In medieval times it took days, but more often weeks or months before news from elsewhere reached towns and villages. And maybe the location of Friesland, so far away for the rest of the Netherlands, was the cause of the development of a special horse breed through the centuries. Black, a proud stance, a beautiful swan neck, a small head with big eyes, a voluptuous mane and tail, fetlocks on the legs, intelligent, friendly and with the royal trot this breed is so well known for. The Friesian Horse, named after the province it stems from and whose history is so notably parallel with that of this different part of the Netherlands. In the long history of the Friesian horse it was often famed and forgotten, but it has always stayed itself.
During the Crusades, knights used (among other horses) Friesian stallions. They were big and strong and they needed to be. Knight and harness together weighed more than 250 kilos. The road to Jerusalem was long. On the way there the necessary battles had to be won and that asked not only for endurance but also for strength and courage of the knight’s horse.
Even in 1276 there’s notice of trade in Friesian Horses at the market in Münster (Westfalen, Germany).
Friesland was Catholic in that time and held many monasteries. These had a lot of ground and it is not impossible that monks held a fair part in the horse breeding there. Plus, Friesland was part of the diocese of Münster, so the fact that Friesians were offered in Münster isn’t really that strange.
Next, to the trade in Friesians to Germany until far into medieval times. They were also shipped to England. But Friesian horses travelled even further west. In April 1609 Henry Hudson sailed for the “Oost Indische Compagnie” on the ship “De Halve Maen” into the, later named after him, Hudson River. Strongholds were built in New Amsterdam (New York). The Frisian Pieter Stuyvesant was governor in the area called New Netherland between 1647 and 1664. It is a fact that Friesians were brought to New Amsterdam before 1625. From New Amsterdam they spread further over the east of America.
The Friesian horse had a large influence on the Morgan horse. The resemblance with Friesians, as well often in colour as in type and movement, is striking.
Back to Europe, back to Friesland, land of the breeding. In the period between around 1300 and 1550 the Friesian horse kept its good reputation in large parts of Europe. Even through the invention of gunpowder in 1338, people kept using horses in battles in Europe. The Italian Guicciardini wrote about the Friesian that is was “beautiful and good and especially good as a warhorse.” The chronicle of Dubravius tells that the Hungarian King Louis II took off to war on a black Friesian stallion on June 15, 1526.
Even though all of its power and the beloved black colour, people thought the Friesian was too heavy in the mid 16th century. And just like we have our trends now, it was in fashion then to breed a lighter, almost “modern” Friesian. This change came at the same time as the Eighty-Years War (1568-1646) between the rebellious Dutch and Spain. In those 80 years the Spanish used complete armies and many battles were fought. We [the Dutch] didn’t want to be part of the almighty Spanish kingdom of King Phillips II, but form our own nation under Prince Willem van Oranje, forefather of our Queen Beatrix.
However, this war brought the greatest influence on the development of the Friesian horse in its already long history. The Spanish Dukes and army commanders rode Andalusian stallions in battle. These had been influenced by Arabian stallions in the time of the Moores. The Andalusian stallions of the Spanish “Grandes” (dukes) and generals were taken after victory in battles, also to Friesland. The stallions were used with the native mares. Even today the influence of the Andalusian and the Arabian on the Friesian is evident. Not in the colour, because that stayed mostly black, but mostly in the small head with big, brown eyes, the somewhat shaped face sometimes even with a real “Arabian dent”, the swan-neck, and the elevated knee-action.
The oldest known picture of a Friesian horse stems from 1568. Jan van der Straat made an etching of Phryso, the Friesian stallion of Don Jaun of Austria who was ruling in Naples. A copy of this picture is on the beautiful tile painting at the entrance of the Fries Paarden Centrum in Drachten [ed. note: see small picture in top left of page]. Also the monthly magazine of the KFPS, which appears since 1950, is named after this royal stallion “Phryso.”
Undoubtedly, as leftover from the arts of war with horses from medieval times, riding schools were started in the 16th and 17th century. The horses in these schools had to have strong muscles and joints for training in the classical movements and jumps. Especially the levade and the courbette, jumps that were so successfully used in battle, ask enormous amounts of strength of the horse. Next to Spanish horses (forefathers of the Lippizaners, Napolitaners and Kladrubers) Friesian horses were often used. The Duke of Newcastle had a riding school in the Belgian Antwerp around 1650, and worked with Friesian stallions. Rubens student Abraham van Diepenbeeke illustrated an instructions book of the English Duke. His pictures from 1658 show us horses that look a lot like today’s Friesians. The duke was pleased with the Friesian stallions in his school. “They are lighter of build (than Spanish horses) and have a greater knee-movement.”