HEIGHT: 14–15.2 hands
PLACE OF ORIGIN: England
SPECIAL QUALITIES: Compact, strong cobs; often black-and-white pintos; abundant manes and tails and heavy leg feathering
BEST SUITED FOR: Driving, pleasure riding, dressage
It is highly unusual for an entire breed of horses to go quickly from rags to riches, but it happened to the Gypsy Vanner. An unlikely set of circumstances brought this spectacular horse from complete obscurity in England to almost overnight stardom in the United States. In 1994, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, longtime horsemen, traveled to England on business and found themselves with enough free time to visit horse country. Captivated by a filly at the Shire Center in England, they almost bought her but decided first to drive to the north of Wales, where farmers have lived and breathed Shire horses for centuries, to talk to breeders and learn more about Shires.
Returning to London on a country road at night, Dennis noticed a moonlit horse in a field like none he had ever seen before. They turned the car around to get a closer look at the black-and-white piebald horse, built like a draft horse but only about 14.2 hands high. It had extensive feathering from the knee and the hock to the ground, and when it trotted up to them with full mane, tail, and feathers flowing in the wind, their lives were changed.
The horse was being kept by a local farmer for a Gypsy. In Great Britain and other parts of Europe, Gypsies, a much maligned minority, still travel by horse-drawn caravans. Since 1968, the British government has established one hundred permanent sites where Gypsies may park their caravans legally. As long as they are on the caravan sites, laws protect them from harassment by other people.
Gypsy culture is very old, with customs that have been passed down for centuries. Many, if not most, of the people are illiterate, but family histories and important events are kept accurately and passed down orally, as are the pedigrees of prized horses. The Gypsy tradition with horses is ancient, and some Gypsies are excellent breeders. They have a clear vision of the horses they want to produce and know how to achieve their goals, while storing relevant information only in their memories.
In England, the Gypsies own three types of horses, although the types are not specifically named.
- There is what might be called the Classic Vanner, sometimes called a Gypsy Cob. (A cob is a small, sturdy horse standing about 14.2 hands.) Developed to pull wagons, this is the type that was imported into the United States.
- A smaller type, which Dennis Thompson calls the Mini Vanner, stands about 12.2 hands.
- The third type is lighter in body and bone but much less consistent in conformation and is primarily bred to have a good trot. It is common for this type to be bred rather indiscriminately and for pedigrees to be lost.
Since World War II, the goal of the best Gypsy breeders in England was to produce an ideal horse to pull the highly decorated Gypsy caravan wagons. The horse was to be a small replica of the Shire but with more feathering and a more attractive head. It had to be extremely gentle and tractable, because the Gypsies live intimately with their horses, and small children often entertain themselves by sitting on and playing with the horses for hours. The ideal horse had to be a good mover for long-distance traveling, and it had to be beautiful, because the appearance of the horses and the wagons is extremely important to the culture. The main breeds in the pedigree of the Vanner are Friesians, Shires, Clydesdales, and Dales Ponies.
Though still rare in North America, the Gypsy Vanner is instantly recognizable.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There is some confusion between the names Irish Tinker and Gypsy Vanner. In Ireland there is a culture of nomadic people called Irish Travelers. Although not related to Gypsies, they live a somewhat similar life, and they also have a long tradition with horses.
The Gypsies and the Travelers have little to do with each other, but they respect one another’s abilities with horses. Irish Tinkers are horses from the Travelers’ tradition and contain Connemara breeding, among others.
A New Name in a New Country
The breed had no official name when it was first exported to the United States. The Thompsons were the first outsiders ever to conduct extensive research on Gypsy horse pedigrees and the first to write down the pedigrees. They were also the first Americans ever to attend the extensive Gypsy horse sale. It took nearly three years of research and effort to bring the stallion they had seen in the field that night to their farm in Florida.
Wanting to help establish this old and wonderful breed in a modern world, the Thompsons knew it needed a name. According to Dennis Thompson, “The name Gypsy Vanner Horse is the first ever to recognize a specific Gypsy horse breed. The name is culturally sensitive and represents extensive research and understanding of the vision that created the breed.”
To the Gypsies, color, mane, tail, and feathering are important features of the horses that pull their colorful wagons.
The Thompsons imported two more stallions and fourteen mares in 1996. There are now nearly 140 Vanners in the United States, and they have made a big splash at horse fairs such as the Equine Affaire and Equitana. The horses have become something of a fad. There is a Vanner at Kentucky Horse Park, one at Disney in Florida, one in Minnesota that helps teach innercity children about the consequences of prejudice, and at least one in Hollywood, California, working in movies.
Working with the Gypsies in England, the Thompsons have established a breed standard for Vanners. The perfect caravan horse is strong, intelligent, athletic, and colorful, with excellent endurance. A docile nature is vital; in Gypsy society any horse showing ill temper is banished. Vanners are extremely sound and very easy keepers. Their abundant mane, tail, and feathers give them a magical look. Gypsy Vanners were developed to be excellent driving horses. They are a good choice for combined driving. They have very good gaits, making them suitable as dressage horses. Because of that easygoing, docile temperament, they make good mounts for children, new riders, and riders with physical or emotional limitations. They can readily carry adults.
These horses are compact, standing 14 to 15.2 hands, with a short neck and a short back. They range in weight from 1,100 to 1,700 pounds. The withers are rounded, making them suitable both for harness and for bareback riding. Heavy bone, flat knees, and ample hooves provide a solid foundation to support the body, which includes a broad chest and heavy hips.
Piebald (black-and-white pinto) and skewbald (any pinto other than piebald) are the most common colors, but solid colors occur and are also valued. Blazes on the face and white socks or stockings are common.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society (founded in 1996):
- Gypsy Vanner Horses were first introduced to the North American public in 1998.
- There are about 140 horses presently in the United States.
- Twenty new foals are registered each year. • Gypsy reports from England claim there are 2,000–5,000 worldwide, of which about 10 percent are Classic Vanners.