Perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of the Friesian’s proud driving heritage is the traditional two-wheeled Dutch sjees. The sjees (pronounced “shay-z” as in the French ‘chaise’ – meaning chair), became popular in mid eighteenth century Friesland as a gig wealthy landowners and their wives would drive out on Sundays and special occasions usually with a single or pair of Friesian horses.
The vehicle itself consists of two large 14-spoked wheels measuring almost 5 feet high and a small, ornate body suspended high above the ground by leather straps or thoroughbraces. The body is often decorated in the rococo style of King Louis XV and may display amazingly fine and detailed paintings on its carved panels.
Driven in a traditional manner, the carriage will seat a lady and gentleman side by side in traditional Dutch costume from the mid 1800′s. The man sits on the left and wears knickerbockers, tall socks, buckled shoes and a top hat, while the woman wears a white lace bonnet, white apron, and a dress complimenting the turnout. The horse typically wears a breastcollar and is driven with white reins.
In the 18th Century, the sjees was used behind the Friesian in trotting races at village festivals, in which drivers competed for the ‘Golden Whip’, before competition moved on to faster and lighter sulkies.
Friesian trotting races all but disappeared in the early 20th century as other breeds became popular racing trotters and the Friesian breeding changed to favor the heavier types preferred for agriculture. However, by the 1980s the breed had made a comeback in numbers and once again was becoming a popular sport horse. In 1990 Friesian trotting races were once again held on the old racetrack in Wolvega. By 1998, an organization of trotting enthusiasts had formed the “Organisatie Draverijen met Friese Paarden”, and raced once a month from September through April at the Wolvega racetrack. The 1100 meter race is designed specifically for the Friesian sjees.
Today, much like the Friesian itself, there is a registry book for the sjees in which authentic vehicles are measured, entered and given a registry number to preserve a historical record of these remarkable vehicles.
The sjees remains an iconic reminder of the Friesian’s rich heritage, and is still celebrated in festivals, parades and competitions throughout Friesland, the Netherlands and the world.
Bouma G.J.A., “Het Friese Paard” 1979. Published by Friese Pers Boekerij, b. v., Drachten & Leeuwarden. Online access: 8/9/12 http://www.fhana.com/history/
“Historie draverijen met Friese paarden” Fries Dravers Online access: 8/9/12 http://www.friesedravers.nl/historie