You’ve probably seen these satin black beauties in movies such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Friesians are one of the most picturesque equine breeds and their eye-catching appearance has made them popular with the big screen and horse enthusiasts alike.
Friesans originated in the Netherlands and are descended from the heavy Equus Robustus. They were specifically bred for their trotting action and suitability for pulling carriages. As Dutch settlers migrated to North America, they brought their Friesians along with them.
Because the Friesian has been closed to outside influences for close to 200 years, the breed has been kept genetically distinct and pure.
Back from the brink
Friesians came close to extinction in the early 1900s, as the need for carriage horses diminished, and the breed was considered too light for farm work. By 1913, there were a mere three stallions in the studbook, with no prospects of any more on the horizon.
To help save the breed, a Friesian horse association was created, but by the mid-1900s, there were still only around 500 horses recorded. Friesians actually became extinct in North America at one point, and had to be reintroduced in the 1970s.
Another widespread attempt was made to promote and revive the breed, and it was much more successful. The Friesian is now considered to be “recovering” on the conservation list, with around 2,000 horses in North America and 30,000 globally.
The Friesian today
Nowadays, Friesians are best known for their presence in front of a carriage and in the dressage ring. They are also succeeding in other disciplines, including trail riding, reining, saddleseat and therapeutic programs.
Friesians are perfect candidates for natural horsekeeping. “In general, they have hardy hooves, a strong constitution and are very efficient eaters with good metabolic function – especially the ‘older’ baroque style lines,” says equine trimmer, massage therapist and Friesian enthusiast Johanna Neuteboom. “They grow excellent winter coats, and shed quickly in the spring.” The breed does not tolerate heat as well as lighter breeds, which can be a concern in warmer climates.
Johanna cautions that the Friesian’s excellent metabolism means “they tend to be sensitive to high starch/high sugar diets, and may be at risk if your definition of natural horsekeeping includes unlimited access to acres of rich pasture land.”
While many quiet horses have a lazy gait, this is not the case with Friesians. Their movement is powerful. It challenges the rider, swinging side to side as well as backward and forward, forcing the rider to develop muscle strength and balance while also mobilizing joints.
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