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The Friesian horse is considered a gentle giant of the horse world, as the horses are heavily built, extremely muscular, and also very kind and good natured. It is among the oldest recorded domesticated breeds of horse in Europe, and nearly went extinct in the twentieth century due to the advent of mechanization. Fortunately, several Friesian breed associations combined forces to save the Friesian, which has enjoyed a comeback in Europe and the United States. The primary authority on the breed is the Friesch Paarden Stamboek, the Friesian studbook of Holland, founded in 1897. It partners with several other breed organizations worldwide to promote the Friesian, and several Friesian studbooks also operate independently.
The horses originated in Friesland, a province of the Netherlands. Initially, the horses were bred by monks, and exported throughout the Netherlands and into Europe, especially after demand for the sturdy, even tempered horses rose. Frisians were used on the battlefield, to pull carriages and traps, and as work horses in Germany and Holland, and Dutch settlers took the horses with them when they traveled to the New World. Friesian blood can be seen in many American horses, especially those in the Northeast.
In appearance, the Friesian is noble and quite unique. In order to be classified as a Friesian, a horse must be entirely black, with a flowing mane and tail which, by tradition, are never cut. The horses also have abundant feathering on their fetlocks, along with arched necks. Friesians are extremely muscular, but also very agile, and they have a high stepping gait which many horse people find aesthetically pleasing.
Traditionally, Friesians have been used for centuries in trotting races and competitions in Dutch carts called sjees. When pulling a sjee, Friesians are paired, and as many as five pairs of the horses may be used in competition. The Friesian is perhaps most prized for its ability as a driving horse, and they are used all over the world for this purpose. Dressage riders also use Friesians, because they have powerful forward motion and can be readily trained. The heavy build of the horse means that it cannot be used in equestrian events which demand a great deal of speed and stamina such as show jumping, eventing, racing, and endurance riding.
Because of their gentle natures, Friesians are excellent family horses, especially when well trained. Young riders advancing in dressage can ride Friesians, as do children who have graduated from ponies to larger horses. Under the hands of a skilled driver, the Friesian excels, but the horses are also used to train individuals who are learning to drive. Many Friesian owners are quite fond of their amiable mounts, and the breed seems unlikely to fall from the public eye again.