A Gypsy proverb states that “Gypsy gold does not chink or glitter; it gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark.” In other words, in traditional Gypsy culture, their horses were as valuable as gold. An accurate assessment if there ever was one!
Gypsy Vanner horses originated in Great Britain where they pulled the intricately designed Gypsy caravans. Many other countries also had Gypsies and caravans. However, only England developed a distinctive horse breed. The Gypsy Vanner Horse is hundreds of years old but was only recognized as an official horse breed in 1996.
The horses in English Gypsy caravans became part of the family. They needed to be strong, versatile, and also gentle with young children. Finally, the Gypsies also wanted a beautiful horse that would be a source of pride and match the elegance of their caravans. Today, these horses are shared with equine enthusiasts throughout the world.
History of the Gypsy Vanner Horse
The history of Gypsies goes back generations, and they always had horses to pull their caravans. Similarly, horses were used to pull wagons, transport goods, and people before mechanization. They were our source of transportation.
Gypsies in England continued using horses after automobiles became mainstream. When the rest of the world was discarding horses after World War II, a dedicated group of Gypsies began carefully breeding their horses and creating a specific body type that we now recognize as the Gypsy Vanner horse.
The breed is a draft style and genetic study shows that the bloodlines of Shires, Clydesdales and Dales Ponies were all used. The Friesian also impacted the breed through its significance on the other three breeds. Families carefully guarded their horse bloodlines. Therefore, early breeding is a mystery. One thing we do know is that beauty, endurance, strength, and wonderful temperaments became hallmarks of the breed.
A New Breed is Born
Dennis and Cindy Thompson of Ocala, Florida discovered a beautiful black and white stallion with a draft body out in a pasture while visiting England in 1995. They fell in love with the horse and tracked down his owner, a traveler, who also had a herd of mares. The Thompsons spent the day talking with the traveler, Fred Walker, and his community. They bought the horse after his breeding commitments were fulfilled. The Thompsons continued working with the group and established the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society in 1996. The breed’s name recognizes the history and use of the horse.
The Gypsy Vanner Horse breed as it is today exists because of the dedication of the Thompsons and Fred Walker. Together, they conducted meticulous research and established the guidelines that still govern the breed.
It’s important to note that the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society is a breed organization developed around body type and not color. Their characteristic colors make Gypsy Vanner horses easy to recognize. However, body type is the focus of breeders.
So, let’s start with the body type of the Gypsy Vanner Horse. They have a draft-style body and can range in height from 13 to 16 hands. The horse has a beautiful head, which was one of the qualities that early Gypsy breeders sought when comparing it to the foundational breeds. This connects to an arching neck with a long, flowing mane. The topline is flat and the body is deep, with rounded and well-muscled hindquarters. Gypsy Vanners have short, clean legs with flat bones, but a structure that also fits well and supports their draft body type.
Feathers on the legs and a full and beautiful tail match the flowing mane. Gypsy Vanner horses have hair in abundance, and it’s one of their signature beauties. Many people associate Gypsy Vanner horses with two distinctive colors: piebald or skewbald. A piebald is a black and white horse with an irregular color pattern. Skewbalds are white and any other color besides black in an irregular pattern. It creates an elegant appearance when matched with the hair. However, like many horse breeds Gypsy Vanners can come in many different colors. For example, below is a brief video of a black Gypsy Vanner stallion located at a breeding farm here in Vermont.
The Gypsy Vanner Horse Today
Gypsy Vanner Horses exploded in popularity in the United States after the Thompson’s imported their stallion and started the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society. Their aura, kind personalities, and majestic beauty captivated the imaginations of equestrians and the public.
Today, Gypsy Vanner Horses are still driving horses in their native England, as well as here in the United States. They are popular riding horses, lesson horses, and key contributors in equine therapeutic programs. Gypsy Vanner horses participate in almost all sports and disciplines that equestrians can think of, whether riding in a western discipline, tackling a jump course, or heading down the trail. The breed fulfills the prophecy of the Gypsy proverb because Gypsy gold truly “…gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark.”