Conformation is really not the “beauty” of the horse (of course!) Conformation has to do with the question “is this horse put together in a way that will enable it to be effectively used for its intended purpose”. The conformation of a draft horse that pulls a plow might be perfect for plow pulling, but horrible for reining in loose cattle. And a reining horse might be built perfectly for that task, but completely wrong for jumping over 6 foot fences. And so on.
Since the purpose of the Friesian horse has changed over the decades, so too has what is deemed “good” conformation. For example, when the stallion Naen (born in 1976) was first approved, the Friesian horse was primarily a pulling/harness horse. It is desirable for these horses to have shorter front legs, a steeper croup, lower head carriage, shorter neck, etc. Why? So they could effectively pull weight. Naen’s scores were not particularly high and the judges felt “his belly was too far off the ground” (read “legs too long”). Naen has since become a preferent stallion due to the high scores of his descendants. He is considered one of the “fathers” of the modern, riding type of Friesian. Naen’s genetics did not change – the breeding goals of the KFPS did.
The general breed characteristics (“type”) have remained fairly consistent. From the KFPS manual “An introduction to Judging a Friesian Horse” (available for purchase from the KFPS), 2007, page 12:
- General: a horse that by its characteristic front, ample hair, the black color and roomy and elevated gaits … makes a luxurious and proud impression
- Head: a small, striking, noble head with wide eyes. The nose bone is preferably somewhat dished. Large nostrils. The jaws are light and the opening of the mouth is long. The eyes are large and clear. The small, attentive ears lightly tip together.
- Neck: The long poll and neck together form a lightly upward bent line. The neck shows much elevation.
- Hair: … ample hair reflected in its mane and tail, and on its legs (feathers)
- Color: the color of the coat and hair is jet black. White markings on the face are allowed if they are no longer than 3.2 cm and are not located below the eye line.White markings elsewhere on the body of the horse are not allowed.
The build/frame requirements have changed some over time. In general, the KFPS desires
“A harmoniously functionally, proportionally and upwardly built horse with a long forearm and not too heavy in the body. The horse stands in a rectangle with the forehand, mid section and hind quarters proportioned 1:1:1”
In particular, the judges start with the head, looking at the length of the poll, the transition to the neck, the roominess of the throatlatch (too heavy and the horse cannot bend to the bit) and the connection at the withers. The neck should flow to the withers, have good muscling, and come high out of the chest. To allow “reach” with the front legs (thus producing a “roomy” movement which is comfortable for a rider), the shoulder should be sloped (“at an angle with the horizontal line between 45 and 50 degrees”), and the forearm should be nice and long.
The back should be strong and muscular – not too tight and not too weak. Often I hear the judges comment on a weak back… too much of a “dip” in the topline. Obviously a weak or sway back is a detriment to properly carrying a rider.
The loins should be broad, muscular and strong, transitioning to a long croup which slopes lightly and is muscular.
The legs should be straight with a long forearm and canon. The joints need to be “dry” (not swollen) and hard. The feet are large enough for good support and wider in the front than behind.
Overall, the “Introduction to Judging a Friesian Horse” (2007, p 14) states that the Friesian horse should be:
A harmoniously, proportionately and upwardly built horse with a noble head with bright, intelligent eyes. Small, attentive ears that lightly tip towards each other. A long and lightly curved neck. A sufficiantly strong back, ending in a long croup that should not be too sloping.
A powerful, sufficiently long and sloping shoulder. Sufficiently long ribs that are arched. Strong legs and feet, a well developed forearm and a correct stance. Easy, square, elegant and elevated gaits that are emphasized by sufficient feathering, good mane, and a nice long tail. In short, a luxurious horse that makes a proud impression, full of energy and willingness to work with an honest disposition. The color is preferably jet black.
In my personal experience, the conformation issues I hear most cited at inspections are (a) weak back and (b) built too downhill (i.e., front legs too short). Most Friesian horses are indeed built downhill, so the judges expect that and instead of horribly penalizing a downhill horse, they reward an uphill horse.
The weak back is something they also seem to have a concern about. Although Training will not change a horse’s leg length, a weak back can be positively affected through proper training which relax the neck and strengthens the back. And improper training can weaken the back!
I have made a short video of two of my horses at their inspections. One horse is more of a harness type. The other more of a riding/modern type. Neither is perfect, which is one reason I selected them. Another reason is that, of course, I just happened to have video and their keuring scores handy. I’ll use these two horses in my articles to show the differences. This is for educational purposes, so try to not pick on my old mares too much…
YOU SHOULD MAXIMIZE THE VIDEO TO FULL SCREEN SO YOU CAN SEE THE DETAIL.
Jeannine Everhart, the author, is citing information from the KFPS text “An Introduction to Judging the Friesian Horse”, available for purchase from the KFPS. She has been attending inspections with her horses since 1998 and attended a week long intensive judging clinic/class in the Netherlands during the summer of 2009. Jeannine and her family run Tanbark Acres, a small Friesian breeding operation.