Lia, a curious Friesian mare, pokes her head out of her stall as Josh and Raena Stibal make their way down a long hallway in the middle of the barn at Legendary Friesians. The other horses follow suit, greeting their caretakers with a nuzzle or offering up their forelock for a scratch as their long, flowing hair falls in front of their eyes. Even at a standstill, these are majestic creatures.
Their all-black coats make for a striking presence, coupled with silky raven manes and tails that most women would be jealous of. The Stibals lead all 11 horses in pairs to nearby pastures for their daily exercise. A few break into a run, kicking up snow with powerful legs that carry them with ease around the field.
It’s the beauty of the Friesian that first captured Josh’s attention and spurred him to attend his first keuring seven years ago to learn more about the breed. At a keuring, judges grade horses on movement, composition and temperament.
“They’re bred to be a very docile horse,” he said of the Friesian, “they’re supposed to be like giant labradors.”
“They’d sit on your lap if they could,” Raena added with a laugh.
When Josh, Raena and his mother Vianna Stibal decided to take the leap into horse breeding, they wanted to start with the best of the best.
“We bought what they call a model mare — the top 1 percent of the Friesian world,” he said.
But despite all indications otherwise, the road ahead would not be an easy one.
That first mare arrived from California pregnant with a foal. She hadn’t eaten during the journey, and continued to avoid food for the following day or two, prompting the couple to take her to the vet for further examination. The vet found that a corn-based mold called aflatoxin was the culprit behind her weakened state, but it was too late for the foal. The Stibals took the infant horse home and buried it in their backyard.
A few days later, the foal’s mother joined her baby.
“We were wondering if we wanted to go through that again,” Josh said.
After the one-two punch of back-to-back losses, he and his wife decided to push on and encouraged Vianna to invest in two more Friesians.
Over the coming months and years, the couple learned everything they could about training techniques, whether that came from attending more keurings, Parelli training workshops or speaking with other Friesian owners. Training is necessary for success at a keuring, where the goal is to accentuate the horse’s natural movements without over-training them.
“That’s the way our horsemanship is, we just never close our mind off from anything,” Josh said.
He and Raena manage a group of 11 Friesians now, and are expecting two more foals this May.
“Overall, our breeding operation is designed to increase the greatness of the Friesian line,” Josh said. “If everybody had an opportunity to be around a horse, or a Friesian in our opinion above everything else, it would make a more well rounded person — especially kids. It changes their lives to be responsible for something, to that level and to have that affection returned to you in the same level that a Friesian horse will do … These are not just run them into the ground animals — they’re these majestic, beautiful creatures.”
Josh has found both challenge and gratification in working with the Friesian horse.
“In today’s generation, you put off your homework for 15 minutes to play your video game,” he said. “You can’t put anything off here. If you do, something suffers.”
Sometimes that work ethic translates into long days for he and Raena, especially when it comes time for foals to be born. The couple can tell when their mares are within 10-12 hours of giving birth and will, quite literally, camp out in the barn, waking every hour to check on the expectant mothers.
The horses have taught him other skills, too.
He’s had to learn to ride dressage — an intricate sport where horses perform a series of movements with minimal cues — and how to cater his training approach to his horses’ individual personalities. The lessons he’s learned on horseback have crossed over into other areas of his life. Josh also coaches Swan River fifth through eighth grade basketball, with help from Raena.
“The Friesian horse has made me a better overall coach too, because you’re not sticking to a system,” he said. “Each person has their own unique personality. Your job as a coach is just to help them grow their personalities and grow into who they’re supposed to become.”
Working with animals also brought Josh back to his farm-life roots.
“I tried my hands at a lot of different things and I found success, but never a calling — This is home,” Josh said. “It’s the same thing, but it’s not the same everyday. There’s always something different that comes up and there’s so many different personalities in terms of just the farm itself, like the way things grow and the way animals move. I was always glad to be back to be a part of that. It’s always a new challenge.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.