|Hi, I'm Frederik and I have Great hair.
|You gotta admit, I am very handsome, but you
don't have to call me the most handsomest.
Alas, poor Frederik, his appearance has brought down the wrath of the Friesian world on him. Naturally, every owner thinks her stallion is the most handsome. I have to concede that Silas isn't in the running yet, although if there is ever a vote for world's cutest colt, let me know. Of course, Friesians don't tend to suffer self-esteem problems, and he is convinced he is the most handsome and irresistible to the fillies. Like most teenage boys, his self-perception of his studliness and appeal to the ladies is not quite matched by reality. But just wait until he outgrows the adolescent gangliness. His tail already reaches the ground; I have to trim it so he doesn’t step on it.
|Ima gonna be the studliest stud of all studs, just you wait.
Frederik's owner got one thing right when she mentioned the Crusades. Friesians are the descendants of the destriers ridden by knights in the medieval era. When they were no longer needed as war horses, their sturdiness and temperament enabled them to find use in agriculture. Later, their singular looks and flashy gaits had them in demand as carriage horses. After the industrial revolution, the breed nearly died out in the early twentieth century. Native to the Friesland area of the Netherlands, the breed was saved locally (barely – more on that below) but not that well-known abroad. In the 19th century, a few Dutch settlers brought Friesians to the U.S., and it is hypothesised that they may have contributed to the development of the Morgan breed in Vermont. Friesians did not return to the U.S. until the 1970s when they were again imported by a Dutch immigrant. The breed had a low profile until Ladyhawke came out in 1985. Many Friesian aficionados can trace the moment they fell in love with the breed to seeing the Friesian stallion Othello (onscreen name Goliath) in that film.
Most horses are beautiful but the Friesian is like some artist's over-the-top fantasy of what an idealised horse could be. They only come in black (hence the nickname "black crack"), with no white markings allowed. Their coat is unusually shiny – you can almost see your reflection in it. Their manes and tails are thick and grow longer than other breeds – on a stallion, they can reach the ground. But that's not all: They are also naturally wavy, just like on the unicorns you drew in primary school. I shit you not. They have feathers on their fetlocks like draft breeds, which fly when they show off their unique high-stepping trot. This trot is not taught; it is bred into them. The trot, along with their upright neck carriage, has made them popular for driving. They are not easy to ride – the huge trot and the regal neck are striking but they are challenging to deal with from the saddle. When you meet a Friesian (I was lucky: the first one I met was Thor), once you get over the "Holy shit, this actually exists" shock and pick your jaw up off the floor, you will be struck by how friendly, affectionate, and people-oriented they are. They are adorably like giant Labrador retrievers. (The lack of a sense of personal space can be a problem when they weigh 1500 lbs though.)
|This is Thor. He was a friend of mine.
His owner calls this photo, "Someone opened a peppermint wrapper".
|I'm told there is a cowboy in this
photo, but I don't see him.
|Someone making a new friend.
I mentioned that the breed was saved from dying out in the early 20th century in its native Netherlands. Three foundation stallions were chosen, and all Friesians today trace their lineage back to one of those three lines. There weren't enough purebred Friesian mares so they allowed a few other baroque mares in during the early days of establishing the breed. The Dutch created a registry, the Koninklijke Vereniging "Het Friesch Paarden-Stamboek" (KFPS), to keep track of the breed. Every September, that year's crop of foals, along with mares, 3+ year old colts, and even geldings, are judged at keurings. The best are given star ("ster" in Dutch) designation. The top colts are sent on to stallion testing in January, to be approved for breeding. Less than 10 out of every 100 colts are invited to stallion testing, and less than 1 out of every 100 is approved. The bar for approval is set very high, encompassing conformation, movement, temperament, performance under saddle in dressage, jumping, and driving, as well as x-rays, and tests for genetic diseases and sperm motility. Approved stallions are given an official name, and a number in sequence. Their initial approval is provisional; their offspring need to be keured before they can get final approval. It's not uncommon for stallions to be disapproved on offspring. As I said, it's a grueling process. Only Friesians sired by approved stallions can go to keurings or be entered into the registry.
Of course, that doesn't much deter people from breeding unapproved stallions. Not everyone who covets a Friesian cares about the registry and the judging; they just want their big, black, hairy fantasy horse. This flouting of the rules has both pros and cons. On the negative side, the breed is very small (although, thanks to Ladyhawke, there are now an amazing 70,000 Friesians worldwide, up from less than 10,000 before the film) and extremely inbred. This inbreeding has led Friesians to be carriers of many genetic disorders, and approved stallions are tested for them; others may not be – it depends upon the scrupulousness of the owner. Also, when approved Friesian stallions and registered Friesian mares are matched, the inbreeding coefficient is considered. Most horses have a lifespan of at least 30; Friesians rarely live past 25, and often die young from genetic weaknesses in their digestive systems that lead to colic, ruptured oesophagus, and other maladies. Most Friesian owners live in terror of these ailments. I guarantee you no human mother worries about her child more than I worry about Silas; the fear of colic, or a freak pasture accident, is constant. Thor's owner, Joe, said that horses are born and then spend the rest of their lives trying to kill themselves in the most expensive way possible. Joe is a wise man. Frederik the Great is not approved for breeding but, thanks to his owner's marketing, his dance card is always full.
|Like father (Silas's sire, Tjimme 275)...
(He doesn't have mange; he was shedding his foal coat.)
|Tjimme again. His owner was a paediatric neurosurgeon.
|Got milk? Silas at a few hours old.
C'mon, how can you not love this photo?
But there can be a positive side to breeding to a non-approved stallion. The approval process is insanely expensive and out of reach for most Friesian owners, meaning that plenty of colts never get their chance. And the process is undeniably political. The Dutch judges travel to the U.S. each fall and make the rounds of each regional inspection, run by the Friesian Horse Association of North America (FHANA), the American branch of the registry. There are always allegations of a lack of impartiality – that judges have favoured owners, favoured stallions, etc. Much of that is true, even if some of it is sour grapes. But the bigger problem is, once again, money. Friesians are now used mainly as dressage horses. Not that many people drive anymore, and the heavy breed lacks the build and stamina for most other disciplines, such as jumping. Most breeders make their money selling to people who want to be competitive in dressage with their Friesian – that is, competitive against the warmbloods and thoroughbreds in that world. Show judges used to sneer at Friesians in the dressage ring, as if someone had ridden in on a draft horse, but that has changed in recent years, with Friesians competing successfully at the international level in the sport. But take a look at those Friesians and compare them to Othello, the stallion in Ladyhawke I mentioned above, or Silas's sire, Tjimme 275. To make the breed more suitable for riding, they have been bred to be much taller, much lighter in bone, much more like black warmbloods than curvy baroque types. And the hair has been bred out – too much of it to braid for the dressage ring. You even see riders shaving their feathers to create more of a clean line in the limbs (and to avoid the scathing "draft horse" disparagement from the judges).
|Django of Cacharel is a Friesian doing dressage
Down Under & doing it well.
|4-in-hand pulling Harrod's carriage.
|Modern Friesian at keuring. Seriously, WTF?!? I will
never accept this as a Friesian.
The breed is evolving to meet demand, and the judges are now only approving modern-style Friesians. The older baroque style is dying out. But what about those of us who fell in love with those baroque curves, the heavy build, and the copious hair? We're SOL as the last approved baroque stallions have died off. (How did I get Silas then? Frozen semen – his sire died over a decade before he was born.) People are always telling me to geld Silas because I don't have the financial means to keep a stallion. (Everything is so much harder when they have balls, regardless of species.) But he is, literally, one of the last intact baroque colts in the world. When he eventually goes to be keured, the judges won't give him the time of day. His movement, his conformation, and his temperament could not be better (and I'm not biased or anything :-) but he's a hairy hunk of old style baroque-ness. So, the plan is, if (and only if) he turns out well, I will have all the tests done and, if he passes, offer him at stud to those Friesian lovers who want a baroque-style Friesian. If he doesn't, bye-bye balls. (Just kidding, Silas!)
But I promise I won't market him as the handsomest horse in the world, even if I think he is.
|Fantasy horse? Yeah, we got that shit DOWN.