Those Ubiquitous Movie Friesians

"I'm ready for my close-up"/Photo by Rhonda Lane

Friesian horses galloped their way into popular culture in the 1985 movie “Ladyhawke,” and they’ve majestically stood their ground in cinematic imagination ever since.

So much so that I’m often amazed to see which historical period a Friesian horse will end up in next.

And I often wonder just how historically accurate their appearance might be?

Star power

Gleaming ebony coats. Long, sweeping manes with forelocks to match. Feathering on their legs that flutters down to salad plate-sized hooves.

No wonder the camera loves Friesian horses.

Friesians in the movies

Video compilation of Friesians in the movies by Gabriela 1. How many different movies can you spot?

Friesians in the movies

In 300, a movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, advance riders from the Persian army threatened the Spartans from aboard Friesian horses.

The equine actor in the role of Bucephalus, the horse only Alexander the Great could tame? Friesian.

On the Starz network series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” in a recent episode titled “Delicate Things,” Spartacus fantasizes about liberating his wife from slavery. They gallop off away from the gladiator school/prison aboard — what else? —  a Friesian.

Actually, that latter example, I’m okay with. Spartacus, a former warrior now slave-gladiator, is a noble man brought low by Roman treachery. He understandably has dark thoughts and big dreams. A Friesian makes a perfect fantasy horse that’s big enough to carry two riders.

What I have a problem with – and what turned this particular episode into great fodder for the Horse Movie Drinking Game – is that the cart horses said to be from Syria turn out to be a matched team of well-fed Friesians.

That makes me think, “Huh???”

The Roman Empire – hell on women and horses

Like the old saying about Texas, the same could be said for ancient Rome, especially this portrayal of ancient Rome.

Photo courtesy Starz network

FWIW, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is not a show for those with delicate sensitivities. Both the Russell Crowe “Gladiator” movie and the recent HBO series “Rome” were “Ancient World Lite” compared to this.

With full nudity, graphic violence, “that-goes-where?” orgies and scatalogical oaths that I couldn’t even dream up, Starz runs a disclaimer/warning before each episode, that the show depicts the brutality of ancient Rome for historical accuracy.

And they’re not kidding.  Some nights, I don’t feel that I’m old enough to watch it, even though I have an AARP card. Yet, I enjoy jeering for the bad guys and rooting for the good. Plus, this is a show that knows how to milk suspense.

So, when Spartacus dreams about fleeing Roman brutality aboard a Friesian, I wondered if the production might have rented a more work-a-day-looking horse for the cart?

Silly me. They’d rented two horses. But two Friesians.

The cart the horses pulled looked as dusty and as battered as a regular viewer of Spartacus would expect. A nice touch would have been for the horses to have looked a bit scruffy, too, more like the hellish steeds ridden by the Ringwraith in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

I read a story that those Ringwraith horses had been made up to look so scuzzy that concerned citizens passing the set had called animal welfare on the production company.

But, no, these horses in Spartacus, from a far-flung outpost of the Roman empire, didn’t even look that dusty.  Or muddy, since a long drought had ended as a plot point.

Anyway, like the gleaming white teeth on many of the actors, the pristine cart horses made me blink. Historical accuracy? Hmm. Not in this incidence.

But I’m well aware that historical accuracy doesn’t draw people to the TV as much as the other historically accurate skin, sin and swearing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Especially for entertainment

So, what is Friesian history?

The Friesian Horse Society’s history of the breed says:

The Friesian horse is the only horse breed native to the Netherlands where the Friesian has been known since as far back as the 13th century.

Hokay. That’s a bit after the era of 300 otherwise known as the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), Alexander the Great’s time (356-322 B.C.) and the Roman Empire (@44 B.C.  – 395 A.D.) But then in the next sentence:

At the start of the Christian era, the Friesian was used in battle and Friesian troops were documented in Britannia. In the 4th century, English writer Anthony Dent1 wrote about the presence of Friesian troops at Carlisle and their horses. Both cases probably involve Friesian mercenaries mounted on Friesian stallions.

Let’s see what else we can find. An article on Horsequest.com quotes a passage from a Dutch history (I would quote it, too, but they have permission, which is why I’m only linking to it.)

Paraphrased, Friesians reportedly were the mounts of Dutch horsemen serving with the legionnaires at Hadrian’s Wall. The Emperor Hadrian went to Britain in 122 A.D.

So, Friesians in the ancient world are entirely within the realm of possibility.

Equisearch takes us for a longer trip on The Way Back Machine:

As far back as Roman times, the Friesian was noted for its value as a powerful utility animal, however the Roman historian Tacitus (AS 55-120) felt compelled to make note of its ugliness!

Ugliness? Are we talking about the same breed? Or an acquired taste? Or, more likely, the modern Friesian is probably a much more refined horse than its ancestors?

But, of more importance, is the time frame.

Friesians in the ancient world are entirely within the realm of possibility. Although Cadua (the setting for Spartacus), Sparta (300) and Macedonia (Alexander’s turf) are a long way from northern Europe.

But, then again, those Roman legions got around.

Want to snark more on Hollywood? Visit some Horse Movie Drinking Game posts:

27 Comments
  • Cher'ley
    March 2, 2010

    Those horses are beautiful. I was just looking up your blog to read a bit. They appear to be solid black. I love horses, but I don’t know much about them. I had a pony when I was a kid. Thanks for all the info.

  • rhond7
    March 2, 2010

    Hey, Cher’ley – Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post. One of the “beauties” of this website is that you don’t have to be “into” horses to enjoy the reading the articles. There are stories here about everything from artistic works inspired by horses to non-riding horse-related travel. Feel free to visit anytime.

  • Debbie
    March 5, 2010

    Those are beautiful horses. I really a little scared of horse. Have a friend that has horses and trains horses.

    You have some good informations about them. When I was a kid I Had a friend with horses and rode hers sometimes. And it was fun.
    Guess I need to try it again.

    Debbie

    • rhond7
      March 5, 2010

      Thanks for stopping by, Debbie. To tell ya the truth, horses sometimes make me gulp, too. 🙂

  • David Rogers
    March 7, 2010

    Had I been asked I’d have said a Friesian was a type of cow, not horse! Fascinating history. The thought of getting on a horse scares me silly, I have great admiration for those who can.

    • rhond7
      March 7, 2010

      Thanks for stopping by, David. “Getting on” isn’t that scary, IMO, although these days, my muscles don’t stretch that way. 😉 What worries me is the “getting off – fast – and not my idea.” 🙂

  • Bruce "the Mid-Life Mentor"
    March 7, 2010

    I did not know about Friesian horses. Great and informative post. I had no idea that there was a native horse to the Netherlands.

    • rhond7
      March 9, 2010

      Hi, Bruce – Thank you so much for stopping by. The Friesian is said to be a descendant of an ancient breed called the Forest Horse. Lotsa history on the hoof!

  • Judy
    June 28, 2010

    I fell in love with the Friesian in Lady Hawk, simply watching it for this horse. He was just tooo damn beautiful and being a lover of the American Saddle Horse…that is a compliment. It’s nice to know the breed has such a great history. This was a great article. Thank you
    J

    • rhond7
      June 29, 2010

      Thank you, Judy. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post. I enjoyed digging into all that history. When I had begun researching, though, I was SO dubious. Friesians in the ancient world?! Riiight. But doggone it if they hadn’t been there after all.

  • annette
    September 11, 2010

    in the new disney movie “the prince of persia”, what is the real name of the friesian horse ridden by the hero Dastan?

    • rhond7
      September 11, 2010

      Hi, Annette. Thanks for the heads-up on “Prince of Persia.” I haven’t seen it yet.

      I went a-Googling, and this is what I found. Now, keep in mind, none of what I’ve got here has been confirmed. So, I have no idea if this is accurate. But two webpages led me to think that the horse was played by two horses (not an uncommon practice, to use several horses to portray one in a film). Their names, that I’ve picked up so far, are reportedly:

      Boech and Gallo
      http://www.equine-color.info/v/famous/Clash+of+the+Titans.jpg.html
      http://www.equine-color.info/v/famous/Prince+of+Persia.jpg.html

      You’ve got me intrigued, so I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks for stopping by, Annette.

  • Elsie
    November 22, 2010

    Love the info. Just watched “Clash of the Titans” and recognized the friesian. And remembered it from Eragon and from Lady Hawke and wondered if the same group provided the horses and if the same horse actors were used. Don’t care if its historically accurate, they add a beauty to the films that use them that is magical.

  • Sandra Clement
    November 27, 2010

    Friesain horses come from Holland as well as the friesian cow. They are know as holstein cows in America.We raise and breed friesians. Our stallion took world national grand champion in Del Mar Cal.2010 and was 21 points away from overall in the whole show.Docile and big sweetie pies.They love to work and love to be loved.Rogue River Friesians Gold Hill, Oregon 97525, The stallion is the son of Goffert the international champion and the Bryer horse of the year.One of the only Friesians to win and do Grand Prix.This son is hot on his heels.And his name is Ravel RRF,Rogue River Friesians

    • Rhonda Lane
      November 27, 2010

      Thank you for stopping by, Sandra. I hadn’t known that holstein cows are also Friesian. I have to say that I’m always impressed with the Friesians I see at the Massachusetts Equine Affaire. They’re always looking out their stalls, eager for visitors to say “hello.” And visitors just adore them.

  • Cher'ley
    November 28, 2010

    That’s wonderful. I don’t know much about horses, but I love them.

    • Rhonda Lane
      November 28, 2010

      Great to see you again, Cher’ley! I’m so glad I got to meet you at the 2009 New England Crime Bake. Running into you online, too, is fun.

  • Cher'ley
    November 29, 2010

    Thanks Rhonda, I feel the same about you. It was exciting and you made me feel so welcome. I love seeing your posts. Maybe someday I’ll get a drive through your neck of the woods and get to see your horses.

  • Rhonda Lane
    November 29, 2010

    Alas, except for a few Breyers and similar knick-knack horses, I’m currently horseless as far as the flesh-and-blood creatures go, Cher’ley. 🙂 What you see on this blog – and will read in my book – are *my* only horses, at this point.

  • Chris
    December 26, 2010

    Rhonda,
    The images I’ve seen of Friesians show little feathering on the legs.
    The one used for Prince of Persia had lots of feathering? Did they let it grow out and is typical of the breed?

  • Allan
    January 11, 2011

    I thought the horse in prince of persia sands of time looked alot like the Canadian breed. is the Canadian breed derived from Friesians?

    • Rhonda Lane
      January 11, 2011

      Oooh – great question, Allan. Let me look into that. Now, finding the answer might take a while, but now you have me curious, too.

      • Rhonda Lane
        January 11, 2011

        All right, here’s what I found out. The Canadian Horse is from stock sent over here to The New World by King Louis XIV in 1665, according to http://www.lechevalcanadien.ca/breed.htm and http://www.carriagemart.com/articles/canadianhorse.asp. Everything I read about the history of Friesian horses is Dutch, Dutch, Dutch. http://www.friesianhorsesociety.com/Friesian_history.html

        However – 🙂

        It’s not like the Netherlands and France are like, say, Australia and Sweden – nations far away from each other. So, I’m also wondering, too, if the horses sent to Canada and the stately Friesian of today don’t share the same origins way, way back in history.

        That said, Allan, I wish I could give you a more conclusive answer than “it’s possible.” Maybe someday some learned equestrian scholars will show up to answer our question? Anyway, thank you for asking.

  • Allan
    January 13, 2011

    hey thanks for helping me out there. both breeds seem to have the same caracteristics. they probobly do share he same ancestery.
    Allan

  • Melanie
    February 25, 2011

    Hi, great website. I am the very lucky owner of a Friesian Mare, and they are truly a wonderful breed. Thanks for all the information.

    Melanie

    • Rhonda Lane
      February 25, 2011

      Thank you for reading the story, Melanie. Sounds like you’re lucky indeed.

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