The Gypsy Horse

The horse was first domesticated approximately 5,000 years ago, substantially later than other farm animals and 9,000 years after the dog had adopted the position of humankind's companion. Originally a prime food source for Stone Age hunters, the horse was originally domesticated for its meat and also possibly for its milk. It later moved up in status to a pack animal and then promoted to a riding animal, the first hard evidence of such usage indicating that the horse was not used as a mount until almost 2,000 years after it had become domesticated. It was the introduction of horse trading that brought about the development of the various breeds. The earliest records of multi-colored horses (such as the gypsy horse) are from cave drawings estimated to be approximately 20,000 years old. In past times, such multi-colored horses were believed to be omens of good fortune.

The association of the Rom with horses is almost legendary. By tradition, the gypsy horse is involved in each and every aspect of family life...faithfully pulling the vardo by day, yet sufficiently amenable and patient to be the gentle mount of gypsy children when the day is done. Often staked out alongside the road with the family wagon in all types of weather when not "on the move," the gypsy horse lives and thrives for the most part by partaking of the grasses which happen to be growing where it is tethered. The heartiness and exceptional disposition of the gypsy horse is its trademark and such an animal is generally considered to be cold-blooded, incredibly adaptable from the moment of birth.

Beduoin Proverb

Though classified as cold-blooded, there is essentially no biological difference between a gypsy horse and its hot-blooded or warm-blooded relatives. The categories refer solely to the three basic horse personalities as detailed below.

The Hot-Blooded Horse: This horse is one which has a highly-strung temperament...excitable and nervous when in an unfamiliar situation or around strangers. The modern hot-blooded horse is a descendant of the lithe desert horse (also known as the Barb), a small and swift horse originally bred by the Arabs with characteristics suitable to hot climates...fine hair, long legs and a tail carried away from the body to facilitate heat loss.

The Warm-Blooded Horse: This horse is also descended from the Arabian breed and was the type of horse ridden by the Moors of Spain. Through centuries of careful selection and cross-breeding, today's warm-blooded horse is one with a relatively stable temperament, generally characterized as being "friendly and willing." Although there is a tendency for the warm-blooded horse to become "spooked" or frightened, it is, as a general rule and if treated well, intelligent and of a good personality around people and other animals. First developed in Europe at least 300 years ago, the warm-blooded horse was originally used for war, agriculture and transportation...its characteristics refined to suit tastes of aristocrats. The warm-blooded horse is the most common type of horse found at shows, fairs and most equestrian events. The Hanoverian and Selle Francais are examples of a warm-blooded horse.

The Cold-Blooded Horse: This horse (of which the gypsy horse is an example) is one with an extremely stable personality, not likely to become "spooked" when encountering an unfamiliar situation or a stranger. Invariably large in stature, the ancient cold-blooded horse was the proud mount of Medieval knights, capable of carrying its rider complete with armor and, more often than not, its own armor as well. It was specifically bred for size and strength, suited to cold climates and with a physical build of round belly and thick coat which could retain body heat. Although the cold-blooded horse is sometimes considered lacking in intelligence (due to its apparent docility), nothing could be further from the truth. This is an animal of exceptional stability by nature and one which is unlikely to be skittish in an unfamiliar situation. The cold-blooded horse is thought by some sources to have descended from Equus caballus...the heavy prehistoric horse line of Northern Europe.

Note: There is often some confusion as to use of the word "thoroughbred" when applied to horses. Contrary to popular belief, a "thoroughbred" is not the correct term for any purebred horse. A thoroughbred is a distinct breed of running horses whose ancestry is traced through the male line directly back to three Eastern stallions: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Barb.

Batttlebarrow Trot - Eddie Potts, Artist

The gypsy horse was developed over hundreds of years by selectively cross-breeding the Friesian, the Clydesdale, the Shire, the Fells Pony and the Dales Pony. The resulting horse of preference, which is thought to have originally emerged some time in the 1600s, was one which had to be sound, strong, intelligent, docile, athletic, gentle, kind, colorful and possessed of exceptional stamina and say nothing of a willingness to learn. According to some historians, the forerunner of today's gypsy horse came into existence around 600 B.C., when metalworkers travelled the countryside with their families in barrel top wagons.

The most popular gypsy horse is known as the "Vanner" or "Cob" (also sometimes referred to as the "Irish Tinker"). Something akin to a mini draft horse, this hearty and compact little animal usually stands between 14 and 15.2 hands, sturdily built with a good deal of feathering and hair. Its neck and back are short, providing the animal with the strength needed to pull the colorful caravans. Heavy of bone, with flat knees and ample hooves, the physical foundation of this magnificent horse sustains a body which consists of a broad chest and heavy hips. In addition, the withers are rounded, making the gypsy horse very suitable for harness and the bareback riding style of the Rom children. An abundance of mane, tail and feather also lends the gypsy horse something of a "magical" look, true to its heritage.

Gypsy horses comes in a selection of colors...pinto and solid...with the preferred variety being those whose coats are Pinto in pattern (i.e., a combination of two colors in large markings), either Piebald (black-and-white) or Skewbald (any single color with white, other than black). Two distinctive gypsy horse patterns later evolved from Piebald and Skewbald, being Tobiana (white with large spots of color, often overlapping) and Overo (colored with white markings). One unusual and highly-prized pattern is the Blagdon, being any solid color with white splashed under the belly. Since the gypsy lifestyle cannot tolerate an animal that might endanger lives, any horse displaying an ill-temper or jumpiness or an aggressive nature is immediately banished. In competition, the gypsy horse excels at dressage, endurance, eventing, jumping and anything connected with driving.

Most gypsy horses are not registered. As is typical of the lifestyle, the Rom is not overly-concerned with the keeping of records or the storing of papers. The reputation of the Rom as horsemen originated many centuries ago and it is said that a Rom without a horse is no true Romany. There are basically four types of Romany horses, although continued modern interbreeding tends to blur the line between the varieties.

Romany Vanner Cob: A very thickset and well-muscled animal which is well-proportioned with dark and kindly eyes. It is a heavy-boned horse which is usually heavily feathered from the knee or hock down. It stands 15 to 16.2 hands high and measures approximately five feet at the shoulders. It is not unusual for the Vanner to weigh 1,400 pounds. Normally, this horse is pinto-patterned, piebald or skewbald, and invariably displays the characteristics of its draft horse origin, although its handsome head is not as large as the true draft horse. Bred for power with large feet which are usually light or multi in color, this is a slow and steady horse with a one-paced trot and walk. Its stride is good and it has a smooth, slow canter and gallop. A friendly animal to both man and beast, this working horse is quiet and docile, as well as being a quick-learner and far from fussy about food. The Vanner comes in many, brown-and-white, blue-and-white, for example. However, too much white in the coat is frowned upon and ideally, this horse should have an even spread of color.

Romany Grai Cob: A stocky and well-muscled animal which is well-proportioned with dark and kindly eyes. It is a medium to heavy-boned horse and makes for an excellent all-around animal which can easily adapt to most activities. It is a good walker, fast trotter, smooth canterer and energetic galloper, with a long stride and fairly high head carriage. Its feet are usually light or multi in color. Friendly to humans and to other animals, this horse is mettlesome but sensible. It is a quick learner and not fussy when it comes to food. Its head is handsome and slightly smaller than that of the Vanner. This working breed horse has plenty of feather, but not as much as the Vanner and it often begins lower down the leg. The Grai comes in many colors, all virtually identical to those of the Vanner. It stands 13.2 to 15.2 hands high and is a bouncy and lively animal with great presence.

Romany Cob: A stocky and well-muscled animal, but plainer in appearance than the Grai. This is almost a mini-Vanner with more pony-like characteristics. Slow and steady, it is an excellent all-around animal which can easily adapt to most activities. This horse is a good walker, mid-paced trotter, smooth canterer and energetic galloper, with a long stride. Its feet are usually light or multi in color. Medium to heavily-boned, with plenty of feather, this working horse is friendly to humans and to other animals, being quiet, docile and sensible. It is a quick learner and not fussy when it comes to food. The eyes are dark and kindly in expression and the head is usually plain, not overly-large and in proportion to the rest of the body. The Romany Cob comes in many colors, all virtually identical to those of the Vanner and the Grai. It stands 13.0 to 14.3 hands high and is a "do anything" type of workhouse which has been bred profusely in Ireland.

Romany Scudder: A more finely-boned animal than its Romany equine cousins, yet still well-muscled, this horse was originally produced by crossing one of the gypsy breeds with a standard-bred. It is another excellent all-around animal which can easily adapt to most activities. However, it was bred by the Rom chiefly for road racing. This horse is a good walker, very fast trotter, smooth canterer and energetic galloper. It feet are usually light or multi in color. This working horse, which displays very little feather, is considered to be hot-blooded and runs low to the ground with a standard-bred type of action. It is friendly to humans and to other animals, a quick learner and not fussy when it comes to food. The eyes are dark and kindly in expression and the head is usually quite small (while remaining in proportion to the body) with a high carriage. The Scudder comes in many colors, all virtually identical to those of the Vanner, the Grai and the Romany Cob. It stands 13.0 to 15.2 hands high and displays an obvious standard-bred influence, appearing narrow in comparison to the other gypsy horses.

Horse Brasses

Horse brasses are the metallic ornaments affixed to the vertical leather chest strap (martingale) or to the brow band or to other parts of a horse's harness. Owners have adorned their horses with these attachments, which are frequently ornate and highly symbolic, sine the late Nineteenth Century. Horse brasses originated in England as gypsy amulets attached to horse tack in the hope of warding off evil spirits. They were often cast in silver as well as brass and in Scotland, a particularly favorite metal for such harness ornaments was nickel. Horse brasses have been manufactured since the late 1800s and soon found popularity among British royalty, as well as the general public. Patterns include abstract symbols such as hearts, crosses, crescents, stars and floral designs, for example (which are some of the original gypsy patterns), together with heraldic devices, coats of arms, legendary figures, places of historic interest and all forms of animal life, including horses and horseshoes.

Most horse brasses range from approximately 2-1/2 inches to 3-1/2 inches in diameter, varying in weight dependent upon the guage or thickness of the brass used and whether the design is stamped and pierced or cast. There is also a miniature form known as "pony brass," normally around 1-1/2 inches in diameter, for the adorning of Shetland ponies and other such small horses. There is also a larger and much heavier form called "circus brass," which can be as much as 4-1/2 inches in diameter or even more. These brasses are used to decorate large horses such as Perchorons and even performing elephants.

Horse brasses have become highly collectible items over the years and today, many are made with decorative ceramic centers. Horse brasses are often placed on keyrings or mounted on leather straps which are then hung for display, usually tacked to barns and fireplace mantels.

NOTE: Some of the information on this "Gypsy Horse" page based on
published works authored by Grant Garswood

Link to The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society
Link to Ann Bushell Art Site
Link to Eddie Potts Art Site

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