Friesian History

The following is an extract from the Summary in English which is part of the Dutch book titled “Het Friese Paard” by G. J. A. Bouma, 1979, and printed by Friese Pers Boekerij, b. v., in Drachten and Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. It is reproduced here by the Friesian Horse Association of North America with the kind permission from the author and Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek.


This book was written at the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Royal Society “The Friesian Studbook”. This studbook is the oldest in the Netherlands. It was founded May 1, 1879. The book deals with the Friesian horse which resembles the ancient western European horse and the knights’ horse called destrier.

Country and People

“Friesland” (“Fryslan” in the Friesian language) is one of the eleven provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, situated in the northwest of Europe. It covers an area of ten percent of the Netherlands 750,000 acres and it has only four percent of the population. The main source of income for the 550,000 inhabitants is agriculture. Over nine-tenths of the soil is permanent grassland on which the well-known black and white Friesian cattle are kept. Cheese, condensed milk and butter are exported. The much sought-after Frisian seed potatoes, grown on the arable land, are sold mainly to the countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

Friesland is an old country. 500 years B.C. Frisians settled along the borders of what is known now as the North Sea. Frisian horsemen served in the Roman Legions, e.g. the Equites Singulares of Emperor Nero (54-68), and in Great Britain near Hadrian’s Wall, built in the year 120. A tombstone of a Frisian soldier, who had served in the Roman Army, has been found in Cirencester (Gloucestershire) in England. Around the beginning of our era, the area extending from Belgium (the Swin) to the Weser (in western Germany) along the coast of the “Friesian Sea”, as the North Sea was then called, was under Frisian jurisdiction. Later this area reached up to and beyond the borders of Denmark. The name “Friesian Islands”, in German “Friesische Inseln”, for the islands along the coast, still reminds us of this time. The Frisians were seafarers, tradesmen, horsebreeders and farmers. Before the Vikings also took to the seas (800-1000), they were the great seaborne traders. They sailed the Friesian Sea, the bordering rivers and the adjacent seas. In the English town of York they had a permanent trading post for centuries. Dorestad was their own trading town. Cloth was an important merchandise.

The gradual rising of the sea, caused by the melting of the ice on the poles together with the sinking of the earth, forced the Frisians to built mounds (Du.: terpen, wierden), on which they could build their houses and safeguard themselves against floods which came ever higher. One thousand of these mounds are known. Most towns and villages along the coast were built on them. Around the year when the territory of the Frisians was restricted to the North of the Netherlands and neighboring Germany, sea-walls kept the land free from the continually higher floods. Heightening the sea-walls, a process that has been carried out unremittingly through the centuries, is now again in progress. The sea-walls are now built up nearly four times as high as four hundred years ago. The height at Harlingen was then (1570) 2.60 m above N.A.P. and in 1977, after the latest construction activities, 9.70 m above N.A.P. (N.A.P.: “nauwkeurig Arnsterdarns peil” = “exact Amsterdam water-mark”, originally the average height of the water in the open lake called “IJ” at Amsterdam).

The territory of the “Westerlauwers Frisians”, as they are called now, is nowadays restricted to the province of Friesland in the northwest of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Four of the five inhabited Dutch Friesian Islands form a part of the Province of Friesland. The Frisians have a language of their own which is spoken as a matter of course by four/fifths of the inhabitants. It has more in common with English than with Dutch. Typical for the silhouette of the flat landscape are the towers with saddle-roofs, the large head-neck-and-trunk-type farmhouses and the “stelpen” with living quarters, cattle-shed and stack for hay and corncrops, all covered by one large roof. From West to East the soil consists of clay, peat and sand, respectively, each of these nearly covering one third of the area. In the North and West the country is open. The South-West and the middle harbor the Friesian Lakes. The sandy soil in the East and South is more heavily wooded.

In this country lives the somewhat conceited Frisian, attached to tradition, sensitive, often passionate, who loves to meet others in sports and games and who has retained his Friesian horse through the centuries.


Primitive drawings on the sides of caves in Spain and southern France and the bones of game found there and elsewhere show that even during the Ice Age (some hundreds of thousands of years ago) there were both bigger and smaller horses. Labouchere (1927) found bones of larger and smaller horses in the Friesian mounds. From the types Equus occidentalis (western horse) and Equus germanicus (German horse) he forms the Equus robustus (big horse). As for the smaller bones, he supposes these to belong to the Equus Przewalsky (Przewalsky horse). Slijper (1944) thinks these to belong to the Equus Gmelini (Tarpan). It is difficult to determine if crosses have been made and if so, to what extent.

The Friesian horse descends from the Equus robustus. During the 16th and 17th centuries, but probably also earlier, Arabian blood was introduced, especially through Andalusian horses from Spain. This has given them the high knee-action, the small head and the craning neck. Because of his temperament the Friesian horse is considered warm blooded. The Friesian horse has been kept free from influence of the English Thoroughbred. During the last two centuries it has been bred pure. Breeding horses and dealing in them was very important for the Frisians. The monks in the many monasteries in Friesland before the reformation did a lot of horsebreeding. Through the centuries the Friesian Government has made many regulations in order to safeguard good breeding. Now the Dutch Horselaw of 1939 (modified) gives rules for studbook and breeding.

From records of the past we know that the Friesian horse of old was famous. There is information from 1251 (Cologne), 1276 (Munster), 1466 (Aduard), 1617 (Markham), 1771 (Kladrub), and there are books in which Friesian horses were mentioned and praised from 1568 (Blundeville), 1568 (Guicciardini), 1629 (Pluvinel), 1658 (Duke of Newcastle), 1680 (De Solleysel), 1687 (von Adlersflugel), 1734 (Saunier), 1741 (Gueriniere), 1744 (Oebschelwitz), 1779 (Le Francq van Berkheij), 1802 (Huzard) and 1811 (Geisweit van der Netten).

Export of Friesian Horses

According to the chronicle of Dubravius, the Hungarian King Louis II used a heavy Friesian stallion when he took field against the Turks on June 15th 1526, a campaign which culminated in the battle of Mohacs (August 29th 1526).

Etches by Stradanus (Jan van der Straat 1568) show a Friesian stallion from the stables of Don Juan of Austria. Because of their good qualities Friesian stallions were imported, for example, by the Electoral Prince George William of Prussia in 1624, later by the famous Danish stud at Frederiksborg, by the stud at Salzburg and by the stud in Kladrub in 1771 and again in 1974 (stallion Romke 1966 FPS 234). Up to the beginning of this century Friesian horses were imported for mourning coaches in London.

The well-known English writer on horses, Anthony Dent, and others are of the opinion that the Friesian horse influenced the Old English Black Horse and the Fell Pony. Dent proposes that the Norwegian Dole hest (Gudbrandsdal horse), which shows great likeness to the Friesian horse, must have got there from Friesland either as booty or by regular trade. The Northern Swedish horse was greatly. influenced by the Norwegian Dole. Dent also suggests a Norwegian influence on the English Dale pony. In the Pyrenees in southern France there is a pony “Ariege called after Merens” (“Ariege dit de Merens”) that looks remarkably like a small Friesian horse.

The resemblances of the types mentioned can be traced back in some cases to the influence of Friesian horses, in other cases the similar way of breeding will have caused the similarity.

As early as 1625 Friesian horses were being imported into what later would become the United States of America. The Dutch founded New Amsterdam in the region they discovered in 1609, but they had to abandon it to the English in 1664, when the name was changed to New York. Advertisements in the papers (e.g. on May 20, 1795 and June 11, 1796) offer trotters of “Dutch” descent. These must have been Friesian horses. The able writer Jeanne Mellin proposes in her books “The Morgan Horse” (1961) and “The Morgan Horse Handbook” (1973)the possibility that this well-known American horse is of Friesian descent. The ability to trot fast, the heavy manes, the long rich tail and the fetlocks at the feet of the original forefather of this race may be an indication. Again in 1974, 1975 and 1977 nine Friesian horses in all were imported into the United States by Thomas Hannon, Friesian Farms, Louisville near Canton, Ohio.

With the help of the Friesian Studbook Friesian horses have been imported into Western Germany by Baron Clemens von Nagel, and into the Union of South Africa by P.C. Slabbert in 1957 and by B.F. Mostert in 1958. The imports into South Africa occurred to improve the type of horse called the “Flemish Horse” (het “Vlaamse Paard”) over there, imported long ago from Belgium and called after the Flemish part of the country of export. Nowadays this type of horse is not found in Belgium anymore, except when imported from Friesland.

February 1978 Herman Kiesrra who was going to settle near Inverness in Scotland took with him four Friesian mares and the Friesian stallion Bjinse 1970 FPS 241.

The Friesian Horse as a Trotter

Apart from its high knee action and elegant performance, the Friesian horse was sought as a trotting horse for the short distance of 80 rods (325 m). In the 18th and 19th centuries, and probably earlier as well, these horseraces were very popular festivities in Friesland. For important races the prize was a silver or even a golden whip. The Friesian Museum at Leeuwarden has a fine collection of them. In many villages and towns these races were held annually. Between 1800 and 1850 there were 2847 advertisements of these races in the papers. At first the races were on horseback, but later on they also included the Friesian “sjees”. May 1st, 1823 King William I started a horserace at Leeuwarden that was to be held each successive year in the beginning of August. It became known as “the Kings-Golden-whip-day” because the King awarded a golden whip each year as prize. The race was to be held in remembrance of the battle of Waterloo in Belgium, June 18th, in which the French Emperor Napoleon was beaten and Europe regained its freedom. The races at Leeuwarden always attracted many visitors. They ended in 1891 when H.M. Queen Regent Emma awarded the golden whip for the last time. Russian and American horses, bred and used for racing only, were faster and this brought Friesian horseracing to an end. The Friesian horse influenced the breeding of the Russian Orloff and of English and American race horses.

The Friesian Horse in the Circus

Once the Circus Strassburger began, in 1939, training Friesian horses in the Academy style of riding and put them very successfully through various performances, many other circuses followed suit. His intelligence and his gentleness makes the Friesian horse extremely suitable for this purpose. The stately black hair gives the show a touch of eminence.

The Studbook

By the middle or the end of the 18th century crossing in horsebreeding became a fashion. At the very start of the Studbook, on May 1st 1879, (the first studbook in the Netherlands) opinions differed whether only horses of the Friesian Race should be registered, or crossbreds as well. The problem was solved by opening two registration books: Book A for Friesian horses, and Book B for crossbreds, From 1884 till 1896 the Studbook was also open for the registration of horses from the adjacent provinces Groningen and Drente. For this reason the name “Friesian horse” was temporarily changed into “Inland horse”. By 1896, however, Friesian horses had nearly disappeared in those provinces: in Groningen altogether, in Drente a few years later.

The fashion of crossing grew to such an extent that the decision was taken in 1907 to close the separate books A and B and to register all the horses in one book in future.

This could have been the end of the Friesian horse. However, in 1913 a tiny group of true lovers of the Friesian horse started the society “The Friesian Horse” (“Het Friesche Paard”). This society worked in close cooperation with the studbook and succeeded in keeping and improving the Friesian horse. They bought good Friesian colts and they gave awards for good types of horses. In 1914 the Studbook decided, at the request of the Society, to open two registration books again in 1915: Book A for Friesian horses and Book B now for “Upland horses” (“Bovenlandse paarden”). In 1939, when the number of Friesian horses had increased considerably, the Frisians got a board of their own within the Studbook. Finally, in 1943, the breeders of non-Friesian horses left the Studbook. Since that year the “Royal Society The Friesian Studbook” (the designation “Royal” was added in 1954) registers only purebred Friesian horses. H.M. Queen Juliana honored the Studbook by becoming its Patroness in 1949.

A condition for registering a Friesian horse is that it must be 2 1/2 years old. A stallion must then have a height at the withers of at least 1.58 m and at the age of 4 of 1.60 m (rod measures). Mares must be 1.50 m, “star” mares 1.55m , “model” mares 1.58m, and geldings 1.50m.

In order to be registered a horse has to be written into the Foal Book. Only foals with a document proving the mating of the sire and dam are included in this book; moreover, both parents have to be registered in one of the books of the Studbook. To be registered a horse may have no faults and it must be true to the type of the Friesian breed.

Examining the mares, the “star” mares and geldings for registration takes place at the shows of the Breeding Associations (see below) or at home. During the Major Mare Show, in the autumn, it is possible to have “model” mares examined for registration. To obtain this classification the horse has to be four years old. Since mares of six years and over are no longer shown at the Major Mare Show, these mares can be examined for the classification as “model” mare at the shows of the Breeding Associations, or at home. They must pass a test.

The pre-examination of two year-old stallions takes place in the autumn. Only approved stallions can be presented at the Stallion Examination Show for registration, in spring. They also must pass a test.

The Friesian horse nowadays is bred exclusively black. The only white allowed is a small white spot between the eyes. In bygone days Friesian horses could have different colors.

On January 1, 1978, 2058 horses, including 21 approved stallions, were registered in the Studbook. The Studbook Society had 1193 members and 281 contributors besides, all told 1474 names. A third part of these live outside Friesland. The number of Friesian horses kept in the Netherlands is minimal when compared with the total number of horses registered in the sixteen studbooks (8 for horses and 8 for ponies) approved by the Dutch Government. In 1976 these studbooks had 51,390 members in all, the Friesian Studbook 1404. In the same year out of a total of 45,542 matings only 715 were of Friesian horses. The good qualities of Friesian horses promote the extension of the breed.

There are seven Breeding Associations, each with its own board and members. Four of these are found in Friesland: one in the West, one in the East, one in the middle and one in the Southern part. In the province of Gelderland there is one for the center of the Netherlands, and there is one in the province of North Holland. Groningen and Drente together have one Breeding Association. The aim of a Breeding Association is to strengthen the ties between the breeders of Friesian horses and to promote breeding, and to exchange experiences and ideas. In the shows of the Associations prizes and championships can be obtained.

There is one Rural Riding Association which has used Friesian horses exclusively since 1947. It is called “De 0orsprong” (“The 0rigin”) after the stud (1880 till 1930) of the late Jhr Mr C. van Eysinga at Huis ter Heide near St. Nicolaasga (Fr).

There is another association, “Het Friese Tuigpaard” (“The Friesian Show Horse”), again with its own members and board, which in accordance with the “Nederlandsche Hippische Sportbond” (“Dutch National Organization of Hippic Sports”), arranges the participation in shows of Friesian Horses. This Association also arranges games of ringspearing and the quadrille. In 1977 this game of ringspearing was played in twenty different towns and villages. In this game the lady riding in a Friesian “sjees” and dressed in the old-fashioned Friesian costume has to spear rings from between the fingers of a wooden hand with a little stick. The Association shares its offices with those of the Studbook.

In 1977 the Board of the Studbook installed a “Breeding Commission” with four members only one of whom is also a member of the Board. Their assignment is to give advice about breeding, with a view to the restricted number of horses of the breed and the desire and necessity to keep as many different bloodlines as possible. The “Contact and Propaganda Commission” promotes the Friesian horse and arranges different shows in close cooperation with the Board of the Studbook. The Foundation “It Fryske Hoars” (“The Friesian Horse”) tries to collect funds in order to improve the breed and to extend the use of Friesian horses.

In 1969 Dr. R.H.J.J. Geurts, a medical doctor at Heerlen in the province of Limburg in the South of the Netherlands, wrote a doctoral thesis at the University of Utrecht on the breeding and genealogy of the Friesian horse. In 1968 he had made a survey of the families of mares of the Studbook.

Dr. J. Hendrikse and Drs. W. van der Hoist, of the Clinic of Vetenarian Obstetrics at the University of Utrecht, developed the artificial insemination of horses in the Netherlands, choosing the Friesian breed. Semen of Friesian stallions has been frozen.


There are many paintings and pictures, dating back some centuries, showing Princes of the House of Orange-Nassau and other leading people with horses remarkably like the Friesian horse.

The Friesian Sjees

From the middle of the 18th century, possibly earlier, date the elegant carriages called “sjees” after the French word “chaise” (chair), indicating a chair on wheels. This French name does not imply a French origin. The better classes of the times often used the French language as being very fashionable.

The wheels of a “sjees” are 1.50 m high or more. They have 14 spokes. The elegant little body is suspended high above the ground on solid leather thoroughbraces. The body has nicely bent panels and ornaments in the rococo style, also called after the French King Louis XV. Newer “sjezen” also have Louis XVI ornaments. Probably these “sjezen” were developed in the Netherlands, perhaps in Friesland. The Friesian branch of the stadtholders, the Nassaus, held Court in Friesland from 1584 to 1747 (Marijke Muoi 1765). Queen Juliana is a lineal descendant of this branch. The Court had a great influence on industrial art. Friesian gold and silver-smiths were famous. Well-known is the beautiful silver collection of the Friesian Museum at Leeuwarden.

There is a registration book for these “sjezen”. Twenty-six measurements are taken and recorded before a “sjees” is admitted into this book. Every “sjees” gets a registration number. Over seventy “sjezen” have been registered.

A Friesian “sjees” drawn by one or two Friesian horses is an impressive sight at a horse show. The “sjees” is manned by a gentleman and a lady dressed in the traditional costumes of the 1860’s. The lady wears a solid golden casque that all but covers the back of her head. Over it she wears a lace bonnet. The gentleman wears knickerbockers and a black tophat. The Friesian “sjees” is the only carriage, apart from agricultural wagons, in which the driver is seated on the left-hand side. He keeps his lady on his right as being the place of honor. At the “Frisiana”, the great exposition held at Leeuwarden in 1963, the quadrille was ridden for the first time: a performance involving eight Friesian “sjezen”, an unforgettable experience.

Use of the Friesian Horse

As in most other parts of the western world, the agricultural use of horses has declined in Friesland. Fortunately there is a growing interest in the use of Friesian horses for sport and recreation, both for drawing carriages and for horseback riding. Apart from the Circus Strassburger, Captain dr H.L.M. van Schaik also showed the aptitude of the Friesian horse for the stylish paces of the Riding School in the years following the World War II. Now Mrs W. Gerrirsen-Fiedler and Mrs J. Hofer-van Diest, both from Amsterdam, have great success as well with their Friesian stallions Feycko and Drys at horse shows. As has been mentioned, the Rural Riding Association “De 0orsprong” at Huis ter Heide near St Nicolaasga (Fr) has used Friesian horses exclusively since 1947.

At Zuidlaren (Dr), the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion “Jobart Willem Friso”, named after the famous Friesian Stadtholder (1687-1711), has a Friesian colt as its mascot. It is to be sold each successive year at the famous horse market at Zuidlaren and to be replaced by a new colt at the recommendation of the Friesian Studbook.

Mrs E. Korthagen-van Til from Breukelen (northwest of Utrecht), honorary member of the Studbook, bought her first Friesian horses in 1960. She started to drive four-in-hand in 1969 and the horses responded magnificently. She was soon emulated.


The Friesian horse is gentle, honest, sober, high-mettled and clever. It is descended from the western European horse that has been in general use from the earliest days on and that attained high perfection in the Knight’s horse, the destrier. So far, it has been preserved in Friesland only. There is an increase of numbers outside the province. That it is able to achieve great performances is shown by the fact that during the demanding marathon championships for four-in-hand teams in 1977 as many as five teams of Friesian horses participated. Tjeerd Velstra from Deurne (North Brabant) became Dutch Champion and in the same year Reserve European Champion at Donaueschingen (Baden-Wurttemberg in Western Germany). The maintenance and improvement of the Friesian horse is supervised by the “Het Friesch Paarden Stamboek.”

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