BAY LAKE - It began with a Christmas gift. One that a horse lover may dream of for decades.
That single gift of a black Morgan gelding, expected to be a hobby, grew into a business with international ties.
Brenda and Timmy Johnson, Crow Wing County residents for 26 years, now have a thriving breeding center with Friesian stallions from the Netherlands. From the days of that single Morgan horse, the Johnson's horse farm now has a steady population of 30 to 40 horses.
Giant white pines provide a backdrop to the farm's multiple buildings and corrals. Muscular coal-black stallions with the iconic long, curly, profuse Friesian manes and feathered ankles walked quietly beneath the summer sun.
Their calm demeanor is also one of the hallmarks of the breed, which carries its name from Friesland - one of the 12 provinces in the Netherlands. The horses served in the Roman Legions. The Friesian Horse Association of North America reported the infusion of Arabian blood, through Spanish Andalusian horses helped the breed evolve to horses known for high-knee action, a small head and craning neck.
Brenda Johnson said it's believed the American Morgan horse breed may have included Friesian bloodlines. After starting with the horse hobby, the Johnsons found they loved it.
"I found I had a real knack for stallions," Timmy Johnson said.
That interest led to 19 trips to the Netherlands where they hand-picked young horses and imported them.
The Johnsons reported they were the first farm in Minnesota to have Friesians.
"They are calm," Timmy Johnson said. "They think and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful."
The Johnsons' breeding stallions include a Baroque style they remain fond of that stands out with a high-headed, strong-bodied horse with an arched neck. They said the Baroque style is under pressure with the breed as people look for a taller, sporty horse for higher level dressage.
The Friesian breed has strict guidelines in the approval of stallions. The Johnsons' Excalibur Breeding Center, in Bay Lake Township, has six breeding stallions. Their stallions come from known bloodlines from the Netherlands, Teunis 332 Sport, Tsjalke 397, Ulke 338 and Feitse 293. The demand for their stallions is so strong, they ship semen daily and have foals in 49 states. Alaska remains the sole holdout.
In the past Friesians came in multiple colors, but then were bred to be exclusively black. The Johnsons see a signature opportunity to combine their purebred Friesian stallions with colored crosses - like Saddlebreds or Dutch Warmbloods - to create a show horse with plenty of chrome. Excalibur specializes in Friesian crosses, the Baroque horses and warmbloods.
As the Johnsons walked along their property, nearby a long-legged new foal, a Friesian cross with a pinto Warmblood mother, napped in the hay.
The foal, with its striking brown and white, is what the Johnsons see for the future and what they want to produce in Friesian crosses.
When the Johnsons first got into the breed, there were a limited number of Friesians in the United States. They had to travel to Michigan to get their first horses. Now people turn to them to buy and sell Friesians.
Their customers have included Amish in Eastern Pennsylvania. A large number of Excalibur's clients use their horses for dressage, a competitive sport highlighting training, athletic movement and the connection of horse and rider. The Friesian's calm demeanor stands out in that competitive arena.
At the Johnsons' farm, five stallions are within 10 feet of each other. Timmy Johnson said they are calm, level-headed and fun to have around.
The breed itself was in danger of extinction after the first and second world wars. Three stallions were saved and the breed brought back from disappearing.
The Johnsons started with three imported stallions.
Brenda Johnson said she was star-struck on her first trip to the Netherlands. The tidy farms were all around with Friesian horses. Streets were cobblestone. With the repeated visits, she said she's made a lot of friends there.
At home Timmy Johnson enjoys spending his time with the stallions. The farm provides a home to a cockatoo, a couple of dogs and a number of cats - including one abandoned kitten they bottle fed to keep alive.
The Johnsons said no matter what the future holds, they can't imagine a life without horses.
Eight to 10 years ago, business was flourishing. Then the recession came and the Johnsons lowered stud fees and took in more mares. Stud fees now range from $650 to $850 typically. Some of their foals are purchased before their birth. Normally the foals leave Excalibur when they are 4 months old.
At Excalibur, a breeding mount is used to collect semen and keep stallions from being inadvertently injured by a mare. Timmy Johnson said most of their stallions don't know what a mare is. Although one needs to have a mare look through the window to help with mood.
After 30 years, the Johnsons can't imagine a different path than the one they started down with a black Morgan gelding all those years ago.
"It's a great life," Timmy Johnson said. "It really is."