Friesian Breeder Breathes Life into a Rare Breed

by Ingrid Edisen

About fifteen minutes west of Austin, on a 28-acre spread, a small miracle happens on a semi-regular basis—a Dutch Friesian is born. This beautiful and rare breed almost became extinct about half a century ago. Today, in Texas, less than a handful of breeders are fanning the flames to bring the breed back. In 2002, there were less than 5,000 of these wonderful horses registered IN THE WORLD—numbering less than the Lippizaners. Donna and Paul Stoffa of C Shell Ranch are doing their part to maintain and nurture the breed. Donna Stoffa woke up one day and decided to get back into horses after she’d reared her own brood. She bought a young Quarter Horse and after the mare was a good fifteen years old, Stoffa began taking dressage lessons from Grace Harris of Austin. In keeping with her new tradi tion of “surprises,” she announced one day to Harris and later her farrier, Mark Lunsford that she wanted to breed Dutch Friesians. They and other friends all told her she was crazy. Only her husband encouraged her. In an exciting trip to the Netherlands to view “for sale” stock, she found one mare that embodied what she was looking for. When push came to shove, though, she was unable to contact either her husband or the family friend who’d helped them make contacts in Friesland. In a decisive moment, one that would change her life’s direction totally, she plunged ahead and completed the transaction...and then the waiting began.

The mare was shipped to Kentucky, placed in quarantine, and eventually hauled to Central Texas. In the fancy rig that the shipper used was also an excitable Thoroughbred mare. As the trailer pulled onto her property, Stoffa found her knees were shaking so badly that she had to ask the shipper to get her new mare off the trailer. He calmly ordered his twelve-year-old nephew who was traveling with him to do the task and Stoffa watched in amazement as the mare stepped off the trailer and accepted her new home as if nothing was unusual.

The mare’s feet needed attention badly and Lunsford eventually got them back into shape. But other than that, it’s been fairly smooth sailing for C Shell Ranch.

To date, Stoffa now has her mare Otsje, three horses on the ground and one in utero. In her quest to breed for one baby, she had semen sent from Holland but was dismayed to find the straws containing the valuable product had broken in transit. She contacted the provider and he generously sent her new stock—only this time it was from his personal collection and it contained seven-year-old frozen semen from Teunis. Stoffa’s good luck held and the match took. As it turned out, Teunis, an extremely valuable stallion and only twelve years old at the time, died in 2002. Stoffa now has one of the last sons, produced from that particular stallion. His name is Geo S. Since Friesians are known for their sense of humor and play, Geo also has his own set of tricks—he knows how to fetch.

To meet her horses is to encounter a set of calm, easy-to-handle beings. The massive animals, though quite capable of thundering across her pastures with their gigantic strong feet, also take life quite placidly. In fact, Teunis’ owner used to exercise him by riding a bicycle and leading the stallion with him! There are photographs documenting this!

All of them are black, Stoffa explained, as over the years the less-favorable red gene has been bred out. And there are some trends within the breed—some Friesians are more tapered sporthorse type while others are heavier and of the baroque vintage. And it is said that the feathering around their lower legs helps protect them from the boggy Dutch land. They are notable for their close coupling and beautiful long, arching and strong necks as well as their stature. The lines she breeds for also tend to have very well developed haunches. These are the horses the Romans used for their “charging horses” and later the knights used some in their jousts. To imagine these wide-chested horses coming straight at you is akin to watching an aircraft carrier advance. In battle, it would be a very intimidating prospect. If you think carriage and circus horses, you are right again as the Friesians were also given those jobs.

But let’s get on with the questions and let Stoffa tell her story in her own words:

Where do you come from? I come from Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. When I was growing up there it was big horse country, close to Radnor Hunt Club and The Devon Horse Show. An interesting thing to do on Thanksgiving was to go to the Hunt Club Breakfast and the Blessing of the Hounds.

What’s your history with horses? My father was a trainer. He started with steeplechase and then moved on to thoroughbreds at the track. He also schooled for shows. My first pony was a former grand champion at Devon. I was not a show rider. Taffy and I preferred to chase the steers that were being fattened up on the farm where my dad worked. I just couldn’t figure out why he didn’t like us to run them all over the pasture. Maybe that is why I ended up in Texas.

How did you get interested in the Friesian? Before I became interested in Friesians I got back into horseback riding when my kids grew up. I bought a three-year-old quarter horse, Fancy. She is now 17. Since I did the very thing not recommended for a novice rider, I learned a lot from her.

I became interested in the Friesian breed because I had a good friend from Friesland. He is a colleague of my husband so when he came to Austin to work on science we always found things for him to do on our small ranch. When we had the opportunity to go to the Netherlands he took us on a very special excursion to see his famous Dutch horses. Friesland is the northern province of the Netherlands, much of the farmland has been recovered from the sea by dykes. It is famous for the Friesian cattle as well as Friesian horses, known as Black Gold in Friesland. The Friesian people are wonderful, hard-working, proud and shrewd horse-traders. Texans would feel very much at home there.

Explain the differences within the breed as I’m under the impression that there is a “sportier, lighter” type versus an Old School or baroque type. If you ask one of the Friesian judges this question, he/she will reply that there is only one Friesian horse. I think you must look for what you want in the horse you choose. Studying breeding is very important for Friesian owners because the breed was almost entirely lost and is still being brought back very carefully.

What is your operation like? We have a small breeding operation. I purchased a Star mare named Otsje fan e Homar in Friesland in 2001. Her name means she is from the Homar breeding facility or Homar family bred her, I have been very lucky with my babies and with the expert help of Lamar Crossland, D.V.M. and all the people at Sunset Canyon Veterinary Clinic. But foremost I need to thank my husband, Paul who not only encouraged me to try the breeding program, but made an initial trip to Friesland with our friend Jacob to look at mares.

What are you doing in the way of training/showing/breeding now? I have learned, learned, learned and am still learning about this wonderful breed. I have been present either at the moment or within ten minutes of the birth of my three offspring. I work with them every day with the patient and devoted help of my assistant, Suzanne Coker. Raising babies is the area I love. I expect Otsje will continue to teach me more.

Where in the U.S. are Friesians “clustered?” There is a Friesian Breeder’s guide, which is the best way to find out about the Friesians from the Netherlands. The FHANA website has much information.

Do you need a certain mind-set to ride one? Friesians are very intelligent and never forget. There is nothing to compare with riding one, because they are so beautiful from the inside out. When I ride my mare she smiles, really. And that is because Friesians are also very loyal. Maybe this comes from their history of always working with people. They love people and are very interested to be with people. I have found clicker training to be very helpful with my Friesians.

What is the typical price range for a young Friesian? You can look at USFriesianreferral.com for an idea. A lot depends on breeding. A newborn foal will go for $7-9,000 depending on breeding. I am asking $22,000 for my 2+ year-old filly, a Friesian with very good breeding potential, whose price will increase after training. Friesians are started as three-year-olds under saddle because they grow for a long time.

What do breeding fees tend to be? If you breed to the top, stallion fees are $1500-1750. What do you charge? I don’t own a breeding stallion. This is a very important part of the breeding of Friesians. The stallions are extremely carefully selected and very rare and expensive.

Can you cite some notable examples of top national/international Friesians? I have bred to Anne 340 for this year’s colt Jacob S. I bred back to him for my 2004 foal. I was very fortunate to get a colt by Teunis a very famous Friesian Grand Champion before he died in 2002. My filly, Femke S, is by Nanno. I have pictures of these guys and more information.

Should a beginner rider buy one? Yes, but it depends on the horse and the rider and the goals.

I’ve heard that the Friesian was originally bred as a carriage horse...does this compromise it as a sport horse (hunter/jumper or dressage or eventing)? The Friesian was one of the original High School horses and was used by the Romans in war. It is very versatile and is used successfully in most areas except jumping.

Do they have any problems with the hot Texas weather? (Some European warmbloods do have such “issues.”) This is an interesting question because I really worried about it and even added a covered shelter to my barn for the summer. My first foal, Femke began sunbathing immediately trying to avoid the shelter and be in the sun, she still loves the sun, as do my two colts. Otsje, who grew up in Friesland, enjoys shade and cool baths. But then she was pregnant in the summer so can you blame her?

You can reach Donna and Paul Stoffa at C Shell Ranch; 3915 Crawford Rd.; Spicewood, TX 78669; (512) 264-2973; email: dstoffa@yahoo.com.

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