Although the origins of the modern Gypsy Vanner are believed to date back to the middle of the 19th Century; the breed only gained formal recognition in the closing years of the 20th Century. Even today it is casually known by a variety of names such as Gypsy Horse and Gypsy Cob rather than its official breed name.
The word Vanner is a corruption of the word Vardo. Vardoes were the travelling wagons used by the Romani travellers. Like people today, the Romani liked to decorate their houses nicely, both inside and out. This meant that the exteriors of the vardoes were generally beautifully carved and painted and high-ranking Romani even used gilding. Having gone to all this effort to create a beautiful-looking wagon, the Romani naturally wanted an eye-catching horse to pull it. Of course, the horse also needed to be strong so that it could pull what was essentially a mobile home. It also required a sensible temperament since there was plenty of traffic on the roads even in centuries gone by, it was just of a different sort.
When the Romani first arrived in Britain, they used mules and any horse with a placid temperament which could be acquired cheaply. As time went by, however, they began to work to improve their horses. They tried adding Hackney blood but this made the horses too light refined for the lives they led. They therefore began to use combinations of Welsh Cobs, Dales ponies, Shires and Clydesdales. These last tended to be coloured horses as they were out of fashion at the time and therefore more affordable. All of these breeds offered a combination of strength, robustness, elegance and good temperament and the Romani were very careful in their breeding programmes. They aimed to create a horse with the strength to pull a vardo, even up a steep hill and an elegant movement, which would make it a pleasure to watch when it did so. They preferred coloured horses and would only breed from animals with the best of temperaments.
By the 1850s their horses had become recognizable as distinct from the animals which were used to breed them, although they were still not considered a breed as such. Instead they were given a variety of local names, for example in Ireland they were (and often still are) known as Irish Cobs. Some of their names are quite derogatory, for example in some places they are still called Tinkers' Cobs. In an attempt to improve the animals' public image and to further the argument for them to be considered a separate breed, their admirers decided that a new, specific, name for them was needed and settled on the term Gypsy Vanner.
Although the first Gypsy Vanner breed registry was set up at the very tail end of the 20th Century, the popularity of the breed is such that there are now multiple registries in different countries, each with their own set of standards and some using different names for different sub-categories of horse. There are numerous minor variations between their breeding standards. One common factor, however, is that all colours are permitted in all registries. None of them have a requirement for a Gypsy Vanner to be coloured. Notwithstanding this, most Gypsy Vanners are piebald (black and white patches), skewbald (any-other-colour and white patches) or blagdon (any colour except white with white spots and splashes).
Broadly speaking Gypsy Vanners can be between 13HH and 16.2HH. As the breed is based on the Cob type they tend to be within the 14.2HH and 16HH range. All breed registries place emphasis on the need for a Gypsy Vanner to have a refined, pony-type face rather than the bigger, broader faces found on draught horses. In spite of the influence of the Welsh Cob, the Gypsy Vanner should have an essentially straight profile. Some degree of dishing is permitted or a slight Roman nose but both are discouraged. All Gypsy Vanners have luxurious manes and tails and at least some degree of feathering. Most breed societies prefer thick feathering, but the Irish registry is more relaxed about this. In the neck, body and legs, Gypsy Vanners resemble powerful yet graceful cobs rather than the heavy draught horses. They have plenty of muscle and density of bone but their action is pacey and energetic.
Traditionally Gypsy Vanners lived as part of their human family. They learned to cope with the hazards of the road and they also learned to cope with the everyday hazards of domestic life. Romani children and dogs could run around and make as much noise as they pleased without the Gypsy Vanner turning a hair. They also tend to be highly intelligent horses.
Gypsy Vanner Health
All feathered horses have some degree of chronic progressive lymphedema. This is a skin condition which is characterized by swelling and damage to the skin. There is widespread belief that this is a genetic disorder although as yet the specific genetic trigger is still to be identified. In many cases the condition can be kept under control, but owners should be aware of the risks. A lesser problem is that of pastern dermatitis, more commonly known as mud fever. As its formal name suggests, the symptoms are similar to those of dermatitis in humans and as its common name suggests it is triggered by horses standing in deep mud. This damages the skin and leaves it open to attack by bacterial infections. It can be difficult to spot the initial signs of this on feathered horses. Anti-mud-fever boots are therefore a good investment also any equipment which comes into contact with the horse's body (e.g. grooming tools) should be used on one horse only and humans should wash their hands when going from horse to horse. On the plus side, with these exceptions the Gypsy Vanner is a very healthy and robust animal.
Caring for a Gypsy Vanner
As can probably be guessed from everything that has been said, the Gypsy Vanner's practical care requirements are minimal. They are, however, very used to company, particularly human company and do need to feel loved and wanted in order to be happy.
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