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The Friesian Horse Breed: Lifespan, Genetics, and History

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The Friesian horse is a beautiful and impressive breed, renowned for their striking black coats and impressive strength. They have become popular among carriage owners, moviemakers, and equestrians alike. However, many people wonder about the lifespan of these majestic horses and how it compares to other breeds.

Friesian horses typically have a shorter lifespan compared to other horse breeds. On average, Friesians live for around 16 years, which is significantly less than the average lifespan of horses, which is around 25 years. However, the lifespan of a Friesian horse can vary depending on various factors.

When considering owning a Friesian horse, it’s easy to be enamored with their striking appearance. However, it’s important not to overlook some essential facts about the breed, including its average lifespan. This factor is critical to keep in mind before deciding to become an owner.

History of the Friesian Horse Breed

The Friesian horse breed is one of the oldest breeds of horses in Europe, with a history that dates back to the Middle Ages. Friesian horses originated in the Friesland region of the Netherlands and were used primarily as war horses. They were also used as carriage horses and were popular among the nobility.

Over time, Friesian horses became known for their strength, agility, and striking black coats. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they were in high demand as carriage horses and were often seen pulling the carriages of wealthy aristocrats.

In the 19th century, the popularity of Friesian horses declined, and the breed almost became extinct. However, a group of dedicated breeders worked tirelessly to revive the breed. Today, the Friesian horse is a beloved breed that is prized for its beauty and athleticism. The breed is also used in various equestrian sports, including dressage, driving, and show jumping.

Picture of a Friesian stallion in a pasture.
Friesian Stallion

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 Friesians became extinct in America. But the early Friesian horses impacted later American breeds, such as the Morgan and Standardbred.

Genetics of the Friesian Horse Breed

Friesian horses are a unique and well-known breed that has distinctive genetic characteristics. The breed’s genetics are essential in understanding how Friesian horses look and behave. Friesian horses have a dominant gene for black coat color, which means that almost all Friesians are black.

This dominant black gene is not present in many other breeds of horses. Additionally, Friesian horses have a unique conformation that makes them easy to distinguish from other breeds. They are known for their long, flowing manes and tails, arched necks, and feathered legs.

While there is no clear evidence that the genetic makeup of Friesian horses directly affects their lifespan, there are certain genetic traits that can make them more prone to certain health issues. For example, Friesian horses have a genetic predisposition to certain musculoskeletal disorders, such as osteochondrosis and dwarfism.

These conditions can lead to joint pain and lameness, which can affect the horse’s overall health and lifespan. Additionally, some breeders have been known to breed for appearance rather than health and function, which can contribute to a higher incidence of health problems in the breed. However, with proper care and management, Friesian horses can still live long and healthy lives.

Picture of a Friesian foal in a pasture.
Friesian foal

Breeding Friesians

To maintain the unique characteristics of the Friesian breed, breeders carefully select horses to mate with and ensure that certain traits are passed down from generation to generation. In order to be registered with the Friesian Horse Studbook, a horse must meet specific standards, and the Studbook has strict guidelines for breeding.

This guarantees the breed’s purity and ensures that only high-quality horses are used for breeding, improving the breed’s health and temperament. However, inbreeding can be a factor that affects the shorter lifespan of Friesian horses.

This practice involves mating closely related individuals, which can result in an increased incidence of genetic disorders and health issues. Some breeders prioritize physical appearance over genetic diversity, leading to inbreeding within the Friesian breed. However, responsible breeding practices that prioritize genetic diversity can help mitigate these risks and promote the health and longevity of the breed.

The lifespan of Friesian Horses

While many people are drawn to the breed for its striking appearance, it’s important to consider the lifespan of Friesian horses. Like all animals, Friesians have a limited lifespan, and as a responsible owner, it’s crucial to understand what factors can impact their longevity.

Factors such as diet, exercise, and genetics can all play a role in determining a Friesian horse’s lifespan. While the average lifespan for this breed is around 16 years, with proper care and attention, some Friesians can live well into their twenties.

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.

Picture of a Friesian mare with her foal.
Friesian mare and her foal

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 the physical maturity of 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 breed’s short lifespan puts you on a fast track to training. Click here to read a study on the short lifespan of some European breeds.

Picture of an old Friesian horse in a paddock.
Old Friesian horse

Special care is needed for old horses.

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

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 older adults.

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.

Picture of a Friesian horse standing in a pasture.
Friesian Stallion

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 lifespan, 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 hydrocephalus.

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

Picture of a Friesian horse in a pasture.

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.

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 Horses in Sport and Performance

Friesian horses are not just known for their beauty and strength but also their impressive athletic abilities. These horses have excelled in many different sports and disciplines, particularly in dressage.

The Friesian horse’s natural elegance and athleticism make them an excellent choice for dressage competitions. The breed’s unique gait and movements make them particularly well-suited to this sport, where precise movements and control are essential.

Aside from dressage, Friesians are also popular in other disciplines, including driving and show jumping. Their strength, agility, and impressive appearance make them well-suited for a wide range of performance activities.

There are also two main types of Friesian horses: the modern sport horse and the traditional carriage horse. Modern sport horses have been selectively bred to excel in athletic competitions, particularly dressage. They are taller and leaner than their traditional counterparts and have a more refined appearance.

On the other hand, traditional carriage horses are typically heavier and more powerful, with a more substantial build. They were originally used for pulling carriages and carts and are still used for this purpose today in some regions.

Overall, Friesian horses are a versatile breed with a long history of use in a variety of activities. From their origins as a workhorse in Friesland to their impressive performances in modern-day competitions, Friesians continues to be a popular and beloved breed among horse enthusiasts.

Caring for Friesian Horses

Proper care and attention are essential for maintaining the health and well-being of Friesian horses. A healthy diet is the foundation for any horse’s health, and Friesians are no exception. It is essential to provide them with a balanced diet that includes fresh hay, grains, and supplements.

Grooming is also an important aspect of caring for Friesian horses. Regular grooming, including brushing and bathing, can help maintain their shiny coat and healthy skin. Exercise is also important to keep Friesians fit and healthy.

Owners should provide daily exercise, such as turn-out time in a paddock, lunging, or riding. Proper maintenance of the breed’s distinctive mane and tail is also a crucial aspect of caring for Friesian horses.

Their long, flowing manes and tails require regular brushing and care to prevent tangles and breakage. The mane and tail should be washed and conditioned regularly to keep them healthy and shiny.

Picture of friesian horses in a paddock.
Friesian horses

Friesian’s feathers need special attention. 

Friesian horses are famous for their long-flowing manes, tails, and feathers. 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.

Below is a YouTube video about Friesian horses.


In conclusion, Friesian horses are a unique and striking breed that has been an important part of history and culture in the Netherlands. Their genetic makeup, breeding practices, and care requirements all play a significant role in their lifespan and overall health.

While their lifespan may be shorter than some other breeds, responsible breeding practices, and proper care can help to mitigate health risks and promote longevity. The Friesian horse’s distinct appearance and rich history make them a beloved and valuable part of the equine world.


Are all Friesians Black?

Not all Friesians are black. While black is the most common color for Friesian horses, there are some rare occasions where Friesians can come in other equine colors, such as chestnut or bay. However, these colors are not recognized by the breed registry and are not considered acceptable for breeding.

Where did Friesian horses get their name?

Friesian horses are named after their place of origin, Friesland in the Netherlands, where they have been an integral part of the region’s culture and history for thousands of years. They were used for farm work, transportation, and as war horses.