Gypsy Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Gypsy Horse goes by several different names. In Europe, the horse is often referred to as the Irish Cob. In the US, it may be called a Gypsy Vanner. It is also called a Tinker Horse or a Gypsy Cob. No matter what the name may be, however, the origin and characteristics of the horse remain the same.

For many years, the Gypsy Horse was not thought to be an official breed. No stud book or breed association existed for this horse until 1996. Although its recent recognition has brought the Gypsy into greater prominence in the equine world, these horses have been used since the mid-19th century for transportation, pulling vardos, and other uses that may have been necessary in the life of a caravan.

The current characteristics of the Gypsy Horse were refined after World War II. The first horses of this breed officially exported to North America came in 1997. It is a breed that continues to grow in both size and popularity thanks to its gentle disposition, willingness to work, and unique look. 

What Is the History of the Gypsy Horse?

Vardos are Romani wagons that were used as homes. They had a chimney built into the wagon, they were often brought together in caravans to create communities for the Romanichal people. They arrived in the British Isles around the 16th century and always traveled in carts or tents, living on the move. The first vardos were introduced around the middle of the 19th century.

The horses that were used for these caravans were often cast-off horses that were not desirable for some reason by local owners. Even mules were part of the traveling caravans. Over time, the Romanichal people began to refine the characteristics of their horses to begin the foundation of a breed.

You could still see Gypsy Horses pulling vardos through the 1920s in Europe and there are still the occasional communities that follow this lifestyle.

What has helped to drive the popularity of the breed are the training techniques that were traditionally used when these horses were pulling carts, and then vardos. Each horse was taught to not stop until it reached the top of a hill to avoid it not being able to get started once again.

Some horses would become fearful of a large wagon at their back, especially when pulling it up the hill. To avoid this issue, a top hat was often placed on the horse to keep him from seeing backward. This led to the unique look of the Gypsy Horse that is still promoted artistically today.

Gypsy Horses were amongst the family full-time, which meant children were around the animals at all hours of the day. Having a horse with an ill-temperament was simply not something that could be permitted. Only horses with the wanted temperament and disposition were trained and allowed to pull the carts and vardos, which has led to the modern Gypsy Horse being an incredibly calm breed.

As breed preferences for specific colors formed in Europe, the Romanichal people found themselves with numerous draft horses, especially Shires, that were not wanted because of their characteristics. If they were not taken, then the horses would have been culled, so by the 1950s, the colored Shire look became a trademark appearance for Gypsy horses.

Because the Romanichal people kept an oral history of their breeding efforts, the confirmed history of the breed is somewhat anecdotal. Names of the horses were based on who owned the horse and what color it happened to be. That’s why you’ll find some unique names in the papers of the modern Gypsy horse, such as “The Lob Eared Horse.” 

Why Are Some Gypsy Horses Called “Vanners?”

The term “vanner” for the Gypsy Horse dates to the late 19th century. It was a slang term given to a horse that would pull a van. Before the era of mechanization and automobiles, a van was essentially a wagon, built to resemble a large box with an arched roof, and was used to transport commercial goods to a new location.

Although some breed sections officially classify some Gyspy Horses as vanners, the modern reference comes from a book written in 1993 by Edward Hart. Called The Coloured Horse and Pony, the name stuck and became part of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society when it was founded. Before then, a “vanner” was a horse that wasn’t quite a light harness horse, but wasn’t large enough to be a heavy draft horse either. 

In essence, all Gypsy horses that pull a wagon or vardo are technically vanners. What Are the

Characteristics of the Gypsy Horse?

Most Gypsy horses are piebald. If not piebald, then skewbald is the most common. Solid colors are also possible with this breed, though many have a white splash on their belly. This coloring is referred to as a splashed or blagdon Gypsy. The current characteristic requirements of the Gypsy Horse breed associations do not have a coat color specification that must be met.

Feathering is common within the breed, but isn’t on every horse. The presence of feathering is considered a “decorative characteristic,” so isn’t mandatory for a horse to be registered.

Breed standards for the Gypsy Horse are quite variable because there are several different societies and associations that represent this breed. Each name variation has a breed society which represents this horse and that has led to variations in the breed standards for Gypsies. Although most of the variations are minor, there can be distinctive differences in overall preference.

Gypsy Horses can be as small as 13 hands high, with a preference for horses up to 16 hands high in the United States and Australia. In Europe, the desired height for a Gypsy is 16.2 hands high. European societies and associations permit light-boned horses and larger horses than North American societies and associations might allow.

There are some stud book categories in a few of the associations as well. One example is the Gypsy Horse Registry of America. They offer three different classifications, sorted into Sections A, B, and C. Section A horses are for purebreds that are under 14.2 hands high. Section B is for purebreds that are over 14.2 hands high, while Section C is reserved for horses that are Gypsy crossbreeds. 

In the Netherlands, where these horses are referred to as tinkers, there are three different classifications as well: vanner, cob, and grai. These sections are based on the height of the horse and the degree of refinement which they have.

Outside of the height and appearance requirements, a Gypsy Horse should have a straight profile. The head can be reflective of a pony-type horse, but may also have more refinement than draft breeds. The forehead should be broad, the facial profile slightly convex, and a generous jawline.

The head is supported by a neck that is muscular, noticeably strong, and with a throat latch that is deeper than similar breeds of an equal size. The withers are well-rounded and should be barely noticeable. Most societies and associations call for shoulders to be well-sloped, but the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society states that there should be a shoulder angle of at least 45 degrees, ranging up to 60 degrees.

The Gypsy Horse has distinct gaits that should be present as well. The stride for the horse should show power, be correct, but also have a softness to its precision. The movement should be natural, effortless, and with a slightly higher knee action than other draft-style horses. The walk should be steady without exaggeration so longer strides can be easily achieved.

The personality of the Gypsy is one that is kind, intelligent, but spirited. They work willingly and strive to produce a harmonious experience. There are alert, confident, and loyal above anything else. Their approach to any situation is one of sensibility, making them a difficult breed to spook.

Like other feathered horses, the Gypsy Horse is prone to certain diseases, such as chronic progressive lymphedema.

Registering a Gypsy Horse

Gypsy Horses can be registered with any breed society or association if the lineage of the horse can be proven. Each group offers different advantages with their registration. Some allow for DNA marking of pedigrees free of charge, while others provide access to a defined stud book and specific size classifications. Inspections and shows are available with some of the groups as well.

Because the societies and associations were formed in the 1990s, most require a genetic analysis to be completed before the initial registry is allowed. If a horse does not reach 13 hands high, even if it is purebred, it may not be allowed in the registry.

Since 2004, the Gypsy Horse has been part of the US Dressage Federation thanks to its acceptance of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society as an affiliate. This allows registered horses to compete in sanctioned events. Since 2008, three additional Gypsy societies and associations have become affiliates as well.

With their official recognition as a breed, the future of the Gypsy Horse is quite optimistic, no matter what name one may prefer.