Gypsy Vanner

The Gypsy Horse (USA, UK, AU), also known as the Gypsy Cob (UK, NZ), Coloured Cob (UK, Ireland, parts of Continental Europe), Gypsy Vanner (US, CAN), Irish Cob, and Tinker Horse (parts of Continental Europe), is a horse breed originally developed by Romanichal peoples native to the British Isles. As recently as 1996, the Gypsy horse had no stud book or breed registry. However, it is now considered a breed with multiple worldwide breed associations dedicated to it.

It is a small draught breed, popularly recognized for its abundant leg feathering and common black and white, or "piebald", coat colour, though it can be of any other colour as well. Breeders in the U.K. compliment a good example of the breed, which has powerful muscling, correct leg conformation of a pulling horse, and flashy action, with the term "proper cob".

Around 1850, the Romanichal of Great Britain began to use a distinct type of horse to pull the vardoes, chimneyed living waggons, in which they had just begun to live and travel. The distinct colour and look of the modern breed were refined by the Romanichal in the period following World War II. American breeders began to import Gypsy horses and created its first registry in 1996. A related sub-type, the Drum Horse, is a larger animal of similar appearance. Today, the Gypsy horse is still bred in the UK by a number of established breeders, most of whom also exhibit and sell their horses at traditional fairs. In the United States, horse show competition for Gypsy horses is increasing each year, and several Gypsy breed registries have gained affiliate recognition with the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and United States Dressage Federation (USDF).



The Gypsy horse is widely known for its piebald, or black and white pinto coat colour, a common but not sole colouration for the breed. However, Gypsy horses may be of any coat colour; none of the breed registries incorporates a colour requirement into its breed standard. Since the breed's origin is British, colour names are typically given in British English in all English language registries, even in the United States, such as the piebald and skewbald colour descriptors added to the tobiano spotting patterns of the Gypsy. Another British word used to describe a particular colour pattern is blagdon, describing "a solid colour" with white "splashed up from underneath".

There are multiple breed registries for the Gypsy horse, with mostly minor variations in their respective breed standards. The range of desired heights is generally from 13 to 16 hands (52 to 64 inches, 132 to 163 cm) in the United States and Australiasia, but in Ireland and continental Europe, the desired height limit goes up to 16.2 hands (66 inches, 168 cm) for some types and they permit both lighter-boned as well as larger horses than typically desired by the American registries.

Some registries have different categories: The Gypsy Horse Registry of America (GHRA) has two height classifications: Section A for purebred horses under 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) and Section B for purebred horses 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) and over. Its Section C is for Gypsy Crossbred horses.

The Netherlands studbook for Gypsy horses, the Nederlands Stamboek voor Tinkers NSvT, identified there as the "Tinker horse," classifies horses into three groups: "cob," "vanner," and "grai," based on height in meters and degree of refinement. The cob type is approximately 14.3 to 15.1 hands (59 to 61 inches, 150 to 155 cm), and the vanner 15.1 hands (61 inches, 155 cm). The more refined "grai" may be of any size, but usually within the range of 14.3 to 16.2 hands.

Feathering or "Feather", long hair starting below the knee of the front legs and the hock of the hind legs and running down the leg to flow over the front and back of the hooves, is a highly valued attribute of the Gypsy Horse. Silky straight hair and feather are desirable, though somewhat coarser and even wavy hair and feather are permitted. Kinky hair, however, is considered to be a fault.

Profuse feather is an integral part of the definition of a Gypsy Horse and most registries require it, except for the Irish Cob Society, which will register horses with less feather than allowed under other registries' breed standards. However, the ICS also does consider feather as a "characteristic and decorative feature of the Irish Cob breed." Their standard states, "[l]eg hair/feathering, should at the very least, fall from the back of the knees and hocks, down to a thick covering of hair/feathers on the heels. Leg hair/feathering should also fall over the front of the hoof, from at least the coronet."

A Gypsy Horse's facial profile should be straight, neither overly dished nor roman nosed. A "sweet" head, more refined than that of most draft horses, is desired. The GHA's breed standard states that the head may be "sweet", "a small, tidy pony type head", meaning without coarseness and in proportion with the body, But the AGHS calls unequivocally for a sweet head, "more refined than a Shire might have . . . with broad forehead, generous jaw, square muzzle, and even bite". According to GVHS, the "forehead must be flat and broad . . . with [t]he frontal facial bone . . . flat to slightly convex".

The neck is strong, muscular, and of medium length "with a throat latch slightly deeper than lighter breeds". The chest should be broad, deep, and well muscled. Withers are "well rounded, not high and fine, i.e., hardly noticeable". Most registries call for a "well-sloped" shoulder, but the, GVHS's standard is more precise, specifying a shoulder angle ranging from 45 degrees to 60 degrees.

The back is to be short coupled with well sprung ribs and a deep heart girth. The length of line of the belly should be twice that of the topline of the back and the horse should not appear 'wasp waisted'. The Netherlands studbook registry rules for vanner and cob types have breed standards desiring strong, well-muscled builds with abundant feathering similar to that of the registries in English-speaking nations. The "grai" is classified as a lighter and more refined riding type.

Strong hindquarters define the breed as a small draft horse, "designed for strength and power, but with class, presence and style.

They are sometimes described as having an "apple butt" as the croup is well rounded and "very generous, smooth and broad". Poorly-muscled hindquarters or a too-sloping rump are unacceptable. According to GVHS, the length of the hip from the point of the hip to the tailhead, should be slightly longer than the total length of the topline. The line measuring the length of the hip should also be horizontal; if the tailhead falls below the horizontal line intersecting the point of the hip, the horse's "hip/croup will be approaching too steep an angle for the Gypsy Vanner". Bone in the legs should be heavy, clean, and flat. GVHS's standard calls for a length of forearm to cannon ratio of 55% to 45%. The front legs should be clean and flat in joints as well as bone; front pasterns should slope at the same angle as the shoulder and should not be short. A line drawn from the point of the buttock should touch the back of the hock, run "parallel" to the cannon bone, and touch the ground directly behind "the center of the heel". Pastern and hoof angles of the hindlegs are more vertical than the forelegs, usually over 50 degrees. Hooves have strong walls and a well shaped frog, round and with wide heels.

The hind legs of the Gypsy Horse should display proper angulation for a pulling horse, though generally not to the degree found in larger feathered draught breeds such as the modern Shire and Clydesdale. The cannon bones of a Gypsy Horse's hind legs, when viewed from behind with the horse set up squarely, appear parallel, and the entire leg is turned outward. This conformation is not to be confused with legs which are cow-hocked, where the cannon bones are not parallel to one another.

The Gypsy horse has distinct gaits. According to GHA's standard, "The stride should be correct, supple, and powerful. Showing good impulsion from behind, demonstrating powerful drive. Flowing, effortless in appearance". The horse's movement should be "natural, not artificial . . . . Some have higher knee action than others, it's[sic] way of going can vary from short and economical to longer, reaching strides." GHRA's standard requires "[a] steady forward walk with impulsion. Ground covering trot with a slight flick of feather at the point of extension."

The Gypsy horse should be a "strong, kind, (very) intelligent partner that works willingly and harmoniously with its handler. They are also described as mannerly and manageable, eager to please, confident, courageous, alert, and loyal with a genuine sociable outlook. The Gypsy Horse is renowned for its gentle, tractable nature and sensible disposition."

The Gypsy Horse is prone to health issues common to feathered draughts. The most serious of these is chronic progressive lymphedema. This condition may have a genetic component, as is a similar condition in humans. However, studies to date have not identified a causative gene. Of lesser concern is scratches. The moist environment under the feathering is an ideal environment for the combination of fungus and mites which are believed to cause it.


The Gypsy Horse was bred by the Romanichal of Great Britain to pull the vardoes in which they lived and traveled. The Romanichal had arrived in the British Isles by 1500 A.D., but they did not begin to live in vardoes until around 1850. Prior to that, they traveled in tilted carts or afoot and slept either under or in these carts or in small tents. The peak usage of the Gypsy caravan occurred in the latter part of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th.

Some aspects of training, management, and characteristics of a horse used to pull a vardo are unique. For example, the horse is trained not to stop until it reaches the top of a hill; otherwise it may not be able to get started again. Training begins at a very early age with the young horse tied "with a short rope from the head to the trace-ring on the collar of the shaft-horse", and led along on the off side. An old hat is sometimes placed on a fearful horse's head so as to keep him from seeing back over the top of his blinkers at the waggon looming at his back. A horse used to pull a vardo which was a permanent home was usually in very good condition due to a combination of exercise, grazing a variety of greens in the hedgerows, and good quality care; the horse was considered part of the family. Since the family's children lived in close proximity to the horse, one having "an unreliable temper could not be tolerated".

The Gypsy Horse was also used to pull the "tradesman's cart . . . used in conjunction with the caravan as a runabout and work vehicle and whilst on a journey". This is also known as a flatbed or a trolley, and examples appear in the annual London Harness Horse Parade.

The Gypsy Horse breed as it is today is thought to have begun to take shape shortly after World War II ended. When the British Romanichal had first begun to live in vardoes around 1850, they used mules and cast off horses of any suitable breed to pull them. These later included "coloured" horses, piebalds and skewbalds, which had become very unfashionable in mainstream society and were typically culled. Among these were a significant number of coloured Shire horses. Many of these ended up with Romanichal breeders, and by the 1950s, they were considered valuable status symbols within that culture. Spotted (leopard complex) horses were very briefly in fashion around the time of World War II, and this coat pattern can be found in the breed to this day. However, the spotted horse quickly went out of fashion in favor of the coloured horse, which has retained its popularity until the present day. The initial greater height of the breed derived from the influence of both Clydesdales and Shires, both of which possess "feather", long hair starting at the knee or hock and growing down to cover the hooves. Feather became and still remains highly valued.


The Irish cob can be traced to the 18th century but also was long considered a type, not a breed, and varied somewhat in characteristics, though generally was bred for light draft and farm work but also capable of being ridden. It originated from crossing Thoroughbred, Connemara pony and Irish Draught horses.

Beginning in 1996, a series of registries, associations, and societies was formed in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of these with their foundation dates are as follows: Gypsy Vanner Horse Society (1996), The Irish Cob Society Ltd. (1998), Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association (2002), Gypsy Cob Society of America, later the Gypsy Horse Registry of America (2003), Australasian Gypsy Horse Society (2007), and the NZ Gypsy Cob Association (2012).

All American registries, including the International Drum Horse Association below, employ the Animal Genetics Research Laboratory of the University of Kentucky as the repository of their registered horses' DNA markers. Since the Gypsy Horse has had registries only recently, comparison of DNA markers is necessary to confirm parentage.

In its native Great Britain, the Gypsy is still being bred by a number of well-established Romanichal breeders, many of whose families have done so for several generations. And the trend of breeding down in size continues with 11- and 12-hand horses now common. Except for special occasions, these horses are typically not being used for their original purpose, pulling a living waggon, but are instead viewed in terms of heirloom bloodlines and are a source of great pride.


U.K. Romanichal breeders of the Gypsy Horse have typically called it simply "Cob" and "Coloured Cob" with a particularly good specimen being a "proper Cob". However, the term cob, defined as a short-legged, stout horse, is a body type rather than a breed. As part of several efforts to have the Gypsy Horse recognized as a breed outside the Romanichal community, a more descriptive name has been sought for it, starting in the 1990s.

The first known importers of the Gypsy Horse to North America, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, viewed the breed as unnamed and wanted it to be given what they viewed as a proper name. For this, they selected "Vanner", which they had seen used in reference to a Gypsy Horse in Edward Hart's 1993 book, and they incorporated it into the name of the American registry they founded in 1996, the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society.

The term "vanner," prior to the Thompsons' adoption of it for the GVHS, refers to a type of horse and dates to at least 1888. According to the OED, a "vanner" is "a light horse suitable for drawing a small van", where "van", appearing in print with this meaning for the first time in the early 1800s, is "a covered vehicle chiefly employed for the conveyance of goods, usually resembling a large wood box with arched roof and opening from behind, but varying in size (and to some extent in form) according to the use intended". Writing in 1897, M. Horace Hayes describes the "light vanner", a horse of indeterminate breed "which we meet in vans, 'buses and tram-cars", to be "active, light cart horses that can trot freely and at fair speed" and are in "a class intermediate between the light harness horse and the heavy draught horse".Although "van" was derived from "caravan", the first known occurrence of this word to reference "a chimneyed house on wheels", or vardo, was not until 1872. Therefore "vanner" does not directly derive from "caravan" and so has no inherent connection to the Romanichal.

The Drum Horse

GCDHA opened a studbook for Drum Horses, which it treats as a separate breed. The Drum Horse in America is patterned after and named for the Drum Horses traditionally attached to British cavalry regiments. This horse's purpose is to carry the large silver drums which are beaten to mark march time. The rider guides the horse with reins attached to his stirrups since his hands are needed to beat time on the drums. The horse selected for this position is usually a Clydesdale cross and has frequently been tobiano or sabino.

GCDHA's Drum Horse breed standard specifies a Gypsy Horse cross with Clydesdale, Shire, and/or Friesian making up the other bloodlines. Solid and blagdon patterned horses are registered but only as foundation stock. Formed in 2006, the American Drum Horse Association, now the International Drum Horse Association, excluded Friesian bloodlines but allowed solid and blagdon horses into its Drum Horse stud book. In 2010, the Gypsy Horse Association opened a Gypsy Heritage Division, which included stud books for Drum Horses, allowing Gypsy breeding to be no less than 25% of breeding and Clydesdale, Shire, and Friesian to constitute the rest, and also admitted Gypsy crossbreeds other than Drum Horses. Only in North America is the Drum Horse considered a breed. One view of a Drum is as the return of colour to the Shire, from which it was culled when colour fell out of fashion in all breeds during the 1950s.