The Friesian (also Frisian) horse is a breed of horse from Friesland, a province of the Netherlands. Although the breed's conformation resembles that of a light draft horse, Friesians are graceful and nimble for their size. During the Middle Ages, it is believed that the ancestors of Friesian horses were in great demand as war horses throughout continental Europe. Through the Early Middle Ages and High Middle Ages, their size enabled them to carry a knight in armor. In the Late Middle Ages, heavier, draft type animals were needed. Though the breed nearly became extinct on more than one occasion, the modern day Friesian horse is growing in numbers and popularity, used both in harness and under saddle. Most recently, the breed is being introduced to the field of dressage.
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.
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.
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.
The breed has powerful overall conformation and good bone structure, with what is sometimes called a "Baroque" body type. Friesians have long, arched necks and well-chiseled, short-eared, "Spanish type" heads. Their sloping shoulders are quite powerful. They have compact, muscular bodies with strong sloping hindquarters and a low-set tail. Their limbs are comparatively short and strong.
The Friesian is most often recognized by its black coat color, though color alone is not their only distinguishing characteristic. Friesians also have a long, thick mane and tail, and "feathers"--long, silky hair on the lower legs, deliberately left untrimmed. The official breed rarely has white markings of any kind; most registries allow only a small star on the forehead for purebred registration. Though extremely rare, and not accepted for registration in most cases, Friesians are occasionally chestnut. The Friesian's average height is about 15.3 hands (63 inches or 1.60 m), although it may vary from 14.2 to 17 hands (between 58 in./1.5 m and 68 in./1.7 m) tall at the withers, and mares or geldings must be at least 15.2 hands (1.57 m) tall to qualify for a 'star-designation' pedigree. The breed is known for a brisk, high-stepping trot. The Friesian is considered a willing, active, and energetic horse that is also gentle and docile. A Friesian tends to have great presence and to carry itself with elegance.