Dennis Slijfer (49) has been living close to Madrid in Spain with his family for the last 17 years. When Dennis saw his Friesian stud Hendrik for the first time it was love at first sight. In the meantime, since then, he is well on his way to promote the Friesian breed in Spain. ´My horse gets noticed here straight away in between all the Spanish horses´, says Dennis.
Text: Laura van Houtum Photos: Almeda Renes Fotografía Translation: Dennis Slijfer
Dennis, who now lives in Spain, actually grew up with Friesian horses. His father was carriage driving instructor and an official national judge for many years. With their Friesian horses at home, they also regularly participated in marathon competitions. “My parents no longer have Friesian horses, but all the beautiful tack used in the past is still neatly displayed in the hallway of their house” says Dennis who himself first learned how to ride on ponies and later started riding and competing with horses. “If it had anything to do with horses then everything was possible at my house” he says. When he was about sixteen, he stopped riding. Until about 30 years later. Dennis is married with a Spanish lady and moved to and lives in Spain with his family, where he works for NBC Universal, a job which makes him travel to many places in the world.
It was his own daughter, 18-year-old Lisa, who put him back on the horse trail after many years. “We were on holiday somewhere in Spain and Lisa wanted to do a trail ride. She became enthusiastic about horse riding. Back home we started looking for a riding school and she started taking lessons straight away” says Dennis who of course accompanied his daughter. “By the second week I started getting the jitters, so I rang her instructor and asked if I could join in as well. And so, we ended up riding together in the beginner’s class”, he says.
After having taken several months of classes it became clear to Dennis that what he really wanted was to have his own horse. “I didn’t have to think long about what breed of horse I wanted to have” he says smiling. “Of course, it had to be a Friesian. I grew up with them. Sure, they are beautiful too but really what attracts me to them is their unique character”, he sums up. When he started asking around, he found out that importing a Friesian from The Netherlands to Spain would an expensive undertaking. “Just the import- and transportation costs would set me back about 1,800 EUR. So, I decided to buy a horse here in Spain. Via a colleague I managed to get a contact for a person in Catalonia who had two Friesians for sale, a nine- and a fourteen-year-old” says Dennis, who had to complete a significant journey to buy his dream horse.
On arrival after a long trip that included an internal flight and a two-hour train ride the nine-year-old horse, the one he came for, turned out to have already been sold. “The fourteen-year-old Friesian was however still there, and let’s be honest it just took one look for me to fall in love with him. I immediately felt that this was my horse”. And so, horse Hendrik arrived at a boarding stable very near Dennis’ house in Madrid. “The man had called the horse ‘Guapo’ (Beauty, in Spanish) but looking at his passport his real name turned out to be Hendrik and he was born in Tzumarrum in Friesland (NL). “I started looking for his parentage, but I was never able to find out”, Dennis notes.
“When Hendrik came to Madrid, it required a lot of paperwork. In Spain it is mandatory to transfer the horse from one stable and region to the other when he gets sold” explains Dennis. “And this needs to happen on the day he gets moved”. Hendrik is 16 years old and both Dennis and his daughter Lisa ride him regularly. “The weather in Madrid is quite extreme. In summer temperatures easily can go above 40 degrees Celsius while in winter it often freezes” according to Dennis who often does trail rides late at night through the Spanish landscapes. “We have got everything here! There are large open fields, small rivers and after riding for 10 minutes we reach the hills. From there you have some amazing sights and can see for many miles” Dennis tells us enthusiastically. “Hendrik isn’t bothered by the high temperatures. He has been in Spain long enough to have gotten used to it. But we do often go and ride very late. It is common that I do not get back home until eleven thirty or later in the summer”.
Dennis rides English style dressage with Hendrik. “In Spain it is more mixed: some ride English style, others ride Spanish style. Especially the ‘Pura Raza Español’ (or PRE) is used for Spanish style dressage, with their typical saddles and bridles”, he says. “I haven’t started competing yet, but there are competitions. Those trials are like those in The Netherlands” according to Dennis, who adds that there are also differences. “You are not allowed to have someone read you trial. Also, you have different types of competitions, like: social, regional, national and international. The classifications are also different, not the B, M, L, Z levels that we are used to in The Netherlands” he notes. Keeping horses in Spain is often tied to bull fighting. “Bull fights are for me still a bit of a culture shock. Personally, you will never see me at one, but for a large group of the population it is part of their culture”. Also, in Spain it is still optionally allowed to brandish your horse when you get a foal. “In The Netherlands that is now unimaginable” ensures Dennis.
It have been turbulent times for everyone because of the Corona virus, also for Dennis. “In Spain we were not allowed to go out onto the street during the lockdown period, except to walk your dog within a 1-mile radius, for grocery shopping or to go to the pharmacy. This meant that I was not able to see Hendrik for over 7 weeks” a very difficult time for Dennis “that to me was much worse than not being able to leave the house. I have a good relationship with the owners of the riding school who sent occasional videos, but it is still very hard not to be able to see your horse in the flesh. You want to see for yourself that he is alright” tells Dennis. “After 4 weeks of lockdown there was a moment that Hendrik needed new horse shoes. Hendrik has some issues with this, fears that he must have built up in the past, so I always need to be there when the farrier visits. I was able to arrange for the horse to be placed outside the grounds of the boarding stable. The farrier could attend to him there and I was allowed to join for a while. Hendrik was however taken away to his stable immediately after and I had to go back home” continues Dennis, who after the lockdown initially was only able to go and see his horse under some strict conditions. “Providing that I carried papers from the Spanish horse-riding federation proving that I was a member and riding in competitions the police would let me pass. First time I saw him I just hugged Hendrik for half an hour and didn’t want to let go of him. During that time, I had a lot of support from Dutch people in one of the Facebook groups that I am in” he explains gratefully.
Promoting the Friesian horse
A Friesian horse really stands out and gets noticed in Spain. “I often have to explain that he comes from The Netherlands. Sometimes people ask me if there are Friesians with other colours” says Dennis amused. “But very often they give me complements about Hendrik. After the lockdown lots more people than normal were taking walks on the path near the riding school. Not everyone was pleased that there were also horses on the same narrow path. But where other riders were getting negative remarks, I only got positive ones about Hendrik, about how amazing he looked. People even wanted to take pictures with him. Occasionally I let people I trust take a little ride around the ring on Hendrik. Even my riding instructor says that she would like to have a Friesian now. In short, the Friesian horse is very popular in Spain” Dennis continues, who in the meantime does his best to promote the Friesian horse on several social media platforms. “On TikTok (@FriesianHendrik) we now have more than 12,000 followers who daily ask me questions about Friesians or where they could ride one in Spain. I then always recommend them to contact Frisones de la Cruz. There they have some amazing Friesian horses, but of course my Hendrik is my Hendrik and no horse can beat him”.
Approx. 250 registered Friesian horses in Spain
In Spain there are an estimated 500 to 800 Friesian horses. About 250 of those are fully registered with the KFPS/ANPRF. At this moment there are between three and five official breeding stables, of which Frisones de la Cruz is one. In past years there were four registered breeding stallions, but currently there are none in Spain. Since 2008 official examinations of Friesian horses take place in Spain. These examinations are organised by the KFPS and ANPRF in association with Frisones de la Cruz once every two years. Regrettably the 2020 examination had to be cancelled on account of the Corona pandemic.