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).
Ancient Greece (where your horse has a better flow than you).
Ancient mythology (Friesians give you wiiings!).
The Regency and Jane Austen (obligatory).
Shilling Cool Ranch Nachos.
And of course, all over fantasy lands:
Snow White’s forest.
Capital District, Panem
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.
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.)
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:
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.
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!