Friesian Is the New Black

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Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Deb Fuller. She’s a horse-crazy independent costume historian in the Washington, DC, area. She started riding at 9 and hasn’t stopped, nearly 40 years later. One day, Deb hopes to own her own Friesian too.

 

 

You’ve seen them: the pretty black horses with the flowing manes and tails. They look so majestic, prancing around with their heads held high and their feathered legs. But just what are they and why are they … everywhere?

Seriously, they’re everywhere:

Ancient Persia (in this world, Arabian horses don’t exist).

Prince of Persia (2010)

Prince of Persia (2010)

Ancient Greece (where your horse has a better flow than you).

Alexander (2004)

Alexander (2004)

Ancient mythology (Friesians give you wiiings!).

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Jacobean Scotland.

Outlander (2014-)

Outlander (2014-)

19th-century California.

The Regency and Jane Austen (obligatory).

WWI France.

Shilling Cool Ranch Nachos.

Doritos: The Cool Ranch featuring Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott - 2020 Super Bowl Commercial

Doritos: The Cool Ranch featuring Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott, 2020 Super Bowl commercial.

And of course, all over fantasy lands:

Snow White’s forest.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Capital District, Panem

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

 

The Noble Friesian

This magnificent black horse is the Friesian, a Dutch breed from Friesland, one of the 11 provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Contrary to their extensive representation on the screen, these horses nearly disappeared in the early 1900s. Ironically, it was due to an appearance in a 1985 fantasy box-office flop that the Friesian became internationally famous and leapt into being probably the most recognizable horse breed that no one has heard of.

Friesian stallion

The Friesian, as a breed, goes back centuries and has been carefully bred for its appearance, demeanor, and movement. Before the Reformation, monks bred a lot of them. The Friesian is one of the only breeds not to have thoroughbred blood throughout their development. (Thoroughbreds get around.) Somewhere along the way, probably in the 15th or 16th century, breeders introduced Andulsians and/or Arabians to the lines, which is where the Friesian gets its high-set head and fancy trot. From the middle ages to the early 1800s, Friesians were imported all over the place and were prized as cavalry horses, especially for nobles like Hungarian King Louis II and the Electoral Prince George William of Prussia. Starting in the 1880s, they were widely used in London for pulling hearses for funerals. One funeral firm reportedly had 700 Friesian horses in their employ. (That’s a lot of funerals.)

Replica of a Victorian funeral hearse from T. Cribb and Sons, Essex, UK

Replica of a Victorian funeral hearse from T. Cribb and Sons, Essex, UK.

In the American Colonies, Dutch colonists brought Friesian horses with them to New Amsterdam around 1625. When the English took over in 1664 and changed the name to New York (reminds me of a song…), the horses were left behind. Ads from the time mention a “Dutch trotter,” which is probably the Friesian. Over time, these horses were bred out of existence in America. Friesians wouldn’t be seen again in the United States until 1974, when Tom Hannon of Canton, Ohio, started importing the breed again.

Fast forward a bit, by the early 1900s, there were few pure-bred Friesian stallions remaining, and the breed was almost lost. In 1914, a Friesian horse society formed to revive the breed and improve standards. Their efforts paid off, and by the mid-1900s, the breed was back on solid ground again.

 

Being a Movie Star

In 1985, the movie Ladyhawke hit theaters. It received a lukewarm reception at the box-office, only making $18 million of its $20 million production cost. And honestly, I don’t understand why. I LOVED this movie. I saw it a few times in the theater and wore out a VHS tape before I could get it on DVD. Okay, so maybe I was a horse-crazy, geeky teen at the time but even today, this movie holds up. The soundtrack, not so much, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because of:

The Horse…

Ladyhawke (1985)
Rutger Hauer - Ladyhawke (1985)
Ladyhawke (1985)

Unless you were in the competitive driving world back in 1985, Friesians were practically unknown to the wider equestrian community in the United States. Then Ladyhawke comes out and posters of Rutger Hauer sitting on a magnificent black horse were slapped on the sides of movie theaters everywhere. That’s when the horse world loses its collective mind. I remember my horse magazines filled with letters to the editor asking “WHAT IS THAT HORSE?” Then a few months later, those magazines had articles about Friesians. Everyone wanted one. I wanted one. I still want one. Before long, Friesians are showing up in the show ring and then on the big and little screens.

According to Eurodressage magazine:

“In 1988 the Spring Breed Classic USET Benefit Show at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center included participants Fred DeBoer and Family, with their Friesian horses; John Koster and Family, with their Friesian horses; and Grand Marshall, Rutger Hauer, movie star from the Netherlands. Fred DeBoer presented Rutger Hauer with a Friesian horse for what he had done to promote the breed in the movie Ladyhawke(c).”

The horse in the movie was named Goliath and was played by Othello, a 19-year-old Friesian stallion. He was a circus horse and finally retired from performing in 1994, at the ripe old age of 28.

 

Breed Standards

For a horse to be registered into one of the Friesian registries, it must be all black. The only exception is for a small white star on the forehead. Mares have to be at least 14.3 hands at the shoulder and stallions have to be at least 15.3 hands at the shoulder. (Horses are measured in “hands”. One hand is equal to 4 inches.) According to the American Livestock Conservancy, there are about 25,000 registered Friesians around today, with about 8000 of them in the United States. They’re sought after as competitive driving horses and their impressive trots make them popular in the dressage ring as well. But if you want one, you need to save your pennies as they’re not cheap. You can easily pay $10,000 and up for a foal or yearling, and two to three times that for a mature one.

And there you have it. One cult classic fantasy movie from 1985 is responsible for the explosion of popularity of a relatively unknown Dutch breed of horse. Why are they so popular on screen? They’re universally pretty in addition to having good dispositions making them easy to work with. I also have a suspicion that a lot of the carriage hires for movies have at least one team of Friesians, especially if they do funerals. Keep your eye out when you watch the latest historical drama or fantasy flick. I’m sure you’ll spot one and chances are high that a major character will be riding one.

References History and Breed Standards:

  • FHANA Royal Friesian
  • International Museum of the Horse

 

 

Thanks to Deb for explaining why we see that same black horse in all our frock flicks!

39 Responses

  1. Jill

    There’s a similar “one small act” story about the revival of Clydesdales in the United States. Apparently two of the Busch boys bought a team for their father as a way to celebrate the end of Prohibition. Voila! Now we have everyone’s favorite Superbowl commercial stars!

    Reply
    • Karen K.

      When Anheuser-Busch owned the Sea World Parks they had a special display and Clydesdale exhibit with horses so you could see them up close, I loved that.

      Reply
  2. Ewa

    I am very glad you’ve addressed it, as Friesians became as mandatory in costume/historical movies, as the leather pants.

    Reply
  3. Deb

    Jill – Oh interesting about the Clydesdales. That makes sense. And they were the legendary “Fire Mares” in another fantasy cult-classic, Krull. It was pre-Ladyhawke but if it had come out afterwards, I’m sure those Fire Mares would have been Friesians.
    Ewa – Now I have to find someone in leather pants riding a Friesian. LOL!

    Reply
  4. MoHub

    Roy Rogers’ Trigger was in Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, but Roy refused to sell the horse outright. Loves me a pretty Palomino.

    Reply
  5. Rowen G.

    I suspect some of the lovely carriage horses in Downton Abbey of belonging to this breed.

    Reply
  6. Kate D

    Thanks for the article! I thought Ladyhawke was fun, I had no idea it was responsible for the Friesian craze!

    Reply
  7. Lap

    The horse people have landed ! :D
    Thank you Deb for this fun article. I know nothing about horses but I’ll keep an eye open for friesians now.

    Reply
  8. Leah

    Thank you for this information! It would be funny to think of the Outlander actors on smaller cob ponies, would not look nearly so majestic. My other horse pet peeve in film is the soundtrack. There are always neighs, whinnys and nickers imposed onto the scene when really, horses are quite silent.

    Reply
    • chiere

      And not just any neighs nickers and whinnies; courting stallion sounds. I was raised on a horse farm, and it’s disconcerting as heck to see a rider and gelding plodding along accompanied by the “HURR HURR HURR! HURRHURRHURR hurr hurr!” of a stallion approaching his lady love of the minute… I wish they would stop!

      Reply
    • Florence

      Gosh, yes! I guess it’s just the easiest way to record sounds from a horse – show a stallion a pretty mare – because, as you said, they are usually rather quiet.

      Reply
  9. Author Jennifer Quail

    I would say popular for amateur dressage, but like Andalusians and Lipizzaners, their action isn’t favored for upper levels compared to Warmbloods.

    They’re pretty. But they just don’t look like they’re built to be ridden rather than pulling things. I can’t imagine they’re really that comfortable to sit. One thing I give The Tudors, they did ride light horses that looked like they were bred for riding, and the jousting mounts weren’t all Friesians. (Even if Henry’s bay with the white star was improbably long-lived, and they apparently had stainless-steel eggbutt snaffles in Tudor England.)

    Reply
    • Anna LB

      I spent my adolescence CURSING the popularity of Friesians in amateur dressage circles…I was a working student for a dressage trainer and I ended up riding a lot of her students’ friesians. Unlike Andalusians, they are massive, and they are IDIOTS (at least, the ones I had to exercise on the reg were). And as you point out, they’re built for pulling things, not collection. I so preferred working with the Iberian horses–smarter, lighter, more sensitive in general.

      Hey Hollywood, Andalusians and Lusitanos also have pretty manes and tails! As long as we’re going for aesthetically pleasing, historically dubious breeds, let’s bring in more of those breeds!

      Reply
    • tggadda

      I have a Friesian that I ride dressage (amateur level) and can say for a fact that he is NOT comfortable to sit. Hahaha. Such a bumpy trot but oh he’s the sweetest puppy dog of a boy and really tries his heart out.

      Seems weird to see all his clones in the movies though.

      Reply
  10. Eileen

    Thanks for this interesting guest article. It seems that they are perfect for medieval through possibly 17th century movies (and of course fantasy movies), but not so much for ancient times, and they would be rare in late 1800s and early 1900s.

    (I grew up in Lexington, Ky, but in the suburbs so we didn’t have horses. But I loved visiting the beautiful horses at the area horse farms, and read all the required horse books for young girls. I’m sure the Kentucky Horse Park has some Friesians.)

    Reply
  11. Laura

    They were used to great effect in one episode of “AHS:Apocalypse”; full funeral procession, hearse, everything, and just ignore what happens after. They looked gorgeous.

    Reply
  12. Jenn

    My inner horse-obsessed little girl just did a happy bounce.
    I absolutely adore Friesians after having had the chance to meet a few of them when I was little. Such sweethearts :)

    Reply
  13. M.E. Lawrence

    Diana Gabaldon mentions Friesians in one of the Outlander books, praising their “elegant sturdiness.” (Or perhaps it was their sturdy elegance.)

    Reply
  14. Nynke

    I live in Friesland, and Friesian horses are a common sight in the fields. They were originallly used as farm horses, to pull ploughs etc. Now they are bred to be more suitable for riding, which gives them their specific looks.
    In a local documentary a breeder told that the horse he sold to be Zorro’s horse was relatively small, which was good, because it made Antonio Banderas look big next to it.

    Reply
  15. Roxana

    They’re ridiculously beautiful, and I hear very sweet natured. If you look over on Tor.com you’ll see Judith Tart has a feature on horses in SFF and covers Friedan’s among others.

    Reply
  16. Kate Kessler

    Thank you for this delightful post! I am not a “horse person,” but I was greatly entertained reading this. Cheers!

    Reply
  17. Cheri Smith

    I absolutely agree! Apparently every single horse for the last 1000 years from the Norse to the Persians rode Friesians, xD Really tired of it. I wish they would use local breeds/types!

    I have a half Friesian and she’s just a great big ol puppy dog. Every Friesian I’ve ever met has been the Golden Retriever of the horse world. I grew up riding stock horses (Appaloosas) and she feels completely different. She swings her butt like a street walker and feels like sitting on a suspension bridge, when she trots her knee action is almost chest level, she paddles, when she canters she goes up and down more than forward, she’s narrow(er than a stock horse) her feet are huge, she has no muscle definition (like a stock horse has) and while her angles are great, she has that smaller old style Friesian hip. She also has a beautiful neck, head, and shoulder, and loves every person she’s ever met. She was born an old soul. She will walk through fire, past banners, under helicopters, next to any other horse, and through water. She’s amazing.

    When you finally go shopping for one be sure to get the seller to do genetic tests. Friesians have a few really awful genetic diseases. And I suggest a mare. But I prefer mares, xD

    Reply
  18. Rainsodden

    Oh lord, this is one of my pet peeves. They’re beautiful horses, but they’re everywhere, including in a lot of settings where it would be really weird to find them. My biggest irritation–to possibly an irrational degree I admit–is seeing Friesians drawing Regency gigs. Historically, there was a very specific horse usually used to draw a gentleman’s gig in that era, and that horse was the Hackney. Hackneys are fiery and flashy, with a ridiculously high super octane trot, often with a lot of white markings to set it off. A gig and a pair of Hackneys was the sports car of the day, and, as gorgeous as they are, Friesians are rather more sedate.

    (I know. I’m about the only one who even notices this, let alone cares!)

    Reply
    • sonetka

      I wonder how much of it is because of temperament? Very few if any of the actors handling them can have much experience with driving a gig. If the Friesians are calmer and less likely to act out with an inexperienced handler than the Hackneys, that may be one reason.

      Reply
  19. Charity

    When you said a fantasy box office flop, I immediately thought of LadyHawke and the gorgeous black Friesian. xD I love that movie so much, it’s awesome and funny and clever and heartbreaking. It’s cool that its horse made the equestrian world ‘collectively lose their minds’ and bring back the breed!

    Some of these horses must have been in Tudor England, since I think Henry VII sent one to King James of Scotland as part of his daughter’s dowry / as a gift.

    Reply
  20. BCR

    I don’t know a lot about horses, and once I got through puberty, sort of lost interest. However, I’ve watched many, many episodes of the YouTube channel “Fresian Horses” during the pandemic. For some reason, I find watching the herd calming. I’ve learned a lot about horses, but mostly find the videos a great way to disengage from the day’s troubles. And I had no idea Fresians were so popular in movies, even though I’ve seen many of these. Thanks for the great post – and for extending my Fresian knowledge!

    Reply
  21. Florence

    So much yes! They are everywhere! I like them in fantasy movies, because, yes, they are pretty, but other than that… they make nice carriage horses as they were not originally bred for riding but for pulling and it shows in a lot of them (many have very long backs). I cannot stand them in anything medieval or earlier, but I guess the directors don’t want to see their hero (whether in leather pants or in shining armor) on a stocky dappled grey pony (medieval illustrators love their dappled greys, must have been a popular color).

    Reply
  22. Orian Hutton

    I would love to have seen true Scottish garrons in ‘Outlander’. Horses were unknown in the Highlands because there wasn’t enough forage for them to survive on (Jamie making hay. Hah!). The descriptions are of the gentlemen having to ride with their legs extended in front; the ponies were so small that the men’s legs would strike the ground if left hanging down. Of course, those who rode also wore trews, not kilts.

    Reply
  23. Rachel Morgan

    I would just like to point out that Friesian’s can come in chestnut! Chestnut is recessive to black (expressing as e rather than E), so a black horse (E?) can carry it (Ee) and it won’t express unless bred to another red recessive horse (Ee), and then bang! Chestnut Friesian (ee).

    They (chestnut friesians) can also be registered if they are proven to have come from 2 registered Friesian parents (different registeries may have different rules and levels of registeration as well).

    http://www.americanfriesianassociation.com/rules-regulations/ “The AFA has great respect for the Breed Standard as set forth by the FPS. The AFA recognizes that the FPS breed standard describes the Friesian horse as solid black, with no white markings, allowing a small star. The AFA also wishes to recognize that a Friesian who can prove its purebred heritage should not be excluded from registration if it is chestnut in color or has white markings. Therefore, these horses will be allowed registration as long as all purebred parentage requirements for registration are met.”

    Reply
    • Deb

      Ah. Thanks for pointing that out. That’s like the American Paint Horse Association where you can have a solid horse registered if they have registered parents.

      Reply
  24. Melanie

    I had no idea what breed of horse Goliath was in Ladyhawke, but he’s magnificent and I sure loved (and still love) that movie! And he’s an actual character, too. “Go with him boy, he didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

    Reply

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