The mighty Friesian! We are celebrating this fairytale-looking breed as our May Breed of the Month on #YourDressage!
Dressage riders who choose Friesians as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as Friesian Heritage Horse & Sporthorse International, Friesian Horse Association of North America, Friesian Horse Society, Inc (FHS), Friesian Sport Horse Registry LLC, and Friesian Sporthorse Association – FSA are all participating organizations
Here, a Region 3 competitor shares why she loves the Friesian breed, and her goals to get to the upper levels of dressage with a Friesian she trained herself.
By Alanna Bent
I was first introduced to Friesians in 2015, when my mother purchased her first Friesian horse, Gerke (Nanning 374 x Ouke 313). I learned a lot about working with the breed, and I was immediately taken by their personality and willingness. I was hooked and, in 2017, I began looking for a Friesian of my own. I ended up purchasing my first Friesian, Ooude van G.V. (Sape 384 x Ouke 313) from Gerke’s breeders, Heidi and Eric Smith at Grandview Friesians. At that time, Ooude was just an unstarted 5-year-old. After successfully starting him undersaddle, I immediately began thinking about dressage. Originally, dressage wasn’t my main focus, but I quickly became enamored by the sport. Once I was “bitten” by the “dressage bug”, that was it, and I completely focused on training him up through the levels.
In the early years, Ooude was a bit more challenging. Though, looking back now, those challenges were just normal young horse things and, because of my inexperience, often served as learning experiences for me. I am very thankful that Ooude has always been very forgiving of me. Even though it is more challenging, I was always adamant about training my own horse. It has definitely been difficult at times, but I have learned so much more about dressage and training because of it. Fortunately, I was able to learn a great amount from books, videos, and clinicians. The coaches throughout my dressage journey have also been invaluable in the development of both Ooude, and myself.
Ooude has always been extremely athletic and talented for dressage. When training the lower levels, he would often become bored, so I had to be more creative with the work I did with him. Cross-training was something I began to implement. It was engaging for Ooude, and improved his fitness greatly. Even currently, training the Prix St. Georges, I still like to implement cross-training days. I think it keeps the horses fresh and improves their focus in the dressage ring. Another benefit with cross-training is that it improves the fitness of the horse. In order to become fit enough for the upper levels, I have to implement work outside of the arena.
After his first show season, I began to focus on the flying change work. Ooude has always had an aptitude for the flying changes, and I believe they are his favorite movement to perform. The reason for this is, mainly, his conformation. Ooude is not built upright in the neck, rather he is built more similar to a warmblood up front. This is a more ideal conformation, as I find it allows the hind leg to come through more naturally in the canter work. Traditionally, Friesians struggle with the flying changes; this is mainly due to their upright necks and lack of engagement in their hind legs.
Historically bred to pull carriages, a Friesian’s aptitude to “pull” often comes up during the collected work. They do not naturally use their back, so it is very important that they learn to properly engage their hind legs and carry themselves. With Ooude, I continue to work on this every workout. It is vital that they learn this before (and while) working on the upper level work. It takes a lot of time, patience, and discipline to train this, but it makes it so much easier to perform the work for both rider and horse.
At the end of the 2019 show season, I showed Ooude at Third Level. We earned the scores for both my USDF Bronze Medal, and his Sport predicate. It is amazing to me that he achieved this with it being only his second show season with me: a young, green dressage rider. It really speaks to his athleticism and character as a horse.
Over the years Ooude and I have definitely formed a partnership. Like all dressage partnerships, it is an amazing feeling to know a horse so well, both on the ground and undersaddle. Thinking back, I made quite a few mistakes, but this makes his achievements in the ring even more special to me. There are very few horses that could achieve what he has in the ring while being piloted by a rider that was just as green as he. It has always been both of our firsts; our first show; our first time at a given level. Our partnership is definitely based on trust. It is a partnership that has taken a lot of time to develop, and has, frankly, been very humbling for me. I respect who he is as a Friesian, and I understand both his strengths and weaknesses. I truly believe in his ability to be successful in the upper levels of dressage. I think that is some of the reason why we are competing at Fourth Level and schooling Prix St. Georges. It is true that there are not many Friesians competing in the upper levels of dressage and I think there are many reasons for this, but as riders and trainers of our Friesians, we give in to the easy excuse that they aren’t “made” for dressage, or they will only reach a certain level. We have to respect their challenges, but we can’t limit them because of those challenges. After all, the emphasis of dressage is to develop the horse into a strong and educated athlete. It may take longer with some horses, and breeds, but that should not mean that we don’t strive for the highest levels of dressage.
If I was to give some advice to a rider looking into Friesians, I would say definitely do your research on the Friesian breed. They are an incredible breed that requires great care, discipline, and commitment. With Friesians it is not “one size fits all.” Researching the breeding is very important because that will help determine the Friesians personality, and sport ability. There are many resources that are full of knowledge. The Friesian Horse Associate of North America (FHANA) is a great resource to learn about the Friesian horse, and network with breeders that are incredibly knowledgeable. The Fenway Foundation for Friesian Horses is another excellent resource, especially from a health perspective. They do extensive research on the breed, and are always happy to guide new Friesian owners on the path to success. Friesian horses are an absolutely incredible breed. There is nothing like them, both from their physical characteristics to their “dog-like” personalities. Everyday I get to work with my Friesians is a blessing. They are absolutely my favorite breed to work with, and that is why I will always own a Friesian horse.