HISTORY OF THE GYPSY HORSE (AKA Gypsy Cob/Gypsy Vanner)
Until recently, British Gypsies, known also as Travelers, traveled throughout Great Britain in brightly colored, intricately carved horse-drawn wagons called "caravans." Gypsy breeders envisioned an extravagantly colored, heavily feathered horse to pull and complement these bright wagons. This particular Gypsy-bred horse, which in the US has been named the Gypsy Horse, Gypsy Cob, or Gypsy Vanner, is the embodiment of that vision. Two stallions of Irish origin are reported to have originated the breed around 60 years ago. One stallion, Sonny Mays, was sired by a colored Irish stallion on a mare owned by a Traveler. The second, The Coal Horse, was born in Limerick, Ireland. These two stallions sired most of the foundation stallions of the breed.
In theory, the Gypsy Horse was bred from horses of three British draft breeds—the Shire, Clydesdale, and Dales Pony; in actuality, a Gypsy Horse’s ancestry may include other breeds, even non-drafts. The Romany Grai, another, more lightly framed Gypsy-bred horse, is reputed to have some Fells Pony ancestors. The Fells Pony is very closely related to the Dales Pony but is smaller and less heavily built. The extent of other breeds in its pedigree separates the Gypsy Horse from other lighter Gypsy-bred horses, such as the Romany Grai and the horses the Gypsies call “trotters”.
Because of the breed’s ancestry, Gypsy Horses possess characteristics from the Shire, Clydesdale, and Dales Pony, which is the heaviest pony breed in Great Britain. It is responsible for the breed’s small size and the dainty head seen on some Gypsy Horses. Typically, a Dales Pony stands between 14.0hh-14.2hh but weighs around 1,000 pounds. Since the Shire, Clydesdale, and Dales Pony all have feather, the Gypsy Horse does also. The source of the Gypsy Horse's extravagant coloring may be the Shire. Color was fairly common among Shires until around the 1900s, when solid coat patterns became fashionable.
What were the reasons for breeding a small draft horse such as the Gypsy Horse? One such reason, to have a horse showy enough to complement the brightly colored wagons driven by the Gypsy breeders, was given above. But the Gypsy Horse was not just for show; he performed a vital function—pulling his family’s wagon. For this type of work, a heavy draught horse such as the Shire, which typically stands between 16.2 and 17.2 hands and weighs between 2,240 and 2,688 lbs, was overkill. Even the smaller Clydesdale was too much horse for this task. An even smaller draft horse such as the Gypsy Horse was capable of performing the work needed and required only a fraction of the feed needed to maintain the massive Shire. This need to create a draft horse capable of performing the relatively light work of pulling a wagon and needing minimal feed was the primary reason for the creation of the horse we call the Gypsy Horse.
While the Gypsy Horse was bred for the road, the nomadic life of the road further shaped him, both physically and mentally. By necessity, he was hardy, thriving on uncertain forage found at campsites as the Gypsy caravans traveled from place to place. These campsites most likely provided no shelter for the horses; his profuse mane, tail, and feathers provided protection from the cold and wet. He was an integral part of his family and so had to be tolerant and kind. He had to able to be handled and managed even by the family’s children. Any horse which behaved aggressively was immediately banished.
The American discoverers of the breed were Dennis and Cindy Thompson. While driving through the English countryside in 1994, they glimpsed an extravagantly feathered black and white stallion and stopped to inquire about him. Two years later, they imported the first two Gypsy Horse mares, and founded the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, one of the breed's registries. Other registries include the Gypsy Horse Association, the Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association, and the Gypsy Cob Society of America. The Thompsons coined the name “Vanner” for this imported breed, and intended the name to refer not to all Gypsy-bred horses, but only to those which they felt embodied the vision of the breed’s originators, whom they sought to honor. Some lovers of this breed choose not to use the name “Vanner”, but rather prefer to use one of the other accepted names for the breed, Gypsy Cob or Gypsy Horse.
The take-home message is that all Gypsy Horses (AKA Gypsy Cobs/Gypsy Vanners) are “Gypsy-bred” horses, but not all “Gypsy-bred” horses are Gypsy Horses. The term "Gypsy-bred horse" refers to the range of horses bred by the Gypsies over the years - from the lighter boned Trotters & Romani Grai, to the beautiful "proper cobs" that have taken them many years to develop and perfect. The Gypsy Horse/Cob/Vanner breed is intended to identify the "finished product" of all of those years of breeding. These top Gypsy Horses (known simply as a "good horse" or "proper cob" to the Gypsies) are more expensive among both Gypsies and non-Gypsies. It is largely because the entire package has been such a labor to achieve - the heavy bone, profuse feather, compact draft size, docile temperament, incredible brains, long thick hair, "sweet" head, strong neck, short back, endurance, heartiness, willingness, breath-taking beauty, and a mystical distinct quality that only the best can reflect.
Despite its youth, the Gypsy Horse breed is rapidly gaining recognition. In 2004, the Gypsy Horse was accepted by the United States Dressage Foundation All Breeds Program so that individual Gypsy Horses can now win breed-specific awards for achievements in dressage activities sponsored by the USDF.