Gypsy Horse

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The Gypsy Horse (USA, UK, AU), also known as the Gypsy Cob (UK, NZ), Coloured Cob (UK, Ireland, parts of Continental Europe), Gypsy Vanner (US, CAN), Irish Cob, and Tinker Horse (parts of Continental Europe), is a horse breed originally developed by Romanichal peoples living in the British Isles. As recently as 1996, the Gypsy horse had no stud book or breed registry. However, it is now considered a breed with multiple worldwide breed associations dedicated to it.  It is a smalldraught breed, popularly recognized for its abundant leg feathering and common black and white, or “piebald”, coat colour, though it can be of any other colour as well. Breeders in the U.K. compliment a good example of the breed, which has powerful muscling, correct leg conformation of a pulling horse, and flashy action, with the term “proper cob”.
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Around 1850, the Romanichal of Great Britain began to use a distinct type of horse to pull the vardoes, chimneyed living waggons, in which they had just begun to live and travel. The distinct colour and look of the modern breed were refined by the Romanichal in the period following World War II. American breeders began to import Gypsy horses and created its first registry in 1996. A related sub-type, the Drum Horse, is a larger animal of similar appearance. Today, the Gypsy horse is still bred in the UK by a number of established breeders, most of whom also exhibit and sell their horses at traditional fairs.

In the United States, horse show competition for Gypsy horses is increasing each year, and several Gypsy breed registries have gained affiliate recognition with the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) andUnited States Dressage Federation (USDF).

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Feather on the lower legs
The Gypsy horse is widely known for its piebald, or black and white pinto coat colour, a common but not sole colouration for the breed. However, Gypsy horses may be of any coat colour; none of the breed registries incorporates a colour requirement into its breed standard. Since the breed’s origin is British, colour names are typically given in British English in all English language registries, even in the United States, such as the piebald and skewbald colour descriptors added to the tobiano spotting patterns of the Gypsy.
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All Gypsy registries accept solids or blagdons in their purebred stud books.
Another British word used to describe a particular colour pattern is blagdon, describing “a solid colour” with white “splashed up from underneath”.
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Hock Set in a weanling Gypsy Horse


Historic image of a Romanichal family, vardo, and horse
The Gypsy Horse was bred by the Romanichal of Great Britain to pull the vardoes in which they lived and traveled. The Romanichal had arrived in the British Isles by 1500 A.D., but they did not begin to live in vardoes until around 1850. Prior to that, they traveled in tilted carts or afoot and slept either under or in these carts or in small tents. The peak usage of the Gypsy caravan occurred in the latter part of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th.
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Historic image of a Romanichal family, vardo, and horse
Some aspects of training, management, and characteristics of a horse used to pull a vardo are unique. For example, the horse is trained not to stop until it reaches the top of a hill; otherwise it may not be able to get started again. Training begins at a very early age with the young horse tied “with a short rope from the head to the trace-ring on the collar of the shaft-horse”, and led along on the off side.  An old hat is sometimes placed on a fearful horse’s head so as to keep him from seeing back over the top of his blinkers at the waggon looming at his back.

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Gypsy Vanner Horse.
A horse used to pull a vardo which was a permanent home was usually in very good condition due to a combination of exercise, grazing a variety of greens in the hedgerows, and good quality care; the horse was considered part of the family. Sincee the family’s children lived in close proximity to the horse, one having “an unreliable temper could not be tolerated”.
The Gypsy Horse was also used to pull the “tradesman’s cart . . . used in conjunction with the caravan as a runabout and work vehicle and whilst on a journey”. This is also known as a flatbed or a trolley, and examples appear in the annual London Harness Horse Parade.
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“Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans” by Vincent van Gogh.
The Gypsy Horse breed as it is today is thought to have begun to take shape shortly after World War II ended. When the British Romanichal had first begun to live in vardoes around 1850, they used mules and cast off horses of any suitable breed to pull them. These later included “coloured” horses, piebalds and skewbalds, which had become unfashionable in mainstream society and were typically culled.  Among these were a significant number of coloured Shire horses. Many of these ended up with Romanichal breeders, and by the 1950s, they were considered valuable status symbols within that culture.

 Spotted (leopard complex) horses were very briefly in fashion around the time of World War II, and this coat pattern can be found in the breed to this day. However, the spotted horse quickly went out of fashion in favor of the coloured horse, which has retained its popularity until the present day. The initial greater height of the breed derived from the influence of both Clydesdales and Shires, both of which possess “feather”, long hair starting at the knee or hock and growing down to cover the hooves. Feather became and still remains highly valued.
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Modern Gypsy horse and a bow-top vardo, UK
In the formative years of the Gypsy Horse, the Romanichal bred not only for specific colour, profuse feather, and greater bone, but also for increased action and smaller size. To increase action at the trot, they first tried Hackney Pony breeding, but this blood reduced both feather and bone. The Romanichal therefore turned to the Section D Welsh Cob to add a more animated trot to the breed without loss of other desired traits. Another trend in breeding was a steady decrease in height, a trend still present among many Romanichal breeders. In the 1990s, the breed’s average height still was in excess of 15 hands (60 inches, 152 cm), but horses of 14.3 to 15 hands (59 to 60 inches, 150 to 152 cm) were beginning to be viewed as more desirable, primarily for economic reasons.

John Shaw, a carriage painter from Milnrow, Rochdale, Lancaster, was quoted in 1993 as saying, “Very big, hairy coloureds are now in vogue. They are status symbols . . . but they are not really an economical animal. They cost too much to feed, harness and shoe. . . and they don’t stand up to the work. For that you want the vanner type of 14.3 to 15 hands (59 to 60 inches, 150 to 152 cm)”; larger horses require more fodder than smaller ones, as well as larger harnesses and horseshoes.
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A rominichal horse fair, UK. Many Gypsy horses exported from the UK do not have written pedigrees or registration
The breed most used by the Romanichal breeders to set not only the size but also the type of the future Gypsy Horse was the Dales Pony, described as “thick, strong, . . . active yet a great puller”. The Dales, a draught pony, preserved the bone, feather, and pulling capabilities derived from the Shire and Clydesdale breeds but in a smaller and therefore more economical package. The Dales and, to a lesser extent, the Fell Pony interbred with the Shire and Clydesdale provided the basis of today’s Gypsy Horse.
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Since the Romanichal people who developed the Gypsy Horse  communicated pedigree and breed information orally, information on foundation bloodstock and significant horses within the breed is mostly anecdotal. The two foundation sires of the breed are reportedly known as The Old Coal Horse and Sonny Mays’ Horse. A tentative pedigree of the Coal Horse, who supposedly earned his name by pulling a coal wagon in Dublin, Ireland, at some time in his life, has been pieced together from oral tradition. It is said that The Coal Horse goes back to a grey Shire stallion known as Shaw’s Grey Horse of Scotland. The origins of the breed appear to be Irish, and the name Connors appears prominently in the breed history. In a poorly recorded interview, well-respected breeder Henry Connors gives some of the lineage of the horse. It includes horses with names such as Ben’s of Bonafay, Jimmy Doyle’s Horse of Ballymartin, Henry Connors’ White Horse, The Lob Eared Horse, The Sham Horse, and Old Henry.
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Gypsy Vanner Horse Society
By oral tradition, The Coal Horse sired, among many others, a stallion named The Roadsweeper.  Roadsweeper was brought from Ireland to England and eventually belonged to breeder Robert Watson, for whom he sired, among others a notable sire known as Robert Watson’s Old Horse, sire of famed contemporary stallion The Lion King.
The Irish cob can be traced to the 18th century but also was long considered a type, not a breed, and varied somewhat in characteristics, though generally was bred for light draft and farm work but was also capable of being ridden. It originated from crossing Thoroughbred, Connemara pony and Irish Draught horses.
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UK-bred “Gypsy Wagon Horse” mare and foal at an exhibition in Wales, UK.
Beginning in 1996, a series of registries, associations, and societies was formed in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of these with their foundation dates are as follows: Gypsy Vanner Horse Society (1996), The Irish Cob Society Ltd. (1998), Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association (2002), Gypsy Cob Society of America, later the Gypsy Horse Registry of America (2003), Australasian Gypsy Horse Society (2007), and the NZ Gypsy Cob Association (2012).
The first known Gypsy Horses to come to America arrived in 1997 and were imported by American discoverers of the breed Dennis and Cindy Thompson.  Notable among early importers was Black Forest Shires & Gypsy Horses (2000-2012) which imported around 1700 horses, primarily Gypsy Horses.

Gypsy Vanner Horses

Gypsy Vanner Horses

Since the Gypsy Horse had no registry prior to its entry into North America, horses’ provenances, including importer, are of particular importance to their owners.
All American registries, including the International Drum Horse Association below, employ the Animal Genetics Research Laboratory of the University of Kentucky as the repository of their registered horses’ DNA markers. Since the Gypsy Horse has had registries only recently, comparison of DNA markers is necessary to confirm parentage.
In its native Great Britain, the Gypsy is still being bred by a number of well-established Romanichal breeders, many of whose families have done so for several generations. And the trend of breeding down in size continues with 11- and 12-hand horses now common. Except for special occasions, these horses are typically not being used for their original purpose, pulling a living waggon, but are instead viewed in terms of heirloom bloodlines and are a source of great pride.
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An Irish cob
U.K. Romanichal breeders of the Gypsy Horse have typically called it simply “Cob” and “Coloured Cob” with a particularly good specimen being a “proper Cob”. However, the term cob, defined as a short-legged, stout horse, is a body type rather than a breed. As part of several efforts to have the Gypsy Horse recognized as a breed outside the Romanichal community, a more descriptive name was sought for it, starting in the 1990s.
The first known importers of the Gypsy Horse to North America, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, viewed the breed as unnamed and wanted it to be given what they viewed as a proper name.  For this, they selected “Vanner”, which they had seen used in reference to a Gypsy Horse in Edward Hart’s 1993 book, and they incorporated it into the name of the American registry they founded in 1996, the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society.
Gypsy Vanner horse stallion
Gypsy Vanner horse stallion
The term “vanner” dates to at least 1888 and, prior to the Thompsons’ adoption of it, also referred to a type of horse rather than to a distinct breed. According to the OED, a “vanner” is “a light horse suitable for drawing a small van”, where “van”, appearing in print with this meaning for the first time in the early 1800s, is “a covered vehicle chiefly employed for the conveyance of goods, usually resembling a large wood box with arched roof and opening from behind, but varying in size (and to some extent in form) according to the use intended”. Thus “vanner” was derived from the word “van”, which the OED states was derived from “caravan”. Since this latter term was not applied to a “chimneyed house on wheels”, or vardo, until 1872, the term “vanner” has no inherent connection with the Romanichal.
Writing in 1897, M. Horace Hayes describes the “light vanner” as a horse of indeterminate breed “which we meet in vans, ‘buses and tram-cars”. It is in “a class intermediate between the light harness horse and the heavy draught horse”. Light vanners are thus “active, light cart horses that can trot freely and at fair speed”.
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Caravans at the Appleby Horse Fair.
Prior to the formation of the American registry in 1996, the term “vanner” appears in two printed sources in association with the Romanichal’s horse, both ascribing the vanner type to the horse. In 1979, Harvey describes a Romanichal-owned horse, most likely an ancestor of today’s Gypsy Horse and clearly a crossbred, as “[a] fair-sized vanner, about 15.2hh (15 1/2 hands) high, . . . [c]ross-shire, with a touch of Clydesdale? Lineage is often hard to trace.”[80] Publishing in 1993 in the first known acknowledgment of the Gypsy Horse as a distinct breed outside Romanichal culture, Hart employs the term three times in reference to a Gypsy Horse, identifying specific Gypsy Horses as vanners.
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Mare and Colt
Founded subsequently in 1998, 2002, and 2003, respectively, the Irish Cob Society Ltd. (ICS), the Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association (GCDHA), and the Gypsy Cob Society of America (GCSA)  referred to the breed as “Cob”, the name used by its Romanichal breeders. The Gypsy Horse Association (GHA), incorporated in 2008, employed the name “Gypsy Horse” and states on its website that the organization recognizes all breed names currently in use. Also in 2008, the GCSA renamed itself the Gypsy Horse Registry of America (GHRA).

Aside from Gypsy Cob, Gypsy Vanner, Gypsy Horse, and Irish Cob, the other name for the breed used by some registries is Tinker Horse. In Europe, the registries in Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands are in the Universal Equine Life Number (UELN) database under the breed names “Tinker Horse” and “Tinker Pony.”
A sampling of today’s U.K. breeders, many of whom are Romanichal, yields uses of “Cob” and of “Gypsy Horse”.
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Mounted bands of theHousehold Cavalry at Trooping the Colour 2007. The rider of the piebald drum horse works the reins with his feet to free his hands for the drum
The Drum Horse
The Drum Horse in America is patterned after and named for the Drum Horse traditionally attached to a British cavalry regiment. This horse’s purpose is to carry the large silver drums which are beaten to mark march time. The rider guides the horse with reins attached to his stirrups since his hands are needed to beat time on the drums. The horse selected for this position is usually a Clydesdale cross and has frequently been tobiano or sabino.
The American Drum Horse is treated as a breed in its own right or as a specific Gypsy cross, depending on registry. GCDHA treats the Drum as a breed and maintains a studbook for it. GCDHA’s Drum Horse breed standard specifies a Gypsy Horse cross with Clydesdale, Shire, and/or Friesian making up the other bloodlines. Solid and blagdon patterned horses are registered but only as foundation stock. Formed in 2006, the American Drum Horse Association, now the International Drum Horse Association, also treats the Drum as a breed but excludes Friesian bloodlines, allowing only Gypsy and Shire and/or Clydesdale and accepts solid and blagdon horses into its Drum Horse stud book. In 2010, the Gypsy Horse Association opened a Gypsy Heritage Division for horses of Gypsy heritage (i.e., non-purebred horses having some Gypsy blood). It maintains stud books for Drum Horses, which it treats as a specific Gypsy Horse crossbreed having no less than 25% Gypsy with Clydesdale, Shire, and/or Friesian constituting the rest, and for Gypsy crossbreeds other than Drum Horses.
One view of a Drum is as the return of colour (i.e., tobiano and skewbald coat patterns) to the Shire, from which it was culled when colour fell out of fashion in all U.K. breeds during the mid-1900s. This vision of the Drum implicitly excludes the Friesian as a direct constituent breed for the Drum.
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A Gypsy Vanner under saddle
In its native Great Britain, the Gypsy is shown and traded at traditional horse fairs, the best-known of which is Appleby Horse Fair. Some attendees of the fairs travel there in the traditional manner via horse-drawn vardos.  American photographer John S. Hockensmith documented such a journey in 2004, traveling with and photographing the Harker family’s 60-mile journey to Appleby in bow top living waggons. Accompanying the party was Jeff Bartko, one of the largest importers of Gypsy Horses to North America at that time. Capstick and Donogue also published photographs taken at Appleby Fair, some vintage, and Jones published photos taken at Yorkshire horse fairs, some from the early 1900s.

In North America, the first known show classes dedicated to the Gypsy Horse were held at the Colorado Horse Park on August 28–29, 2004, during its annual draft horse show, employing the breed standard of the Gypsy Cob Society of America, now the Gypsy Horse Registry of America The first Gypsy breed show, the Ohio State FairGypsy Vanner Horse Show, sponsored by the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, was held in 2005 in Columbus, Ohio. 2006 and 2007 Ohio State Fair Gypsy Vanner Horse Shows included the first classes for Drum Horses ever held in the U.S. Currently there are a number of breed shows for the Gypsy Horse, including some classes for the Drum Horse, in the U.S. and Canada.
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A Gypsy horse in harness
In the United States, the Gypsy Horse is being used in many equestrian sports, by amateurs and youths, and has done well in combined driving and dressage. A pair of Gypsies comprised a 2001 grand champion tandem driving team. In 2004, the United States Dressage Federation accepted the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society as an affiliate member in its All Breeds Program,  allowing horses registered with GVHS to win registry-specific awards in USEF-sanctioned and USDF-recognized dressage anddressage-related events. The Gypsy Horse Association was also accepted into the USDF’s All Breeds Program in 2008, and as of the beginning of 2011, four Gypsy and Drum Horse registries were participants in the program. In 2010, a Gypsy stallion earned a championship in the USDF’s All Breeds Program for his achievements in third level dressage.

Who doesn't love Gypsy Vanners?! Video credit: Mark J. Barrett

Posted by Horse Talk on Thursday, June 4, 2015

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