made a great impression.
Possibly the very best part of the Friesian breed is its easy-going disposition, making it a great horse for riders and drivers of all ages. They are always willing to please, work hard, and try whatever their owner pleases; Friesians simply are great all-round family horses.
Friesians to USA
Friesians were first imported to the States in 1625. The Dutch loved and love to travel and trade, and founded New Amsterdam. This city that was later taken over by the English and its name changed into New York. These first imported horses most likely influenced the Morgan horse breed. Many other horse breeds have also been influenced by Friesians, like for example the Merens (looking like a smaller version of the Friesian horse).
Friesians are mainly used for dressage, and driving competitions, as well as for exhibitions and pleasure riding. Friesian horses have been used successfully as circus horses: their beautiful black hair makes them impressive show horses, and their gentleness and intelligence makes them easy learners.
Friesians have also had star appearances in Hollywood movies, such as Lady Hawke.
As stated above, Friesians have entered FEI levels of dressage, and 4-in-hand driving teams of Friesians have competed well in international combined driving events.
The Friesian horse is a sober horse; feeding it too much can result in health problems (health related issues will be discussed in future articles). Friesians are well-known for their gentle and forgiving dispositions. They are also very clever, and some seem to take joy in surprising their owners with gate or stall-opening tricks.
The Society “The Friesian Studbook” is the oldest studbook in the Netherlands. It was founded May 1, 1879. The Dutch name for the studbook is Friesch Paarden-Stamboek, shortened to FPS. Queen Juliana honored the Studbook by becoming its Patroness in 1949. The studbook has had the proud addition of Royal (“Koninklijk” is the Dutch word for Royal) to its name since 1954.
Crossbreeding of various horse breeds has been done for centuries. Anti-crossbreeding opinioned owners of Friesians however are the true saviors of the Friesian breed and prevented its complete extinction. The FPS is strongly against cross-breeding and wants to keep the Friesian horse around as a purebred breed.
Crossbreeding in the horse breeding world became very popular in the mid to late 18th century. Actually, the first meeting of the Studbook- on May 1 1879 – discussed whether only horses of the Friesian race should be registered or crossbreds as well. At the end of the meeting it was decided that two registration books would be opened: Book A for Friesian horses, and Book B for crossbreds.
In 1907 the separate books A and B were closed, since almost all horses were crossbred, and thus all horses were registered in one book. The end of the Friesian horse was nearby.
Luckily, a few breeders and true lovers of the Friesian horse united and started the society “The Friesian Horse” (“Het Friesche Paard”). This was in the year 1913, an important year in Friesian history. At this time, only 3 purebred Friesian stallions were left, and all of today’s horses are related to these 3 stallions.
Soon after (in 1915), the Studbook opened two registration books again: Book A for Friesian horses and Book B for so-called “Upland horses” (“Bovenlandse paarden” ) were opened.
The number of purebred Friesian horses steadily increased. This was reason for the Friesian breeders to have their own studbook in 1943. The non-Friesians left the Studbook, and since that time the (Royal) Friesian Studbook registers only purebred Friesian horses.
FPS is the oldest and second largest studbook in the Netherlands. About 9,000 members are registered, with about 30,000 Friesian horses being registered in the books. The FPS takes care of the studbook administration for the entire world, so that is can supervise the best interests of the breed worldwide. This means that breeding associations in other countries are supervised by FPS. Together, the associations work towards improvement of the breed, working under the regulations of FPS. As explained above, all FPS registered (or registered with one of its associations, like FHANA in North America) horses are pure-bred Friesian horses. Because the Friesian horse was nearly lost due to cross-breeding, the studbook strongly discourages cross-breeding of purebred horses. FPS is known as one of the studbooks with the strictest breeding standards in the world. These strict rules have resulted in the perfection in conformation, disposition, and athleticism we see in many of today’s Friesian horses.
FHANA is an acronym for Friesian Horse Association of North America. It is the official subdivision of the FPS. The growing popularity of the breed in North America has resulted in FHANA memberships tripling over the last five years, into about 1200 members in 2001, with about 2700 horses registered. FPS judges come over to inspect Friesians at inspections all over North America.
FPZV / FHS: Why another studbook?
As explained above, the FPS is the main studbook for Friesian horses. People often talk about TWO studbooks for Friesians. Generally, the FPS is considered the first studbook or “the Dutch Studbook” and the FPZV the second studbook or “the German studbook”. The FPS has a division in North America named FHANA. FPZV has a subdivision too: the FHS or Friesian Horse Society.
FPZV stands for Friesenpferde Zuchtverband, e.V.. It was founded by a group of German breeders in 1979, under the name of "Society of Breeders and Friends of the Friesian Horse". Later it was renamed into FPZV or the "Friesian Horse Breeders' Association". It is an independent registry and recognized and approved by the German government, FN (German National Equestrian Federation), and FEI (Federation Equestrian International).
In 1993, the North American affiliate of FPZV was established as the Friesian Horse Society (FHS).
Differences FPS and FPZV
Do we need a second studbook? What are the differences between the two studbooks? The first question is difficult to answer. The second question is answered by the FPZV and explained as follows.
Three major differences distinguish the FPZV and affiliates from the FPS and affiliates: First the judging of gaits, second the mare performance testing, and third the allowance of cross-breeding.
The FPZV judges find that the quality of gaits should be judged according to FPS standards, so that gaits count towards 60% of the total score for a judged horse. The difference lays in the importance that is put into each gait. FPS weighs each gait equally, whereas FPZV multiplies scores for walk, trot, and canter by factors 1.2, 1.0, and 0.8 respectively.
FPS and associations may require a mare performance testing for a mare to receive the honorable Star (or Model) status. FPZV has made the performance testing an absolute requirement for a mare prior to being eligible for these predicates. More-over, testing in both dressage and driving are required by FPZV.
FPZV does not encourage or promote cross-breeding of Friesians, but cross-breeds are recognized under certain conditions. Purebred Friesian mares are not allowed to be used for cross-breeding, but Friesian stallions can be used for cross-breeding as the owner of the horse pleases.
Published in North American Friesian Journal, 1st issue, Oct/ Nov/ Dec 2001