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Gypsy Vanner Horse Breed Guide

The horse has long had a place in harness and some breeds evolved solely for the purpose of pulling vehicles and literally, the clue was in the name. Amongst these would be the Yorkshire Coach horse, the Norfolk Roadster and the Vanner, hence the shortened word “van” that we all know today which generally describes a light vehicle designed to carry goods but in earlier times, would have referred to the type of horse that would draw them. In the context of the horse, a Vanner was generally a small and sturdy horse capable of pulling a light trade vehicle. A Vanner would be lighter of frame, quicker and probably smaller than a draught animal used on the farm but not as tall or refined as a carriage horse.


Main image source : Curtesy of Thomas Quine via Flickr Creative Commons.


The Gypsy Vanner – the clue is in the name - is a small horse developed and maintained by gypsies to pull their caravans. But in reality, this horse has been kept something of a secret outside the traveller communities until in November 1996 the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society was founded. It was only at this point that the Gypsy Vanner became a defined breed.


The Society’s stated aim was to record and protect a horse which had been developed solely by the gypsies of England and Ireland.  The Gypsy Vanner Society was founded by two Americans who discovered the breed when travelling in England and this gave rise to a passion in them to document and record the Gypsy Vanner as a recognised breed in order to maintain and protect it. Much of the information was gathered anecdotally from the rather closed gypsy community, information that was only known within that community and which had never previously been recorded or disseminated including, breed influences. The Gypsy Vanner horse is essentially an emblem of the gypsy tradition and it was the intention of the founders of the society to capture not just the breed but also the absolute essence of the Gypsy culture.


Main image source : Curtesy of Thomas Quine via Flickr Creative Commons.


In simple terms, a Gypsy Vanner is a solid cob with feathering, think Shire horse but smaller and, with a more delicate and refined head. Piebalds and skewbalds dominate in terms of colour as they have traditionally been the most highly prized within the Gypsy community but a Gypsy Vanner can also be a solid colour. Often the solid colours such as bay or dark brown will still feature plenty of white on the limbs and there can also be a splashing effect of white hair on the underside of the horse.  This splashing is referred to as “blagdon” and some of these horses are termed Blagdon cobs.  Interestingly this type of “splashing” can also be found in the Welsh breeds and the Clydesdale.  And herein lies the key, that the gypsies used a variety of breeds in the nineteenth and twentieth century to create their Gypsy Vanner and this is as much a reflection of their peripatetic nature as anything else, which gave them access to different influences around the United Kingdom.


So rather confusingly, it is theoretically possible to have a traditional type feathered, coloured cob and potentially register it with one of four societies in the UK. There are two coloured societies so either CHAPS (Coloured Horse and Pony Society) or the BSPA (British Skewbald and Piebald Association) and there is also the TGCA, the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association and the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society for which this type of horse may also be eligible for registration.  There is an element of overlap with all of these organisations and horses could potentially belong to more than one society depending on the owners’ aims and ambitions. Each group will fiercely protect their own unique points and distinctions, for example the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association has an ever growing competition presence whereas the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society certainly within the UK is not really known on the competition scene. Which society to approach is to an extent a matter of personal preference and all can act as a source of information and assist with sourcing a horse for purchase.  But what should be remembered with GVHS, is that it is truly rooted in the Gypsy culture and tradition and takes its origins directly from the traveller community.



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