Owning a Friesian is NOT for the feint hearted!
They are a special breed, not just because they are so beautiful, but also because of their own unique needs and problems that they tend to experience.
Before you consider embarking on a lifelong journey with a Friesian, have a read through this blog and part II coming up next month, and then let us know if you are still interested in the Friesian horse!
Not everything I’ve mentioned here happens to every single Friesian. Of course there are many people who have a trouble-free existence with their black beauties. There are also many who struggle, regardless of how much time or money they spend setting up their environment for their horses with terrible bad luck, injuries and sometimes poor workmanship from trusted partners. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some of us have good luck and some have bad.
It is important to do exhaustive research and know what you are potentially getting yourself into with this special breed of horse, also so that you know what to look out for and to be aware of.
Do everything possible to make sure your horses have the best of everything, outstanding care, outstanding nutrition, outstanding training, outstanding tack, outstanding turnout. The horses are expensive to purchase. But you can’t just save up for your horse and skimp on the environment that you give them. Obviously some have more means than others to provide their ponies with horse heaven, but you should most definitely provide the best environment that you can afford in order to give your Friesian/s the best chance at a long happy healthy life. Remember, it costs just as much to keep a good horse as it does to keep a bad one!
Sadly though, even with all of this love and care, some horses still leave us for greener pastures way too young and for unimaginable reasons that are rarely any fault of their owners.
It seems terribly unfair, but here are some tidbits, that hopefully will forewarn and forearm you for your journey with your Black Beauty.
This article outlines the experience of a number of breeders of Friesians and is NOT medical advice –
ALWAYS CONSULT YOUR VET FOR CORRECT DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT RECOMMENDATIONS PRIOR TO TRYING ANYTHING MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE.
Outlined below are some of the problems that the breed in general is prone to, as well as some idiosyncracies and general characteristics of the breed. I sincerely hope that none of you experience these challenges, but in the event that you do, maybe this will prepare you a little and give you some guidance as to how to get help.
FARRIERS AND HOOF CARE
Friesians have great, hard feet.
They are normally best kept barefoot unless medically necessary to shoe. Some people’s terrain and use (i.e. constant unusually rocky turnout/riding, trail use, driving often on hard roads) will mean shoes are necessary. Overall, most can be kept barefoot easily.
The Dutch like to see a higher heel, and the horse in general tends to naturally grow a higher heel. Friesians have a better dressage movement when trimming more “traditionally”. By trimming with the higher heel, you get more carriage-driving like movement. In addition, Friesians try to grow a higher heel, and you need to let them exist in a higher heel than most other breeds.
If your horse was born and raised in the Netherlands, and his feet have been trimmed high his whole life, don’t drastically change the shape or height too dramatically in one go. This may seem obvious, but some farriers will just cut the lines they are used to cutting. Dramatic changes like this can cause stretching of the tendons and chronic laminitis.
There’s a happy medium between the heel angles needed; too upright with too tall of a heel makes for very jarring movement in a Friesian and percussive damage on their legs, taking too much heel off makes them appear underslung and has been confirmed on x-rays to start reverse rotation of the coffin bone angle, plus it also puts tension on the deep digital flexor tendon.
The overall advice is: keep barefoot if your sport and turnout/riding allow. If only used occasionally for “harder” surface/impact uses, consider hoof boots for those times.
Find a farrier who will listen to you as the owner of a unique/imported horse. One who understands that not all horses are thoroughbreds. This could be challenging to do, but is critical if you want to avoid chronic lameness and bad feet. Farriers trained in the UK have a minimum of four years training under their belt. In Australia, any old Joe can pick a hoof and call himself a farrier. That’s not to say that we don’t have great farriers here. However, in the event that you don’t know a good farrier, if you can find a UK trained farrier in your area you are likely to have someone with a higher level of training and much more experience with Friesians or large feathered breeds.
In any case, make sure your farrier listens to your requests and works with you, gently trimming the existing line of the hoof rather than drastically changing the shape of the hoof or removing the heel altogether.
Watch your farrier when they work, every time. If you are unsure of anything, ask. If he or she doesn’t like you asking, get a new farrier.
One that has worked on light drafts before, could possibly provide a similar experience. Don’t listen to them if they say Friesian feet get too out of control and then they want to “trim like a draft” though. At the same time don’t let them trim the hoof capsule too small and “trim them like a pony”.
Be on the lookout for your farrier trimming as if the horse is a thoroughbred. They will take the heel right down and cause a multitude of problems.
Also be aware of the pointy hooves that adolescent Friesians get on their hind hooves. You can round them out cautiously, and they SHOULD mature out of it around 4-5 years old.
Friesians are hard on their legs and hooves due to their movement and their weight, so if you are buying a middle-aged or older Friesian, you are more likely to find a chronic problem that will not show up in a standard vet exam and will need to be addressed later to maintain their soundness.
Before (or directly after) purchasing your Friesian, get baseline leg and hoof x-rays of any 1 year old or older (less than one year is arguable, but if you’re not suspicious of anything, there is little need).
X-ray at least hooves/lower legs annually. Friesians are prone to extensor process fractures and lower leg bone chips in general, due to their size and generally high-kneed, high impact movement.
Monitor your horse’s front legs for any coffin bone changes/chips and hocks/stifles for OCD (OSTEOCHONDRITIS DISSECANS), especially in younger horses.
ALWAYS get x-rays before you buy. ALWAYS. If a seller does not allow you to do so, WALK AWAY, you don’t need a Friesian that badly.
WEAK OR LOCKING STIFLES
Weak or locking stifles can be genetic. Leffert’s offspring for example are known for this. Targeted exercise to strengthen the area and keeping excess weight off the horse is the best treatment for this.
For breeders, if your mare has a weak stifle be aware for pregnancy purposes and also in choosing a suitable stallion as the sire of your new foal. It is best to choose one that has a track record of specifically improving the hind end and stifle. See above regarding x-rays for monitoring stifle degradation and looking out for early signs of OCD.
Friesians are big and black. It’s no secret they can be very heat intolerant. Some can stand in the middle of a desert all day long and not care, but as a whole, heat intolerance is a problem. Anhidrosis (non-sweaters) do not have the ability to sweat so they can’t release heat from their bodies and are at serious risk for heat stroke.
Know your horses resting baselines
Adult Horse (appropriate resting values):*
Pulse: 28-44 beats per minute depending on their level of fitness
Respiration (breathing rate): 10-24 breaths per minute
Mucous membranes (gums): Moist, healthy pink color
Capillary refill time (time it takes for capillaries in the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger): Two seconds or less
Gut sounds: Gurgling, gas like growls, “tinkling” sounds (fluid), and occasionally “roars” (be able to describe sounds to your veterinarian)
If your horse has Anhidrosis keep them well out of the sun during the day. Keep them stabled during the heat of the day preferably in air conditioned temperature controlled stalls, or use misters to cool them off in extreme temperatures (higher than 32℃ in the shade)
You can create a makeshift mister by poking pinholes in a regular hose and hanging it across the top of a stall, however a commercial mister will use less water, and generally be more effective.
Be cautious when exercising. The fitter the horse, the better they deal with Anhidrosis, but you have to be very careful to not overheat the horse during exercise. A mister in your arena will also assist them to keep cool during exercise!
If stables are unavailable, make sure the horse can get to a protected shaded area during the heat of the day, but do not place feed or water underneath trees, particularly fruit bearing trees. You want to avoid the opportunity for bats to infect your horse with Hendra virus at all costs.
Monitor your horses temperature during hot weather and give them a cold hose off if their resting temp is over 38.4℃. (already knowing the baseline temp for your horse is helpful here).
Flysheets that are white, cotton or naturel fibres and reflective of sunlight but not heavy or clingy fabric help during turnout as well. Anhidrosis is common in young Friesians in their “teenage” years, and many of them develop it at 2-3 years old and “grow out of it” around 5-6 years old.
If you are going to hose your horse to cool him make sure you scrape the excess water off to ensure that a bubble of water doesn’t form under the coat and create a pocket of boiling water.
Friesians like any horse can become a victim of colic- gas, impaction, and tortion colic, stomach rupture, and Mesocolic Rente colic (when the horse colics and the intestines twist and go through the hole in the mesentary, get stuck, and the tissue dies.) Some people say that Friesians are more prone to colic than other horses.
There is a general belief in the vet world that Friesians have less dorsal body wall attachments than other breeds, making them more prone to tortion colic. This information comes from surgeons who have performed colic surgeries on Friesians. I personally believe that because Friesians are so stoic with pain, often by the time that we notice that they have colic it is too late, whereas other breeds would have displayed signs of trauma much earlier.
Specified feeding, turnout management and worming can help prevent colic incidence in Friesians. Not changing their diet too dramatically will also help.
SCRATCHES OR SKIN MALADIES OF THE FEATHERS
Friesians, due to their feathering, are prone to mites, bacteria, Chorioptic mange, and infections in their feathers.
Good daily grooming, drying feathers and/or limiting turnout in constantly muddy, wet and humid conditions will greatly assist to avoid these.
Mites and mite infections, known to the Dutch as “mok” can be treated with topical or injectible treatments. Washing or moisture is the breeding ground of mok.
One common treatment is to use Frontline spray on the horse’s legs to kill the mites. Although Frontline is a product approved only for ticks and fleas on cats and dogs, it is effective in treating these mites.
Lyme sulphur dip is effective in killing the mites as well. Many vets will mix ivermectin in with an antibiotic paste and apply this to the affected areas. The most important point is to clip the hair, kill the mites, and treat with a topical antibiotic and anti-inflammatory ointment.
Some horses with deep secondary infections will also require oral antibiotics. Consult your vet for advice on this.
The chorioptic mites can be identified by scraping skin and looking under a microscope for identification. They are highly contagious and can live for a long time off the host body of the horse for example in stalls, and can “jump” from horse to horse, even being carried on horses that are non-symptomatic.
There is a commonly known “mok recipe” that Friesian owners use as well:
1/2 jar Nitrofuazone…use this jar to mix everything in
Add 1 tube Desitin…heat (in a microwave or a saucepan over low heat) the furazone and desitin in the jar just enough to turn to liquid so that it mixes easily
Then add 40 mg Dexamethasone
10 ml Gentamycin
and 10 ml DMSO (90% liquid)
Stir and let cool, it will return to a pasty compound that is easy to smear on the “mok”
*BE SURE TO WEAR GLOVES WHEN APPLYING…THE DMSO IS WHAT ALLOWS THE MEDICINE TO PENITRATE THE SKIN AND IT WILL PENITRATE YOUR SKIN ALSO!
You will need to get some of the ingredients from your vet or have your vet mix up this “recipe”
Also known as Mud Fever or Scratches. A topical antifungal/antibacterial wash is the best cure for this.
While washing/moisture is the enemy with mok, it can be helpful with scratches. Washing/hosing the feathers, scrubbing with antibacterial soap, picking off any loose “scabs”, drying as thoroughly as possible and then treating with a topical antifungal/antibacterial agent is the best course of action.
Treatment with products such as Shapley’s M-T-G is one of the best treatments. Keeping your horse out of the morning dew/wet marsh areas is also helpful in getting this condition cleared up quicker.
Using petroleum jelly all over the area (you need a lot) and then use Shapley’s M-T-G is a less expensive treatment. You can use up a lot of cheap petroleum jelly and then a much smaller amt of M-T-G is required. The vaseline will soften the area and allow the scabs to fall off so the M-T-G can get to the fungus.
Chronic Progressive Lymphedema:
This is a very serious condition, and one not commonly found in friesians specifically, but something that “very bad scratches” can be misdiagnosed as. If your friesian has/develops large nodules around their pasterns, talk to your vet about getting a biopsy done to check for this disease. At this time, there is no cure, but research is ongoing. Recently it has been linked to being a genetic problem, so it is something that should be looked into and reported when a friesian turns up with this condition.
Some helpful links regarding the above condition, with pictures and more information:
aka Lymphangectasia or Lymphedema
Associated with inflammation of the lymphatics of the hind legs and ventral abdomen. It can be caused by bacteria (usually with fever) or be non-infectious (no fever).
In both cases there is stiffness, lameness, pain, heat. It is typically treated with antibiotics, diuretics, antiinflammatories (usually a steroid), and hydrotherapy.
It is typically a chronic condition and will occur repeatedly over an animal’s lifetime. Late term pregnancy may exacerbate the condition because of pressure of the fetus on the lymphatics in the abdominal wall. One must be careful not to use steroids to treat in later pregnancy or the mare may abort from the steroids.
High fevers of short duration can certainly result in early embryonic death, however later in pregnancy it takes a longer duration to severely impact the fetus (i.e. after 3 – 5 months gestation and the placenta has started to form).
Not much friesian-specific here, just good horsemanship and best practice care. There are many ideas on horse care regarding daily wormers vs paste wormers. Consult your vet for the best worming practice and realize that friesians do weigh significantly more than most horses who the paste tubes are designed for, so you may need to use more that one tube.
Using this equation will help to estimate your horse’s weight better than a weight tape (realize that this does NOT take into account bone density, so if you have a particularly baroque friesian, you will want to add on a couple hundred pounds to account for the bone density:
1. Measure the circumference (heart girth) of the animal (distance C).
2. Measure the length of body (distance A-B, point of hip to point of chest).
3. Take the values obtained in Steps 1 and 2 and apply the following formula to calculate body weight: Heart girth x heart girth x length divided by 300 + 50 lb. = weight.
This formula is accurate to +/- 3%.
Consult your vet for the best times of the year to worm for particular worms in your area.
Again, not much friesian-specific here, just good horse practice. Teeth should be checked at 2-3 years old and monitored every 6 months until they are about 6 years of age. Wolf teeth will come in during that time and often warrant removal, as they tend to interfere with the action of the bit. As a friesian reaches 6 years old, you can reduce to annual checkups. After they are in their late teens, they should be checked every 6 months again.
Some people believe in power tools only, some people believe in hand-floats only. Some people believe only vets should float their horse’s teeth, some feel only specialized dentists should.
There are many equine dentistry vets in Australia that will come to you and sedate any horses necessary to hand-float. It is very important to note that Friesians respond unpredictably to sedative. Because they weigh more the natural assumption is that they require additional sedatives to achieve the correct level of sedation. In fact often the opposite is true of most Friesians. Less is more. Many Friesians have a very strong reaction to sedatives and only a smidgen of the dosage for a horse of similar size, for example a thoroughbred is required. However in some cases a higher does is required for the same effect. Never assume this will be your horse. Ensure that your very gives a test shot first, with only a small amount to gauge your horses reaction.
Some of the horses with specialized teeth issues (parrot mouth, “wave mouth”, diagonal wear due to chiropractic issues etc) go to a vet clinic for a different dentist to work on with power tools and high level sedation and monitoring from the vet. So, we combine all of the above 🙂
Find an Equine Dental Vet near you!
SEDATIVES and ANAESTHETIC
Every Friesian is different. They each react uniquely and unpredictably to anaesthesia/sedatives!
Friesians put under anesthetic can have neurological problems after recovery, often resulting in fatal complications. The condition is called Hemorrhagic myelomalacia.
It is of the utmost importance that your vet is aware of this possibility and administer a reduced dose to ‘test’ the reaction prior. Even a half-shot of Acepril and Zylazil can be enough to cause an Anaphylactic reaction (similar to that of an Epileptic Fit).
Once sedated your friesian can seem quite “out of it” to the point of hardly being able to stand, until you actually begin the procedure. Then they will WAKE UP! and actively alert you that they are still quite aware of the situation and are extremely unhappy. Under stress, they are quite capable of taking you and the rest of the medical team out of the picture. In this case your vet will need to administer more sedative. Zylazil has also been known to cause agitation in Friesians, and cause your normally beautifully tempered horse to become slightly crazy!
Of utmost importance is that you advise your vet to proceed with caution when sedating your friesian for the first time. request a quarter to a half of the does they would normally give a horse of that size!
Post recovery place your horse in a stall with water but no access to food. This is very important to ward off any possibility of choke as they regain their awareness and muscle/esophogeal control.
General Anesthesia/Full Dorsal Recumbency
The best advice is to NEVER EVER allow your Friesian to be placed in the Dorsal Recumbant position. This is where the horse is lying on its back. Friesians rarely recover from surgery where they have been in this position.
Friesians have historically had problems with recovery from general anesthesia, especially when needing surgery requiring full/dorsal recumbancy. The general concensis is to try for partial recumbancy if possible during a surgery, and move the horse around as well during dorsal recumbancy to avoid a “soft spot” forming in the spinal cord that will result in post-anaesthetic myelomalacia and require the horse to be euthanized.
The heavier (pregnant, baroque) horse will be at a greater risk of this due to their weight. While more common in draft horses, friesian horses are seceptible to the complication as well. Some articles with more information to read are here:
Again, this will not apply to all mares/stallions etc. Overall, friesians have a very high incidence of breeding complications, dystocias, and foaling/post foaling complications. Quick points to know about friesians:
Motility: Stallions do not always have the best motility and/or keep the best motility as they age in relation to other breeds. Some remain wonderfully fertile throughout their lives, but many have marked decreased motility as they age. Frozen semen is a hit-or-miss due to this and historically in Australia has not been overwhelmingly successful.
When breeding your mare to someone else’s stallion, enquire as to the stallion’s motility count, and, specifically when looking to purchase frozen semen, ask when it was collected. As is routine with most vets, have them do post-shipping motility counts during breeding.
Friesian mares have an EXTREMELY high incidence of retained placentas. Mares of other breeds will only retain their placentas 2-10% of the time, versus 54% in friesians. Studies have linked inbreeding to the problem. http://jas.fass.org/cgi/content/full/82/4/982 and http://jas.fass.org/cgi/content/abstract/82/4/982 .
Retained placentas are causative of toxicity, laminitis, and colic (problems in the gut in general from the toxicity of the RP), along with all of the post-foaling reproductive issues that come with manual removal of a retained placenta if deemed necessary (though this study shows that there are no differences, FYI). They do acknowledge the high incidence of RP in friesians, though, and were easily able to use them for their study!
Difficulty getting mares in foal:
This is more anecdotal evidence gathered from various sources, from friesian breeding facilities (including ourselves), vet schools (New Bolton, Leesburg, VTU Blacksburg), equine thorongologists like Nandi Vet Clinic (Dr Hurtgen et al) etc. Some mares are very fertile and get in foal first time every time (we are lucky enough to have one in our barn) but many others are bred repeatedly, with ideal conditions and take repeated breedings to settle, if they ever do. In addition, friesians are notorious for growing larger follicles than most other breeds, making it difficult to get the timing correct for AI. They tend to not ovulate until 40-50mm versus many other breeds that ovulate in the 30s. It causes many inexperienced vets and owners to ship/breed more often than necessary and friesian mares typically can hold onto their follicles through an HCG shot when others would have given up and ovulated already. There’s a great article on Iron Spring Farm’s site talking about this very topic. Add that to the (typically) already decreased motility of many stallions and you have a very hard to reproduce animal.
Not carrying to term
Again, anecdotal evidence from the previously mentioned sources. You have to watch friesian mares in foal like hawks. Placentitis, general bacterial infections, mares colicking, hormone irregularity etc tend to take out the foals that were successfully conceived. Maintenance ultrasounds often (monthly!) to measure fetus size, placental thickness and regularity are often needed to head off any problems. Regumate and TMZ is an oft-used protocol to keep mares healthy and hormonally regulated to carry to term and add dramatically to the cost of breeding a friesian.
Again, anecdotal evidence from the previously mentioned sources. Friesians seem to tend to have more dystocias than other breeds. They can range from minor (one leg hooked back etc) to the worst possible nightmare (we had that–foal presented with all 4 feet and no head–had to do a C section to remove, and then she retained her placenta for FOUR days!). Be vigilant on your marewatch and know to CHECK THE FOAL’S POSITION as soon as the mare is in Stage 3 labor.
Due to the limited gene pool that friesians have, the incidence of this is higher than in most breeds. It can be prevented by bloodtesting your mare prior to breeding to a desired stallion and comparing the blood types. If not discovered within the first 8-48 hours, the foal will likely die from injesting the colostrum of the mare that contains the antibodies to fight the foal’s bloodtype. A good article to read on prevention is here, and a more detailed article is here. An article specific to Friesians and NI has just been published by Laurie Kasperek here as well!
Waterhead/ crown head foals (hydrocephalus) is the accumulation of fluid in the brain, resulting in damage to brain cells. This problem can cause damage to the mare during foaling and possible death, as the size of the head can make it so the foal cannot pass through the birth canal
Mesocolic Rente (hole in the mesocolon of a horse that opens up and allows waste from the intestines into the horse’s body)
* If your horse’s resting vital signs are not in these normal ranges, call your veterinarian to see what might be wrong. Remember that very hot and humid conditions may alter these normal values, so speak with your veterinarian.
MORE COMING NEXT MONTH!!!!