The Gypsy horse is a striking breed. Small but solid, and most often piebald or skewbald, they really turn heads! Their appearance isn’t their only quality – this breed is captivating in many ways.
The Horse with Three Names
The Gypsy horse is actually known by many different names – the Traditional Gypsy Cob, the Irish Cob, the Gypsy Vanner, the Tinker Horse and of course the original, the Gypsy horse.
Feathering: A Whole Range
Like many other distinctive heavier breeds such as the Clydesdale and the Shire, the Gypsy horse is known for having distinct feathering on its lower legs. What’s interesting, though, is that it is not a consistent trait and it’s not even a requirement for breed specifics.
The Irish Cob Society does not classify this trait as a breed standard per se, but rather gives a loose definition of amount of feathering allowed, from light enough to be almost nonexistent to heavy like a Clydesdale.
In the United States, Gypsy horses can compete is shows against other feathered breeds according to size classifications. The classes are divided into one for horses standing under 14.2 hands tall, and another for horses 14.2 hands and above.
Gypsy Horses and Coat Colors
While the most common image of a Gypsy horse is one of a black and white paint coat, it is actually not the only color. The Gypsy’s coat can come in a wide variety of colors including black, buckskin, palomino, gray and even cremello or perlino.
The reason for this wide range of acceptable colors is that the Gypsy horse is not a color breed, it is a body type.
Indeterminate Origin Story
The history of Gypsy horse is the subject of some debate. Some historians theorize they were first developed for food, while most others support the theory they were bred for pulling caravans and hauling heavy loads.
This theory is supported by the fact that, up until 1996, the word “vanner” itself was defined in the English Chambers Dictionary as meaning “a horse suitable to pull a caravan.”
Their origins get even more muddled when you consider that they were not traced and cataloged as a true breed until after World War II. Before then, the horse of the travelling caravans was less distinct, and the bloodlines weren’t tracked. Since the 1940s, though, the Gypsy horse has been treated and curated as a body type breed classification.
They are Still Newcomers to the States
Despite a lengthy British history, the first Gypsy horses didn’t make their way over to America until 1996, making them one of the newest breeds in America.
They are Excellent Family Horses
Gypsy horses are naturally even-tempered, calm and have a sweet disposition. They get along fantastically with children and are mild-mannered, patient mounts. They are also incredibly strong, making them equally capable of supporting a seasoned adult rider or pulling a cart for driving or for farm work.
They are also incredibly receptive to training, as they are both intelligent and motivated. In fact, you will often find a Gypsy horse or two among pony riding stables or trail ride groups. They can be easily trained to compete in the show ring or at driving.
A Variety of Uses for the Gypsy Horse
Gypsy horses in North America are used primarily for pleasure riding. They make great trail and driving horses, and have even been trained for disciplines such as dressage, jumping and western riding.
While the breed may be small, it is very versatile and Gypsy horses are a great option for owners who want a pretty horse capable of competing at the lower levels for a wide variety of equestrian disciplines.
All Elephants are Gray, but not All Gray Things are Elephants
We mentioned above that one of the names the Gypsy horse goes by is the Irish Cob. However, while a Gypsy Horse can be an Irish Cob, by registry definition, most Irish Cobs cannot be Gypsy horses. Gypsy horses will have breeding documentation, whereas working Irish Cobs do not necessarily have recorded pedigrees.
They Have Sub Breeds
Thanks to consistent cross breeding, there is a recognized and well known sub breed of the Gypsy horse called the Drum horse. It is a blend of a Gypsy horse, a Clydesdale and a Shire horse, so that the final genetic makeup ends up being somewhere in the range of 6.25% to 50% Gypsy horse.
Any percentage over 50% or under 6.25% and the horse is not registered as a Drum horse, but as a Foundation Drum horse, per the International Drum Horse Association rules.
The Drum horse itself was specifically bred to be a new type of heavy riding horse, and has resulted in a strong and trainable breed.
A Long Life Ahead
Gypsy horses can easily live into their 20’s when well cared for. Like most horses, lifespan is highly reliant on great nutrition and proper veterinary care and stable management.
The Eyes Have It
The Gypsy horse’s color variations also extend to a variety of eye colors, with some Gypsy horses possessing striking blue eyes. Piebald horses of the Gypsy variety often have silver eyes, but some newer registries have even begun being more selective against the unusual but beautiful blue-eyed trait.
Early Breed Training Sets the Stage
Going all the way back to the Victorian era, the foundation for a caravan horse traces to about 1850, when Roma Gypsies in Britain started living and traveling in multifunctional caravans known as vardoes.
Previously, they would travel in tilted, covered carts and pack tents, but with the advent of the vardo, they combined their living quarters and their means of travel in one, and the covered caravan image is much more widely thought of today.
The problem with this new vardo lifestyle, however, was the fact that they were far heavier to pull than a traditional cart. In order to be fully mobile, there needed to be horses trained and bred specifically to pull the vardoes.
The ideal horse was small and compact, yet strong, so as to be able to travel great distances and pull heavy loads without tiring. They also needed to be specially trained to pull this gigantic caravan, with special care being taught not to stop when going uphill until they bot to the very top!
Because of the immense weight of the caravan, once a horse stops, it is incredibly difficult in not impossible for them to be able to start up again – momentum and perseverance were essential to get up hills!
Training these smaller, stockier horses was carefully done, until the Gypsy horse became a unique breed of its own. Though at first many types of horses were used (or even, in some cases, mules or donkeys), as the years progressed the breeding became more selective.
By the 1950s, having a particular type of horse (mostly something mixed with a Shire horse) was considered a status symbol among the Roma people, around the same time spotted horses were well in fashion. The combination of these two tastes created what has become regarded as the modern-day Gypsy horse.
Because of the uncertain breed foundation and the varying characteristics for entry associated with being a body type breed versus a color breed, there are several similar Gypsy horse registries.
The Irish Cob Society was founded in 1998, the Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association was founded in 2002, the Gypsy Cob Society of America (later renamed the Gypsy Horse Registry of America) was founded in 2003 and The Gypsy Horse Association was founded in 2008, explicitly stating that it recognizes all breed names currently in use.
Though overall a robust breed, the thick coat and heavy mane of the Gypsy horse does require regular grooming. Dirt and mud can easily stick in the coarse coat of a Gypsy horse and dry out their hair. Regular curry combing is a necessity.
Similarly, their thick manes and tails can easily knot, so detangling, beginning at the ends and working up, is a regular part of Gypsy horse grooming.
What Gypsy Horses Eat
Gypsy horses eat the same diet as any other horse. This should include mostly forage in the form of hay or pasture, supplemented with grains, vitamins, and minerals when necessary.
Some Gypsy horse owners may supplement their horses with Biotin in an attempt to facilitate healthy hair growth.
A Pretty Penny
When it comes to price, Gypsy horses tend to fall on the higher end of the pricing scale. In researching this article, I was able to find foals in the $5,000 and up range. Adult gypsy’s, however, were typically in the $20,000 plus range.
Most of the trained, breeding quality Gypsy mares and stallions fell in the $20,000 – $45,000 price range.
Across the board, geldings seem to be cheaper than mares or stallions and Gypsy crosses are notably more affordable than purebreds.
The Gypsy horse is a unique “breed-that-is-not-quite-a-breed,” at least in the traditional sense. With a fascinating history and unique characteristics, they are a striking breed that is gaining in popularity, especially here in America.