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All breeds of horses have a history, whether it be ancient or modern and the Gypsy Horse is no different. His History is long, interesting and to some, a little romantic. However there was nothing really romantic, about the way early Gypsies travelled, lived and died. Regardless of the many names by which the horse is known, on this site he will be referred to as a Gypsy Horse.
While some Gypsies prefer to call themselves "Travellers" and others "Romany" or "The Rom", here, with no disrespect meant, we will simply refer to them as "Gypsies". Remember those known as Irish Tavellers - sometimes also called Tinkers, and those known as Romanies, were two very different races and peoples and not related to each other in any way. In fact they were enemies for generations. We will speak of that elsewhere on this site.
The Gypsy Horse has been well known and bred by the Gypsies in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, for at least a hundred years or more. In recent years, he has also become widely known in European countries outside the Gypsy communities. Even though there are probably 14,000 or more in the US now, the breed here can still be considered in it's infancy.
While most Gypsies could not read or write, many bloodlines, horses of the breed and their ancestry was well known and passed down through generations.
Many Gypsy families of generations ago, prided themselves on knowing the ancestry of their horses, as much as those alive today. The knowledge and accuracy of the bloodlines and especially the greats of the breed, is a huge source of pride among them.
That said however, it must also be noted that not all Gypsy Horses alive today do have a known or easily traceable history. Many Gypsies didn't actually name their horses at all so many were known by names which sometimes just described their colour, markings or quality etc. Many were named according to who happened to own them at the time. Upon being sold, some were then given names very unlike what which they had previously been known. So The Old Spot Mare might later have become named, Ebony Emily and Tom's Stallion might have been changed to Bill's Old Horse.
Certainly a difficult task to trace for those of us interested in Pedigrees. Purchasing one from a reliable current breeder, or directly from a Gypsy family who have been breeding these horses for generations and are well known, regardless of whether or not you are able to write a pedigree with several generations of known names, you probably have a real Gypsy Horse of true Gypsy Horse ancestry.
With the advent of DNA testing, many have come to light as not being of the pedigree they were said to be at time of sale. So when importing or purchasing imported stock, be sure to demand proof of parentage with DNA. Many of today's horses have DNA already on file across the world.
Early Gypsies soon discovered what was necessary in the horses they owned and used. In the very early days, Gypsies travelled using flat carts, on which they placed their tents. At that time, the horses they used didn't have to be particularly large. They actually liked them to have a little pulling power, but much speed, so they could get around more quickly.
Later, when the Gypsies turned to living wagons, they obviously needed heavier and stronger horses to pull the load. Those horses had to be strong enough to pull their caravans (vardos) and these vehicles weighed an enormous amount. Just imagine the weight, not only of the caravan itself, but the fact that it carried everything the entire family owned. All clothing, pots and pans, dishes, linens and most even had pot belly and/or cooking stoves. Most caravans weighed so much, that everyone except the very young and elderly, walked beside them as they journeyed from one place to another. Most always, the men walked alongside to their next possible source of income or campsite for the night.
So to be able to pull all this, their horses had to have solid, weighty bodies, huge bone, thick necks, wide chests and a great layback of shoulder. They had to have strong legs and large feet. They had to be unflappable in any situation and absolutely solid and reliable in their interaction with humans, including children. They had to be tough enough to exist in the harshest of weather and often on meagre food sources. They had to be able to pull a caravan all day if necessary covering sometimes 40 miles or more on hard roads or muddy lanes. They had to have a willing work ethic and always do what was required of them. In the past, most existed on what was found growing along country roads when the family camped for the night, so they had to be what we refer to today, as easy keepers
To meet their requirements, it is without doubt that when the families moved into the heavy vardos from the flat carts, there was some introduction of Shire and Clydesdale. Earlier many pony breeds had gone into the horse the Gypsies desired and needed. In the Northumberland area and counties thereabouts, there was a horse known as the Gallower.
This was a said to be a pony size breed, possessing tremendous power and incredible speed. The Gallowers were used for friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly, races within communities. Gallowers were a type, mostly found in certain areas and were often known as "Scotch Galloways". These fine, sure-footed ponies, were used extensively in the lead mines, being forced to work hauling great loads, in the most difficult of terrain. They were the ancestors of the now well-known Fell Pony which is thought by most to be part of the mix which made up the original Gypsy Horses. Many Gallowers were also pacers and there is little doubt that the nomadic peoples, while passing through those areas, picked up some of these horses to breed within their own stock. This probably accounts for the fact that within some Gypsy Horse lines today, one still can find a few who pace. This is not considered a fault since genetically it is obviously well entrenched within the breed.
One might question where the spots and other patterns originated. My personal thought, is that years ago, Shires came in all colours and spotted Shires were plentiful and prized. It is only more recently, that the Shires have not been allowed to possess spotting. So with that in mind, since Shires were thought to be a huge part of the original mix - then it's quite probable that that is where some of the spotted genes appeared. Also, there were many spotted ponies in the UK and no doubt some were introduced into the breed early on, to once again, produce spotted horses. While in early days, all colours were prized if the horse itself was good, as time went on, the Gypsies began to favour more, the coloured horses of Black and White or Bay and White. However, the breed can be found in all colours. In the early days, Gypsies did not necessarily breed for feather. Many of their horses had it, due to their background of Shire and Clydesdale, but the Gypsies never bred for it. Heavy feather was too much of a problem for them and gathered too much mud since much of the time, they travelled on unpaved, muddy roads and lanes. It is only in more recent times, maybe 50 years or so, where heavy feather has been known and more desired in the breed.
Some of the great horses who in turn produced great offspring, were remembered by the Gypsies, generation after generation, even until today. Their Ancestry was known throughout all the Gypsy communities. Certain great Stallions were used on their best mares and also on mares owned by Gypsies in other communities. And so, as time went on, the breed developed into the horse we know today, as The Gypsy Horse or Gypsy Cob. Their being bred in a fairly small geographical area, also ensured their blood was not infused with that of other, lighter type horses and breeds. While Gypsy Horses were found and bred through the ages, of many sizes, they all had in common, those attributes prized and indeed desired, in the Gypsy communities. The Gypsies also knew their various types of horses, by different names. We will go into that another time.
Lucky indeed are we today, who can say we own a truly unique breed of horse, who's ancestry and history is not lost in time, but treasured greatly by those who know him. A great debt of gratitude is owed to those men of old, who maybe made the perfect horse.
So let us not try to change him. Let us not try to change him into a more refined horse, with lighter bone and a more slender body to meet current trends or demands.
If the public desires a more refined coloured horse, then advise him of the many light horse breeds, who can be found in brightly coloured overcoats. And for goodness' sake don't follow the trend in Europe, by shaving off their feather for the show ring!
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.