The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 55-120) recorded the Friesian’s existence. He acknowledged its antiquity and its value as a powerful all-round utility animal, but remarked on its exceptional ugliness. It had become rather more refined by the time it carried the Friesian knights and their German neighbours to the Crusades, 1,000 years later, but it retained all its qualities of endurance, thriftiness, strength, and docility. The breed was upgraded further by the introduction of eastern blood, a result of contact made with desert horses during these campaigns, and later by crosses with the renowned Andalusian when Spain occupied the Netherlands during the 80 Years’ War
The relatively small Friesian, although blessed with an impressive top line, was not in the same class as the Andalusian or the purpose-bred war-horses of Lombardy, but for centuries it was the most practical, up to weight war-horse of Europe. It was also the cheapest to keep. For the last few hundred years its versatility has been demonstrated in harness, under saddle, and in every sort of farm work. Not surprisingly, this horse was much in demand not only to improve neighbouring breeds but also as foundation stock. Marbach, the German state stud at which the Wiirttemberger originated, used Friesian horses in the 17th century. At the same time, the Oldenburger was founded largely on Friesian stock from the area between the Netherlands and the River Weser.
Because of their geographical situation the Frieslanders became notable seafarers as well as farmers, and their seaborne traders, dealing in cattle, swords, cloth, and horses, introduced the breed to countries further afield. The Dole Gudbrandsdal Norway derived directly from the Friesian. The UK so owes much to the breed. The rieslanders and their horses provided mounted auxiliaries for the Roman legions in Britain whose settlements remained long after the Romans had gone. The Friesian’s influence was manifested in the Dales and Fell Ponies and in the Old English Black from the Midlands. This Former breed was used for the King’s Household Cavalry during the reign of Charles II (1660-85). More importantly, it was, without dispute, the ancestor of the Shire Horse.
Despite its eminence, the Friesian nearly became extinct during the early part of the 20th century. A stud book had been opened in 1879, but the popularity of trotting races, in which the Friesian excelled, resulted in outcrosses that increased speed at the expense of the essential type. By 1913 only three Friesian stallions were left in Friesland. The breed was saved when vehicle and fuel shortages in the Second World War caused the Dutch farmers to return to horsepower. A new society was formed, and in 1954 this was granted the title of “Royal”.
THE FRIESIAN TODAY
Today’s Friesians are always black, and stand at around 1.52 m (15 hh). They are able to cope with a heavy workload, on moderate rations, without losing condition or the cheerful willingness inherent in the breed’s lovable character. Friesians are used for working on the land, are driven in harness (often put to the traditional Friesian rig), and, on account of their agility and temperament, are prized as dressage horses. Furthermore, they are considered to be a useful cross with the Thoroughbred in the breeding of competition horses. In days gone by, the funeral business made much use of them, while today they are still in demand in the circus ring. For many years Friesians were used to draw delivery vans by Harrods, the prestigious London department store.
They are actively bred in Australia with several Friesian Horse Associations in existence namely