In the late 1990s, the Gypsy horse, also called the Irish Cob, Gypsy Vanner, Tinker Pony, Tinker Horse or the Gypsy Cob, came out of seemingly nowhere to saturate the North American horse world. Suddenly the Gypsy Vanners were the “it” horses to have or want to have. Although breed associations for the Gypsy Horse state that this is an ancient breed, cynics claim that it is merely a triumph of American marketing. Whatever the real source of the Gypsy Horse is, it is a stunning, friendly and versatile breed that will be around for decades to come.
History and Origins
During a 1994 trip to purchase a Shire horse in Wales, horse owners and breeders Cindy and Dennis Thompson drove through the English countryside and passed a magnificent small piebald draft horse stallion in his field. They stopped the car, walked back to check out the stallion and history was made. The stallion would be the first Gypsy Horse imported to the United States. The Thompsons would found the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society in 1996.
The origins of the stallion and others of similar beauty and friendliness are shrouded in mystery. The stallion had been owned by a gypsy. Pinto or spotted horses and ponies were frowned on in the UK for hundreds of years because these horses were thought to be inferior because of their color. Solid-colored horses were considered superior. However, the gypsy communities prized the color, strength and good temperaments of horses and did not care about pedigrees.
Although the origins of the breed are murky, the current gypsy horse is not only eye-catching but highly intelligent and useful for pleasure riders or for horse sports of many types. In 2005, there were about 5,000 Gypsy Vanners in the world, notes author Judith Dutson in her book Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America.
Physical Characteristics of the Gypsy Horse
Different horse registries for Gypsy Vanners have slightly different requirements for any horse nominated to be registered. However, in general Gypsy Vanners are from 13 to 15 hands high, although slightly smaller and larger individuals occur. They are built like a traditional cob or small draft horse with muscular bodies, short but powerful backs, large hoofs, flat knees and round prominent withers. They have large heads that can be Roman-nosed or sport straight profiles. They can weigh an average of 1100 to 1700 pounds.
All colors are accepted but pintos predominate and are the most popular. Blue eyes are acceptable. Gypsy Horses have heavy feathering on the legs and thick manes, tails and forelocks. They are also bred to have smooth gaits for riding but each horse still needs regular shoeing or hoof trimming to stay sound for riding or driving. They also need their legs bathed more often horses with hairless legs since dirty hair can cause skin infections. Horses with a lot of white can sunburn more easily than horses of darker colors. However, the Gypsy Horse is a predominately healthy breed.
Temperament of the Gypsy Horse
Beauty and strength will only get a horse so far in a gypsy or tinker camp. Gypsies were well known to keep only trainable and obedient animals. They had no patience for bad-tempered steeds. The resulting Gypsy Horse is a creature that is curious and intelligent but level-headed and willing to please people. This makes the Gypsy Vanner excellent horses for beginners, for children or for people who physically can no longer handle more temperamental breeds like the Thoroughbred.
Having a Gypsy Horse
Horse ownership is expensive. The initial purchase price of a Gypsy Vanner is often the lowest cost of horse keeping. Since the breed is still rare, expect to pay about $10,000 for an animal. Contacting local animal rescues to let them know you are willing to adopt a Gypsy Vanner will not only save a life but the adoption fee is often less than $1000. All colts or stallions donated to an animal rescue are gelded.
According to the popular equine magazine The Horse, yearly expenses are as follows:
Boarding at a stable or even just renting a pasture: $300 to $3000 annually
- Hay (prices vary according to how bad the hay crop is that year) about $520;
- Feed (optional): $390;
- Bedding and waste removal (if not included in boarding fees): About $1300;
- Veterinarian basic exam, inoculations and dewormings: About $500 if the horse is healthy all year;
- Dental care: $250;
- Farrier: $720;
- Tack such as halters, lead ropes, saddle and bridle: $1000 if bought used, although new halters and lead ropes are recommended;
- Grooming supplies such as brushes, shovels, buckets, shampoo and conditioner: another $250.
The Horse also recommends that horse owners have a savings account of $2000 only to be tapped for health emergencies. Horse insurance is available but may not cover older animals or some medical procedures.
Common Uses for a Gypsy Horse
The word “vanner” seen in the name Gypsy Vanner refers to the breed’s original function – to haul the large gypsy caravans or “vans” from camp site to camp site. Gypsys used to live in the vans but rarely use vans for more than holiday making or competitions today. Gypsy Vanners still make excellent harness horses. Since the breed is still rare, fillies and mares are often bred to keep the breed from dying out.
Because of the round withers and smooth gaits, they also make good riding horses, especially for teaching new riders, for leadline classes for small children or for pleasure riding. They make great trail horses because of their strength and ability to not spook at the slightest new thing that crosses their path. Some of the largest Gypsy Vanners in the UK are bred for parade work or to carry the large kettle drums in UK military parades. These are sometimes called Drum Horses but they are basically large Gypsy Horses.