Heavy Horse Breeds
The Gypsy Vanner
The Gypsy Horse is 'flavour of the month' where horse breeds are concerned. Once a type rather than a breed and seen only in Ireland and England, they are now increasingly appearing at studs in Australia and the United States. Now there is no longer any prejudice against coloured horses and ponies, the flashy nature of the gypsy horse has great appeal to many horse-lovers.
The gypsy horse goes by a variety of names depending on the country and the area. Gypsy Cob, Tinker, Irish Cob, Gypsy Vanner and Coloured Cob are the most common names for this breed. A 'vanner' was once any horse that was good in harness. The word 'cob' generally refers to a solid, short-legged riding horse.
The Gypsy Cob has no particular breeds in its history although they had their origins with the Romany gypsy community. Most are coloured and thus are skewbald or piebald. Piebald horses are black and white, skewbalds are any other colour and white. Some gypsy cobs are black, brown and white and some are solid colours.
The breed also has many draught characteristics such as substantial bone and abundant feathering on the lower legs. The mane and tail are also profuse. Some believe that Shires, Clydesdales, Friesians, Fells and Dales have all had a hand in the development of the breed. The high action is certainly reminiscent of the Section C and D Welsh animals but coloured horses are expressly forbidden from the Welsh breeds, as they are from most draught breeds.
The gypsy cob is a powerful but compact horse with a short neck and back. Typically they measure between 14hh and 16hh although there is no height limit in the registry. The head should be in proportion to the body with a broad forehead, eyes set well apart and a generous jaw. The ears should be neat. The neck is slightly arched and well muscled.
The chest is broad and the ribs well-sprung. They have deep, strong shoulders that are well sloped. The withers are rounded. The feathering, mane and tail should be straight and silky. The legs have substantial bone with the cannons have a circumference of from 8 to 12 inches. The hooves are large. The gypsy cob generally has great endurance.
The Romanies needed their horses to be capable of pulling their covered wagons or vardo caravans in which they lived. Their horses were an important part of Romany life and the regular horse-fairs at places like Appleby or Stowe Fair in England were vital to the nomadic culture. Vanners were selectively bred so that any member of the family could handle, ride and drive the horse. Thus the gypsy cob temperament is exemplary. Piebalds and skewbalds, as well as being flashy and in keeping with the colourful vardos, are more visible on the road. Any bias that was once held against coloured horses has long gone.
Up until the late 20th century, bloodlines were kept secret and passed on by word of mouth. With the increasing interest in the breed, several breed registries have been organised. In North America, a 'mini' gypsy is under 14hh, a 'classic' gypsy from 14 to 15.2hh and a 'grand' gypsy from 15.2hh and over. The United States Dressage Federation recognised the breed in 2004. Australia has the Gypsy Vanner & Cob Society Inc to look after the interests of this exciting new breed.
The gypsy horse is regarded as a cold-blood and a slightly Roman (convex) nose is acceptable. Most gypsy cobs are lighter than the 'true' heavy breeds. It was bred for the purpose at the time with no real thought given to establishing a breed that bred true to type.
The gypsy cob is perhaps more a type than a breed. Its background is a mixture of pony breeds and draught breeds. In general they are docile and very reliable. Those that have Shire or Clydesdale bloodlines make good 'drum horses'.
There is a push to recognise the coloured Drum Horse types as a breed. These horses have been produced to carry the heavy drums (kettledrums) of the military on parade. The horses are guided by reins running to the rider's stirrups. They are expected to go quietly before thousands of onlookers who will be waving flags, cheering and shouting. Usually the drum horse and his rider are out on their own, not even surrounded by their own kind like the trumpeters' horses and those of the rank and file. Only a horse with a very steady disposition is suitable for such a role.
These drum horses are often called 'coloured Shires' although the old-time Shire breeders would turn in their graves if asked to consider a coloured horse as a Shire regardless of its size and conformation. The height and strength of these specialised horses is often believed to be from Shire or Clydesdale blood while the colour comes from the Gypsy Vanner. All three breeds have the requisite calm, unflappable temperament and the necessary trainability.