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The Friesian Horse Breed: Lifespan, Genetics, and History

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The Friesian horse is a majestic black horse with a sturdy build; moviemakers, carriage owners, and equestrians love their striking appearance. But, the question of Friesians longevity often arises, “what is the average lifespan of a Friesian horse?”

Pureblooded Friesian horses typically have a lifespan of only 16 years, compared to 25 – 30 years for most other horse breeds. Friesians are susceptible to 4 genetic disorders and the skin below their leg feathers often gets rashes. 

Many people choose to own a Friesian based on the breeds’ appearance and neglect some essential facts. One critical characteristic that you should keep in mind is the average lifespan of the horses.

Friesian horses have short lifespans.

Horses are an investment in money and time, and a short lifespan means a brief period to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Like most other horses, Friesian horses take time to mature, years to train, and age quickly.

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Physical maturity and a short lifespan

Horses are not physically mature until they are five or six years old; this leaves little time for Friesians to perfect their craft, even if you decide to use the horse only in elementary equine activities.

The development of their growth plates determines physical maturity in horses. Growth plates start out as cartilage and fuse into bone as the horse ages.

It’s vital to allow time for the horse’s knees to fuse before you begin riding. You can feel a horse’s legs if you are experienced and get an idea, but to confirm a horse’s legs are developed enough to ride, it’s best to have the knees x-rayed.

Putting extra weight on a horse’s back before its knees are fused can injure a young horse. A horse’s knees are typically closed between 18 and 24 months old.

A Friesian is fully mature at five or six and can’t be ridden until two. This horse breeds’ short lifespan puts you on a fast track to training. Click here to read a study on the short lifespan of some European breeds.

Special care is needed for old horses

A short-life span means less good years, and that you will need to address equine aging issues sooner in a Friesian than in most horses. At 14 years old, some Friesians look like a senior citizen with a swayed back and little bounce to their step.

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Horses aren’t likely to become senile or as physically frail as elderly humans, but their bodies do go through physical changes as they grow old. Their muscles become smaller and weaker, just like an older adult.

The aging process causes ligaments to lose strength, lips to sag, and hollows above the eyes. More gray hairs will be noticeable, and their coat might become dull.

You can also expect problems with older horses’ teeth, joint arthritis, GI tract maladies, skin tumors, immune disorders, and heart problems. Maintenance is required to care for an aging horse.

They need to be watched closely and examined by a vet regularly. You should make sure he has a proper diet and food that is easily digestible, along with regular visits from your farrier.

Friesian horses’ short lifespan can hinder them in dressage and other events.

Friesians only have a limited number of years they’re physically able to compete in dressage. The typical age to start a horse in dressage training is three or four years old. Usually, horses need to reach this age to be mentally and physically able to handle the work.

For a horse to be adequately trained to the Grand Prix level, it usually takes five years without any setbacks. It requires this amount of time to develop their physical and mental strength to perform the movements needed for that level.

A fully trained dressage horse would be 8 – 10 years old if it didn’t suffer any setbacks. And only the most exceptional athletes trained and ridden by skilled riders will ever reach the Grand Prix level.

Because Friesians have such a short life-span, is it worth the time, effort, and expense to train them in dressage?

Why Friesian horses die young.

Friesian horses die younger than most other horses. This has been a problem for breeders for years, but do you know why they have such a short lifespan.

Friesians die young because breeders decreased bloodlines through selective breeding. This practice led to increased inbreeding and a higher than usual percentage of genetic diseases within their breed, such as dwarfism and hydrocephalous.

Modern horse breeders use advanced breeding techniques to reduce genetic disease risks, but it remains a problem, and Friesian continues to die young.

Friesian horses have a high rate of dwarfism. 

Dwarfism is an abnormal development affecting the growth
of the legs and ribs. While it’s rare in most horse breeds, congenital dwarfism within the Friesian breed has been noted for many years.

Some studies found that certain sire bloodlines produced a higher rate of dwarfism than the general Friesian population. Through selective breeding practices the rate of congenital dwarfism has decreased.

Genetic disorders play a significant role in the life expectancy of Friesian horses. Click here to learn more about the Friesian horse breed.

Friesian mares often retain their placenta.

A retained placenta is a critical problem when a mare foals. It’s the mares’ failure to discharge the fetal membranes after giving birth. Mares that fail to expel the placenta within three hours of delivery begin to absorb harmful toxins and bacteria into their bloodstream.

If the condition is not treated it can lead to inflammation of the uterus and laminitis. Friesians have a higher rate of retained placentas than other horse breeds. It’s suspected that the reason might be related to the incidences of inbreeding.

Friesian’s feathers need special attention. 

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The feathers on a horse aren’t actual feathers of a bird but rather long hair on the lower legs covering the hooves. Special care is needed to prevent skin irritations underneath the feathers.

Scratches, or pastern dermatitis, is a common condition in the Friesian breed. It’s a skin irritation, found on the lower legs, beneath the pastern and fetlock, and sometimes running up the cannon bone.

Feathers are the primary cause of pastern dermatitis, though the reason may vary. Some factors that lead to the condition are wet climate, poor pasture hygiene, alkaline soil, sand, poor grooming habits,
and irritating topical products.

Pastern dermatitis can be mild and display dry skin and scabs, or severe,
with pain and swelling of the entire leg, oozing scabs and open sores.

Dermatitis under the feather can be caused by allergies, mite infestation, or fungal growth due to moist, dirty conditions in the fetlock
hair. The thick hair around the lower leg traps moisture and heat.

To properly care for your horses’ feathers, wash the area with a quality antibacterial shampoo and blow-dry. Blow-drying is essential to decrease moisture. It’s also a good practice to inspect the area as part of your daily grooming.

Friesian horses aren’t always black.

All registered Friesian horses must look black; colors include black, very dark brown, and black-bay horses. The studbook also limits white markings to just a small white star. Purebred Friesians can produce a chestnut foal in rare circumstances.

Friesian horses are named after Friesland province.

Friesland is a northern province in The Netherlands, and it’s where the Friesian horse breed originated. Friesland is a cold rural province next to the North Sea.

The people of Friesland were instrumental in saving the Friesian horse breed. Large draft horse breeds rapidly replaced Friesian horses on farms. And by 1913, the breed had dwindled to just three breeding stallions.

To save the breed from extinction, Friesland citizens bought the remaining purebred colts and established a breeding program. Their efforts bore fruit, and the breed thrives to this day.

Friesian horses have been in the USA since the 1600s

Dutch settlers imported the first Friesian horses to the United States in the 1600s. These horses were used to work the fields and also were crossed with some of the local mares.

Either because of the limited numbers of Friesians brought over or its poor suitability, the purebred Friesian became extinct in America. But the early Friesian horses impacted later American breeds, such as the Morgan and Standardbred.

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