The breed was developed in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands,where there is evidence of thousands of years of horse populations, and this breed is said to have descended from the primitive Forest Horse. It is also said that Romans obtained ancestors of the Friesian horse for riding and also took them to England, where the breed type may have influenced the Shire horse, Clydesdale, Fell Pony and Dales Pony.
Ancestors of the modern Friesians were used in medieval times to carry knights to battle. In the 12th and 13th centuries, some eastern horses of crusaders were mated with Friesian stock. During the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Netherlands were shortly linked with Spain, there was less demand for heavy war horses as battle arms changed, blood was added, lightening its weight and thereby rendering it more suitable (in terms of less food intake and waste output) for work as a more urban carriage horse. Friesians were also used by riding schools in France and Spain for high-school dressage, and they remain popular today for their gentle temperaments and proud appearance.
The historian Ann Hyland wrote of the Friesian breed:
The Emperor Charles (reigned 1516-56) continued Spanish expansion into the Netherlands, which had its Friesian warhorse, noted by Vegetius and used on the continent and in Britain in Roman times. Like the Andalusian, the Friesian bred true to type. Even with infusions of Spanish blood during the sixteenth century, it retained its indigenous characteristics, taking the best from both breeds. The Friesian is mentioned in 16th and 17th century works… a courageous horse eminently suitable for war, lacking the volatility of some breeds or the phlegm of very heavy ones. Generally black, the Friesian was around 15th with strong, cobby conformation, but with a deal more elegance and quality. The noted gait was a smooth trot coming from powerful quarters. Nowadays, though breed definition is retained, the size has markedly increased, as has that of most breeds due to improved rearing and dietary methods.
The breed was especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were not only in demand as harness horses and for agricultural work, but also for the trotting races then so popular. The Friesian may have been used as foundation stock for breeds such as the Dole Gudbrandsdal, the Norfolk Trotter (ancestor of the Hackney) and the Morgan. In the 1800s the Friesian was bred to be lighter and faster for trotting, however this led to what some owners and breeders regarded as inferior stock, so a movement to return to pureblood stock took place by the end of the century.
A Studbook Society was founded in 1879 by Friesian farmers and land owners who had gathered to found the Friesian Cattle Registry (FRS). The Paardenstamboek (Stud book) was published in 1880 and initially registered both Friesian horses and a group of heavy warmblood breeds, including East Friesians and Oldenburgers, collectively known as Bovenlanders. At the time, the Friesian horse was declining in numbers, and being replaced by the more fashionable Bovenlanders, both directly and by crossbreeding Bovenlander stallions on Friesian mares. This had already virtually exterminated the pure Friesian in significant parts of the province in 1879, which made the inclusion of Bovenlanders necessary. While the work of the registry produced a revival of the breed’s popularity in the late 19th century, it also resulted in the sale and disappearance of many of the best stallions from the breeding area, and Friesian horse populations dwindled. By the very early 20th century until the number of breeding stallions was down to three. Therefore, in 1906, the two parts of the registry were joined, and the studbook was renamed the Friesch Paarden Stamboek (FPS) in 1907. Friesian horses are sometimes referred to as Belgian Blacks In 1913, a society known as the Het Friesch Paard was founded, dedicated to the protection and promotion of the breed. 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 Koninklijk Warmbloed Paardenstamboek Nederland (Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands (KWPN).
Displacement by petroleum-powered farm equipment on dairy farms also was a threat to the survival of Friesian horse. The last draught function performed by Friesians on a significant scale was to work on farms that raised dairy cattle. World War II slowed down the process of displacement, allowing the breed’s population and popularity to rebound. Important in the initial stage of the breed’s rebound was the circus of the Strassburger family, who, having fled Nazi Germany for the Low Countries, discovered the show qualities of the breed and demonstrated its abilities outside of its local breeding area during and after the Nazi occupation.
Today, there are three modern bloodlines: Tetman 205, Age 168, and Ritske 202. Each of these sires trace their blood to Paulus 121, who was born in 1913 and entered into the Studbook in 1916. He in turn can be traced back three more generations to the original 19th century Studbook foundation sire, Nemo 51, born in 1885. All purebred Friesians trace back to these bloodlines.
The Friesian Today
From the latter part of the 20th century until the present, demand for purebreds, particularly the Modern style finer-boned, taller, more agile version of the Friesian increased, so breeders have bred both purebreds and a lighter-weight crossbred horse with valued characteristics, resulting in the Friesian cross and Friesian Sporthorse.
Friesian horses are popular in both Europe and the United States, and are often used today for Dressage competition, pleasure riding, and driving. Friesian horses can do well in dressage competition due to the breed’s movement, trainability, appearance, power, and body control.
The Friesian also remains popular as a carriage horse, as it is a powerful horse and its high-stepping action is eye-catching. It is particularly popular in competitions that require the driving of a team, partly because of its movement and disposition, and partly because it is easy to match teams of black horses. Friesians are also good all-around horses, used for showing, driving, and general riding, and are also used as circus horses.
Due to its flashy appearance, the Friesian has become popular in the film industry. The breed owes much of its current popularity to the appearance of the Friesian stallion Goliath in the 1985 film, Ladyhawke, which ignited a worldwide interest in these horses. Films such as Eragon, The Mask of Zorro, Alexander, The Chronicles of Narnia have also featured Friesian horses. An episode of the popular TV series Lost featured a Friesian/Saddlebred cross. Though they are of dramatic appearance, sometimes their use in dramatizations of actual historical events is of dubious accuracy, given that the breed as it is known today only came into being within the last 400 to 600 years.