THE GYPSY HORSE
Country of Origin: The British Isles
Culture of Origin: Irish, English, & Welsh Romany
Approximate Time of Development: 70 to 80 Years Ago
The Gypsy Horse was bred not only to pull Gypsy living wagons but also to pull trade vehicles such as this one. One of the best known founding sires of the breed is known simply as The Old Coal Horse because, presumably, he pulled a wagon such as this one at some time in his life.
Like the motorized vans of today, horse-drawn vans delivered not only coal, but such necessities as milk, bakery goods, and ice to households. The website http://www.1900s.org.uk shows old photos of such vehicles, many from around the time the Gypsy Horse had its beginnings. Other services, performed by itinerants such as Romany families, were knife sharpening and blacksmithing. A Facebook page dedicated to trade vehicles can be found at “Trolleys and Trade Vehicles.”
Whether The Old Coal Horse was driven by a settled Romany or was bought or traded for to pull a Gypsy living wagon after serving as a coal horse is unknown. Some Romany apparently did live in the cities and may have worked in trades such as coal delivery.
Be that as it may, the Gypsy Horse was bred to pull the Gypsy living wagon.
Although Romany families traveled throughout the British Isles, a great many migrated throughout the Kent area, where they helped harvest crops as migrant workers.
From what we’ve been told, the breed began 70-80 years ago in England and Ireland, and they were bred primarily from the Clydesdale, the Shire Horse, and the Dales Pony, all feathered breeds and all drafts. The first horses were most likely Shire or Clyde crosses, and these large crosses were used to pull the heaviest of the living wagons, the Reading Wagons. According to Michael Vine Sr., these horses just once removed from the Shire were known as “vanners.”
“Vanner” was an older word which had almost fallen out of use until American businessman Dennis Thompson, who, with wife Cindy Thompson, is credited with discovering the breed for America, resurrected it and brought it back into common usage. The British breeders simply call the horse “cob,” a term used outside their subculture to refer to a specific body type–a stout but smallish horse with a good disposition–and not a specific breed. Thompson was not satisfied with calling the horse “cob” and so promoted the breed as a Vanner or Gypsy Vanner. The registry which he helped found, the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, still calls horses it registers Vanners.
The living wagons pulled by these first representatives of the breed were most likely not the brightly painted, gilded wagons such as those shown above. Photos from Great Britain and from Europe show plain but well made living wagons. Many such can be seen on the Facebook page PAPUSZA Bronislawa Wajs, created and maintained by author Angelika Kuźniak, which has many photos depicting Romany life taken from throughout Europe.
Over its history, the breed has been bred down in size. Michael Vine attributes this to the horse’s upkeep and the work required of him. The larger, more powerful horse was needed to pull the Reading Wagon, the largest of the living wagons. For the smaller wagons and for most of the trade vehicles to which the breed was put, a smaller and much easier to maintain horse was acceptable and required much less to eat than the larger horse closer to the massive Shire.
Even today the breed’s size is being reduced in its native Great Britain. Horses only 10 hands tall are now common, at least with some breeders. The horse is now not called upon to work for its owner’s livelihood but is a possession of great pride. Fairs such as Appleby are held where horses are “flashed” and traded for huge sums. An owner’s horses can function as a bank, an asset for whose value the government finds it difficult to assess.
Dennis and Cindy Thompson were thought to have brought the first Gypsy Horses to the U.S.A. in 1996. Bit-A-Both Farm, owned by the Thorrups, brought over and showed two mares, Esmeralda and Jasmine, extensively. Later registered with GVHS, this pair, driven in tandem, made the cover of The Whip in 2001. Initially, the GVHS accepted only horses which Thompson had imported but the registry was opened to horses imported elsewhere. The highest volume importer was most likely Black Forest Shires & Gypsy Horses run by Jeff and Chris Bartko. Most of SFG’s horses have come to the U.S. through BFS&GH–Silver Belle, Silver Pearl, Padparadshah, Victor Tango, and Rose. Another large importer was GypsyMVP, and two larger exporters were the Coates family and Clononeen Farm. More recently, Michael Vine, one of the three families who worked with BFS&GH, has established a successful export operation of his own.
Some firsts for the breed in the U.S.:
The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society was established in 1996. At first, it registered only horses imported into the U.S. by the Thompsons. In the early 2000s it was openned to horses not necessarily imported through Thompson. SFG joined the GVHS in 2005, when it registered its first Gypsy Horses with them.
Silver Belle Reserve Champion 2005 Ohio State FairThe first Gypsy Horse Show held in the U.S. was the Ohio State Fair Gypsy Vanner Horse Show held in 2005 in Columbus, Ohio. SFG was honored to field Silver Belle, The Rose, SFG Hero, and SFG Storm King. All placed and Silver Belle was Reserve Champion Mare from a huge class.
Bit-A-Both Farm’s team Jasmine and Esmeralda, currently owned by WR Ranch, comprised an award winning tamdem driving team which made the cover of The Whip in 2001.
Harley Victory Lap Ohio State FairThe first (to our knowledge) Drum classes ever held were held in conjunction with the 2007 Ohio State Fair Gypsy Vanner Horse Show in August of that year. SFG was honored to compete its Drum stallion BWS Feather Dancer (“Harley”) in these, and Harley placed first over one other Drum, Old Mill’s Chewmill Guiness.