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The Friesian: From War and Show Horse to Modern Sport Horse

The Friesian is quite special. With its high-set neck, pitch-black color, long mane, and striking “here I come” attitude, it's no wonder it has been used as both a war horse (including in films) and later as a show horse. But have you ever thought about what else the Friesian can be used for, and what its original purpose actually is? Over the years, the breed has undergone a huge transformation from war and show horse to a modern sport horse.

Breed Characteristics

The Friesian is a relatively rare horse breed with roots in the Netherlands, Friesland. It is known for its characteristic black color, where stallions must have no markings, and mares may only have a star. In the past, it could also be brown or chestnut. It typically measures between 150 and 170 cm in height.


The breed should have a finely chiseled and fairly long head with an alert expression in the eyes. The neck should be well-raised, arched, and muscular. The body is strong and very compact with a long and firm shoulder. The horse's back is muscular and short with an extremely muscular hindquarter. The legs are short with a strong bone structure and around the large hooves, there should be plenty of feathering. Characteristic and quite beautiful in the Friesian is the thick and likewise black mane and tail.

friesians are predisposed to a number of disorders as a result of inbreeding over several rounds in the 20th century. photo archive. (2)

Eager to Learn and Willing

The Friesian is known for its calm and stable temperament and its quick-learning and willing nature. It is used for driving, in circuses, and as a riding horse for all kinds of riders – but it has the capacity to carry heavy people. The horse is friendly and intelligent as well as hardy and cooperative. Therefore, it is also widespread in both Europe and the USA.


On the Brink of Extinction

Back in the 13th century, the Friesian was known for its strength and agility. This meant that it was first used as a war horse and later as a cavalry horse. Just before World War II, the horse was on the brink of extinction, as its great muscle strength was no longer necessary in agriculture. A group of Dutch farmers, however, saved the breed by crossbreeding some of the existing stallions with Oldenburgers. In 1913, there were only three pedigree stallions to breed from. Again around 1960, the breed was in sharp decline, with only about 500 mares registered in the studbook.

friesians are predisposed to a number of disorders as a result of inbreeding over several rounds in the 20th century. photo archive. (1)

Weaknesses Due to Inbreeding

Like many other breeds, the Friesian has its weaknesses. The breed most often suffers from dwarfism, hydrocephalus (accumulation of fluid in the head), aortic aneurysm (bursting of the main artery), megaesophagus (enlarged esophagus, often causing esophageal obstruction), retained placenta (up to 50% risk), allergies, and skin issues. The breed is generally known to lack collagen, which is an important element for the horse's tendons, joints, connective tissue, and overall biomechanics.

These genetically induced disorders emerged in abundance when attempts were made to save the breed in the 20th century. Many believe there was a case of outright inbreeding.

Modern Sport Horse

Today, the Friesian is used for much more than just show and warfare – fortunately for the latter. It is significantly on the rise, and it is not uncommon to encounter it in the higher classes, where it performs quite well.


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