They are athletic, versatile, intelligent, extraordinarily gentle, and astoundingly beautiful. These traits have endeared this breed to horse lovers around the world. This is the Gypsy Vanner horse.
Gypsy Vanners are famous for an abundance of hair, often with showy double manes. They carry a sweet, refined and well-proportioned head, sat on a strong neck. Their signature feathering starts at the hock and showers down profusely over the ample hooves.
The Gypsy Vanner’s strength, docility and spellbinding beauty are thought to be influenced by three major horse breeds: the large, kindly Shire horse, the strong and agile Clydesdale, and the tough and hardy Dales Pony.
All three of these breeds share lineage to the magnificent Friesian horse. The average size is about 14 to 15 hands, measured at the withers, with a hand being equal to four inches. Their body is that of a small draft horse with a powerful and compact build.
Variously known to gypsy people as Piebalds, colored horses or colored cobs, the resulting Gypsy Vanner horse is now recognized as a distinct breed. They come in all imaginable horse colors but are most commonly black and white, known as piebald, and brown and white or skewbald.
Only a certain few Gypsies have dedicated lifetimes to creating this, the perfect caravan horse. From a culture steeped in legend, romance and mystery, come the origins of this most magical horse. Gypsies and the traveling people of the British Isles are famous for their horse breeding and trading skills but hidden deeply amid the indiscriminately bred trade horses meant only for consumption, a new breed was developed.
It was shortly after World War II when a few gypsies began selectively breeding their local stock with two Irish stallions, Sonny Mays and the Coal Horse, the progenitors of the Gypsy Vanner horse breed. Sonny Mays was popular for throwing a lot of color to his offspring and soon they had a type of horse that pleased their colorful tastes and complemented their changing lifestyles.
The horse was compact, reliable, sturdy, and most of all, eye-catching. From father to son, the horse type has been focused, improved and refined to become a masterpiece of living art.
In the first week of June in Northern England, the roadsides and public areas along the way to Appleby township are decorated with colorful gypsy cabs. They are making their way to the historic Appleby Horse Fair.
Since its founding for the purpose of horse-trading in 1685, Appleby Fair has run continuously for well over 300 years, but in this age of motorcars, the horse-drawn living wagon is now used only for recreation and holidays such as this.
For many, the journey is a pilgrimage, a gathering of gypsy culture and a celebration of a lifestyle past. All eyes turn as caravans rhythmically clop into Appleby town center. Steps are a bit livelier, heads are held higher as they make their way to the fairgrounds.
It is opening day of the fair and at the river Eden, a long-held tradition of bathing horses has begun. The main focus of Appleby Fair is still on the horses and many of indiscriminate breeding is in view. The colored Trotters are likely a standardbred cross. Only about 20% of horses raised by gypsy people are of the selectively bred Gypsy Vanner phenotype and quality. This selective breeding remained virtually unknown to the outside world for over half a century.
Gypsy carts and caravans can be found throughout Europe, but only one place in the world did the gypsy caravan become an art form, and that’s Great Britain. So the most highly decorated gypsy caravan in the world is the English gypsy caravan. So it only made sense then that there would be a vision born to create an art form to pull the art form. And that, of course, is the Gypsy Vanner horse. So Gypsy describes the people and Vanner describes the vision.
In the mid-nineties, my late wife and I were on a business trip to Great Britain when Cindy spotted a little black and white horse and she said, “Did you see that little black and white horse?” So we turned around and went back and he came running over to see us. And as he crossed the field, the mane and feathers were flying, there was magic in the air. That was the beginning of an adventure that would never end.
Dennis and Cindy Thompson spent four years relentlessly pursuing and studying the Gypsy breeders and the magical horses they had stumbled upon, one fateful day in England. A new name was needed to distinguish the selectively bred herds from the common indiscriminately bred horses. Dennis and Cindy would agree on Gypsy Vanner horse – Gypsy to honor the people, Vanner for the job they were bred to do.
In 1996 the Thompsons imported the first Gypsy Vanner horses to America and founded the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society. By the year 2015, the GVHS had registered nearly 4,000 Gypsy Vanner horses. The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society is the world’s first registry to recognize a selectively bred horse developed by gypsies of the British Isles, and the only such organization founded on careful study of those gypsies and their horses.
The GVHS is dedicated to breeding preservation through education, evaluation and horse registrations. Sponsoring a variety of events annually is part of the ongoing and essential role GVHS plays in preservation and promotion of this wonderful breed.
The evaluation program is based on a detailed breed standard that clearly defines the excellence and phenotype required to be recognized as a Gypsy Vanner horse. Those same qualities are supported in the show ring by equine judges who have earned at GVHS judge’s cards.
At horse competitions across North America and beyond, one can find Gypsy Vanner horses proving their versatility, athleticism, and endearing personalities. They are excelling in various performance disciplines, winning ribbons and hearts, wherever they appear.
Everybody’s so interested in the breed and that’s wonderful. We get a lot of times where people just don’t know what they are and just assume they’re [inaudible 00:08:20] and just walk away, but these people are just great. They’re asking a ton of questions and it’s very fascinating to speak with them.
The first Vanner Fair, I am just blown away. I think it is absolutely colossal. I think it’s fantastic. They couldn’t have done a better job.
It’s turned into a wonderful, wonderful life for us. Whenever we go someplace, these horses draw a crowd, and everybody’s excited to see them.
I photographed the very first Gypsy Vanners in this country and became a fan immediately. We use the Gypsy Vanner images in many of our horse calendar titles, video productions, and books. These horses were so laid back are sometimes a little bit harder to get excited than the hotter breeds but they show surprising energy and athleticism.
We have various games that we use to persuade them to give us the energy and control them, to put them in the areas that we want them to go. And invariably, as soon as we let up, these horses want to be right back with you.
Nothing but feathered horses created this breed and all feathered horses are coldblooded horses. All coldblooded horses came from the forest horse. A hotblooded horse would be like an Arabian or a thoroughbred. They’re higher energy. Coldblooded horses are more easy-going.
Their temperament is more maybe kinder and slower and so on. So by focusing on that feather, creating the most feathered horse in the world, they wound up with the horse with an extraordinary temperament.
Back in the early fifties, I mean, there were only maybe a half a dozen colored horses and they were all in Ireland. It wasn’t a desirable thing for the typical Englishman. It was a reject, but gypsies liked it. And so, of course, they embraced it and all these ingredients came together.
Really amazed by the way that Gypsy Vanner horses are coming around each day. It seems as though they don’t forget anything.
They’re very cool, very well-mannered. Of course, like any horse, they can get spoiled, but they’re just very responsive.
One of the horses that we use all of the time to show is Odd Job Bob, and when we take him off the trailer at a horse show, all the little kids are yelling, “There’s Odd Job Bob.” And they gather around the trailer and just follow everywhere they go. We love the breed, we love their look. We love working with them.
It’s almost like a soul thing, I just had to have one. They were just… They’re everything. They’re beautiful, they’re sweet, they love you when you come up to them.
My daughter can go up and open the gate and say, “Let’s go for a walk.” And not even put a bridle on and the horse will just go with her. And I can tell you, I’ve never had a horse that’d do that.
Well, their feather flying is awesome. Their color is just amazing and I’ve seen some horses with manes past their knees. They’ve got four locks down to their nose if not past, and they’ve got tails that drag on the ground.
Hard to have a favorite.
Perhaps years of planning, 11 months of pregnancy, and hours of watched labor become this one miraculous moment. The birth of a new foal. And nature takes over.
I’ve just totally fallen in love with these horses. They’re probably the most gentle horse I’ve ever been around in my life. They like to play. They like to go out in the field and chase the ball. They like to drive, they like to be ridden. There just isn’t anything about them that I don’t find appealing.
You can’t help yourself. When you see a Gypsy Vanner for the first time, there’s just so much magic about them. You have to investigate immediately, and I’m so drawn to it.
The reaction from people when they come off the trailer, they want to know what is that? Where can I get one? And they seem to follow you to the barn. You’re like Ped Piper.
I start thinking about it, I get goosebumps, with these horses. They’re magic.
With the same pride and values that the gypsy families felt for their selectively bred horses, the GVHS works to preserve and protect the Gypsy Vanner horse breed. The look, the temperament, and the genetics of a perfect caravan horse. This is the Gypsy Vanner horse.