The Gypsy Vanner Horse - A Flash of Magic by Many Names

ArticleHow to - General Equine AdviceTuesday 17 January 2012

The Gypsy Vanner Horse® is a registered trademark and brand name given to the Gypsy Cob for the promotion of the horse by the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society.  It is a very flashy and colorful horse with full mane, full tail and lots of feather that has been described as a "people-sized drafter". It is a horse that has the heavy boning and the broad, compact body of a draft horse, but on a smaller scale than the larger draft breeds in its ancestry.

They are also known as Gypsy Horses, Coloured Horses or Irish Tinkers.  In the United States, it is known as a Gypsy Cob or Gypsy Vanner; and in its homelands of England and Ireland, it is known simply as a “cob” or “proper cob”. However, the Gypsy Vanner differs from both the Cob and the Tinker in that it is much more selectively bred, and generally a higher quality of horse.  A related type is the Drum Horse, which is not a Vanner, but which is generally a cross between a Gypsy Cob and either a Shire or a Clydesdale.   All registries for this breed, whether they call the breed a Vanner, Cob, or just Gypsy Horse, have the same visual standards, but the wording will vary.

The Gypsy Vanner was bred by the gypsy travelers of Ireland and Great Britain who had the desire to create the perfect caravan horse for pulling their colorful covered vardos that carried the families and their belongings in a fancy fashion. In fact, the word "Vanner" in the English Chambers dictionary is defined as "a horse suitable to pull a caravan."  “It’s a proper Vanner” is a common Gypsy comment when seeing an admired horse.  They designed the breed to be half black and half white; and they wanted them to have a "WOW" factor so that families could have competitions on whose stallion was the finest.  While most Gypsies no longer live in vardos, they still keep and breed the Vanner as a symbol of status and a source of pride among the Romany Gypsies.

Since the Gypsies have kept little to no written records over the last century, the determining the breeds used to create the Vanner had to come from verbal discussions with many of the older Gypsy men throughout Europe.  In theory, the Gypsies developed the Vanner from a combination of British, Welsh and Irish breeds including the Clydesdale, Shire, Friesian,  Dales pony, Highland Pony and the Fells Pony, all which have the wonderfully docile and kind personality of the traditional cold-blooded draft horse.  But the ancestry may include other breeds, even non-drafts.  The Romany Grai, another Gypsy-bred horse which has a lighter frame, is reputed to have Fells Pony ancestors. The Fells Pony is smaller and less heavily built than the Dales Pony, which it is closely related to.  But it is the extent of other breeds in the pedigree that separates the Gypsy Horse from other lighter Gypsy-bred horses, such as the Romany Grai and the horses the Gypsies call “trotters”.

The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society (GVHS) is the registry studbook for the breed and is the first in the world for the Gypsy Horse.  It was originally founded by Dennis and Cindy Thompson in 1996, but is now run by a Board of Directors.  The GVHS remains quality based, culturally sensitive and socially responsible to one of the least understood societies, the Romany Gypsy.  The breed standards were approved in detail by a Gypsy who has maintained the same genetics for over 56 years. He has raised several of the most famous sires and dams of the breed and was instrumental in choosing the name Gypsy Vanner Horse® for his breed. His name is Fred Walker, "King of the Coloured Horses." The registry is currently open to any horse that meets the seven points of conformation as described on the GVHS website. The Gypsy Horse is rapidly gaining recognition as a breed. In 2004, it was accepted by the United States Dressage Foundation All Breeds Program.

These horses can now be found in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France and a few other countries. There are approximately 9,000-10,000 Gypsy Horses in the United Kingdom, but only around 20% of those are the selectively bred Gypsy Vanner; and of the 1700 Gypsy Horses in the United States, only about 950 of those are Gypsy Vanners.   

Since they were created for pulling wagons, they excel at being driven, but they are also being used in dressage, Western riding, hunt seat, low jumping, and have even been used on occasion for cutting cattle. Since the rider is relatively close to the ground mounting is easier, so pleasure riding by children is common.   Thus, while not a high performance horse with respect to speed or agility, he makes a very stable all-around mount well suited to most equestrian sports.

The Gypsy Vanner, or Gypsy Cobb horse as it is sometimes referred to, has a build that is powerful and compact with a short neck. The horse should have a short back and a very well rounded hindquarter with a crease down the center of the hindquarter that is called "Apple Butt."  It is the short neck and back that give the animal the power to pull the vardos.  The breed is known for an abundance of hair and feather, and should also have a very wide, thick tail that is not set too high, and that may eventually drag on the ground.  The hair is straight and silky, with some wave or curl being acceptable, but not kinky.  Double manes are common, but not required.  The profuse abundance of mane, tail and feather give this animal a magical, mystical look, true to the Gypsy heritage and traditions.  

The Gypsy Vanner Horse® is not a color breed, it is a breed based on conformation and body type.  All colors, markings and patterns found in the genome of the horse are acceptable, including two variations of pinto coloring and lemon. The more white a horse has, the more fancy and valuable the horse is.  According to the British Gypsy heritage of the breed, the names of the four color categories and patterns are a bit different from those of most horses and are less restrictive in their descriptions.

The most common color patterns are Piebald and Skewbald.  Piebald is a black and white horse, while Skewbald covers three possible combinations of red and white; brown and white; and also tri-color, such as a bay or buckskin with white. "Odd Coloured" is the term used for any other color not defined by Piebald or Skewbald and a Blagdon is a solid colored horse with white splashed up from underneath.

The Gypsy Vanner ranges anywhere from 12.2 to 16 hands with the average around 14.3 hands; but there is no height limit at either end of the spectrum and all sizes are equally acceptable and judged the same in shows.  At one time there were three height classifications that you may still run across.  A Mini Gypsy is under 14 hands; 14 hands to 15.2 hands is the Classic Gypsy; and any horse over 15.2 hands was referred to as a Grand Gypsy.  But in 2006 the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society changed this classification, so all sizes are now just called Gypsy Vanner.  They usually weigh between 1,100 to 1,700 pounds.
Because the Gypsy Horse lived and worked closely with the entire Gypsy family, their lifestyle could not tolerate animals that may endanger lives or property, therefore any ill-tempered horse was removed immediately. The result of culling for disposition has led to the Gypsy Horse being extremely gentle and one of the most docile horses in the world. Gypsy children are often found crawling over and around the Gypsy Vanners.  In addition, with the nomadic nature of the Gypsy peoples, their horses had to be adaptable to varying climates, terrains and living conditions so it is extremely sound and easy to maintain.

With the extravagant feathering and bold coloring typical of the breed, the appearance of the Gypsy Vanner Horse® evokes joy in all who see this incredibly gentle and intelligent animal.

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