Gypsy Horse History
All breeds of horses have a history, whether it be ancient
or modern and the Gypsy Horse is no different. His History
is long, interesting and to some, a little romantic. However there was nothing really romantic, about the way early Gypsies travelled, lived and died.
Regardless of the many names by which the horse is known, on this site he will be
referred to as a Gypsy Horse.
While some Gypsies prefer to call themselves "Travellers" and
others "Romany" or "The Rom", here, with no disrespect meant,
we will simply refer to them as "Gypsies". Remember those known
as Irish Tavellers - sometimes also called Tinkers, and those known as
Romanies, were two very different races and peoples and not related
to each other in any way. In fact they were enemies for generations.
We will speak of that elsewhere on this site.
The Gypsy Horse has been well known and bred by the Gypsies in
England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, for at least a hundred years or more.
In recent years, he has also become widely known in European countries
outside the Gypsy communities. Even though there are probably 14,000 or more in the US now, the breed here can still be considered in it's infancy.
While most Gypsies could not read or write, many bloodlines, horses of the breed
and their ancestry was well known and passed down through generations.
Many Gypsy families of generations ago, prided themselves on knowing the
ancestry of their horses, as much as those alive today. The knowledge
and accuracy of the bloodlines and especially the greats of the breed,
is a huge source of pride among them.
That said however, it must also be noted that not all Gypsy
Horses alive today do have a known or easily traceable history.
Many Gypsies didn't actually name their horses at all
so many were known by names which sometimes just described their colour,
markings or quality etc. Many were named according to who happened to own
them at the time. Upon being sold, some were then given names
very unlike what which they had previously been known. So The Old Spot
Mare might later have become named, Ebony Emily and Tom's Stallion
might have been changed to Bill's Old Horse.
Certainly a difficult task to trace for those of us interested in
Pedigrees. Purchasing one from a reliable current breeder, or directly
from a Gypsy family who have been breeding these horses for generations
and are well known, regardless of whether or not you are able to write
a pedigree with several generations of known names, you probably have a
real Gypsy Horse of true Gypsy Horse ancestry.
With the advent of DNA testing, many have come to light as not being of
the pedigree they were said to be at time of sale. So when importing or purchasing imported
stock, be sure to demand proof of parentage with DNA. Many of today's horses
have DNA already on file across the world.
Early Gypsies soon discovered what was necessary in the horses they
owned and used. In the very early days, Gypsies travelled using flat
carts, on which they placed their tents. At that time, the horses they
used didn't have to be particularly large. They actually liked them to
have a little pulling power, but much speed, so they could get around
Later, when the Gypsies turned to living wagons, they obviously needed
heavier and stronger horses to pull the load. Those horses had to be
strong enough to pull their caravans (vardos) and these vehicles weighed an enormous amount. Just imagine the weight, not only of the caravan itself, but the
fact that it carried everything the entire family owned. All clothing,
pots and pans, dishes, linens and most even had pot belly and/or cooking
stoves. Most caravans weighed so much, that everyone except the very
young and elderly, walked beside them as they journeyed from one place
to another. Most always, the men walked alongside to their next possible source
of income or campsite for the night.
So to be able to pull all this, their horses had to have solid,
weighty bodies, huge bone, thick necks, wide chests and a great layback of shoulder.They had to have strong legs and large feet. They had to be unflappable
in any situation and absolutely solid and reliable in their interaction
with humans, including children. They had to be tough enough to exist in
the harshest of weather and often on meagre food sources. They had to be
able to pull a caravan all day if necessary covering sometimes 40 miles
or more on hard roads or muddy lanes. They had to have a willing
work ethic and always do what was required of them. In the past,
most existed on what was found growing along country roads when the
family camped for the night, so they had to be what we refer to today, as
To meet their requirements, it is without doubt that when the families moved into the heavy vardos from the flat carts, there was some introduction of Shire and Clydesdale. Earlier many pony breeds had gone into the horse the Gypsies desired and needed.
In the Northumberland area and counties thereabouts, there was a horse
known as the Gallower.
This was a said to be a pony size breed, possessing tremendous power
and incredible speed. The Gallowers were used for friendly and sometimes
not-so-friendly, races within communities. Gallowers were a type, mostly found in certain areas and were often known as "Scotch Galloways". These fine, sure-footed ponies, were used extensively in the lead mines, being forced to work hauling
great loads, in the most difficult of terrain. They were the ancestors
of the now well-known Fell Pony which is thought by most to be part of
the mix which made up the original Gypsy Horses. Many Gallowers were also
pacers and there is little doubt that the nomadic peoples, while passing
through those areas, picked up some of these horses to breed within
their own stock. This probably accounts for the fact that within some
Gypsy Horse lines today, one still can find a few who pace. This is not
considered a fault since genetically it is obviously well entrenched
within the breed.
One might question where the spots and other patterns originated. My personal thought, is that years ago, Shires came in all colours and spotted Shires were
plentiful and prized. It is only more recently, that the Shires have not been allowed to possess spotting. So with that in mind, since Shires were thought to be a huge part of the original mix - then it's quite probable that that is where some of the spotted genes appeared. Also, there were many spotted ponies in the UK and no doubt some were introduced into the breed early on, to once again, produce spotted horses. While in early days, all colours were prized if the horse itself was good, as time went on, the Gypsies began to favour more, the coloured horses of Black and White or Bay and White. However, the breed can be found in all colours. In the early days, Gypsies did not necessarily breed for feather. Many of their horses had it, due to their background of Shire and Clydesdale, but the Gypsies never bred for it. Heavy feather was too much of a problem for them and gathered too much mud since much of the time, they travelled on unpaved, muddy roads and lanes. It is only in more recent times, maybe 50 years or so, where heavy feather has been known and more desired in the breed.
Some of the great horses who in turn produced great offspring, were
remembered by the Gypsies, generation after generation,
even until today. Their Ancestry was known throughout all the Gypsy
communities. Certain great Stallions were used on their best mares and
also on mares owned by Gypsies in other communities. And so, as time
went on, the breed developed into the horse we know today, as The Gypsy
Horse or Gypsy Cob. Their being bred in a fairly small geographical area, also ensuredtheir blood was not infused with that of other, lighter type horses and
breeds. While Gypsy Horses were found and bred through the ages, of many
sizes, they all had in common, those attributes prized and indeed desired,
in the Gypsy communities. The Gypsies also knew their various types of horses, by different names. We will go into that another time.
Lucky indeed are we today, who can say we own a truly unique breed of
horse, who's ancestry and history is not lost in time, but treasured
greatly by those who know him. A great debt of gratitude is owed to those
men of old, who maybe made the perfect horse.
So let us not try to change him. Let us not try to change him into a more refined horse, with lighter bone and a more slender body to meet current trends or demands.
If the public desires a more refined coloured horse, then advise him of the
many light horse breeds, who can be found in brightly coloured overcoats.
And for goodness' sake don't follow the trend in Europe, by shaving
off their feather for the show ring!
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