The adventurous-looking gypsy vanner horse possesses all the allure of a romance novel, as well as incredible strength. Interestingly, its existence in the United States and Canada owes to a chance encounter between a lone horse and a pair of horse lovers in a field in England.
In 1995, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, of Ocala, Florida, were driving through the English countryside on a business trip when Cindy spotted a handsome black-and-white steed in a distant field.
“We walked up to the fence and the horse came running over to us, and we instantly fell in love,” Dennis recalled to Horse Journals.
The stallion was a “colored cob,” purposefully bred by the Romani people, or gypsies, of Great Britain and Ireland after the Second World War to pull their caravans. These hardy horses could endure life on the road and were even-tempered enough to be handled by anyone, including children.
The breed mingled the bloodlines of the Shire, Clydesdale, Dales pony, and Friesian horses.
Obligingly, the farmer introduced Dennis and Cindy to the stallion’s owner, a man of Romani origin, who invited the couple to the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, making them the first Americans ever to attend.
Captivated, Dennis and Cindy decided to introduce the colored cob to the United States. But first, they needed to come up with a catchy name.
In “The Coloured Horse and Pony” by English author Edward Hart, Cindy discovered the word “vanner”—a horse that pulls a caravan.
“I had a hard time with ‘Gypsy,’ because the word can be used as a cultural slur,” Dennis admitted. Yet the Romani breeders approved, and “gypsy vanner” stuck.
Dennis and Cindy established the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society (GVHS) in 1996, importing the first two fillies to North America that year. Less than six months later, they introduced the same stallion that caught Cindy’s eye in the field that day for breeding.
They renamed him Cushti Bok, meaning “good luck” in the Romani language. Another sire, The Gypsy King, joined Cushti Bok shortly thereafter. “The Gypsies developed such a wonderful horse; let’s keep the genetics and look they created,” said Dennis.
The GVHS describe the gypsy vanner as smallish, heavy, and muscular, standing between 13.2 and 15.2 hands tall, with full, flowing manes and tails, and featherings from the knees down. The horse may be of any color or pattern.
They require significant grooming, and can live up to 25 years.
“Of course they’re beautiful,” said GVHS executive director Kathy Mutti, “but the reason I chose them is their temperament and their trainability.”
“It’s the kindest breed of horse I’ve ever known,” Dennis said.
Besides pulling caravans and carriages, the gypsy vanner makes for a great riding horse, according to The Spruce Pets. The horse can be ridden English or Western style and can be trained in various forms, from dressage to trail riding. Given their calm temperaments, the gypsy vanner can also be used in therapeutic riding programs.
In 2004, Julia and Dan O’Neill, of Once Upon A Farm (dedicated to the breed) in Picton, Ontario, fell in love with the striking horse and purchased a 4-month-old filly named Nimue. Local horse lovers caught on. Six enthusiasts inaugurated the Canadian Gypsy Vanner Horse Club, which helped organize the inaugural Vanner Fair near Toronto in 2011. Almost 5,000 enthusiasts attended.
Today, according to Horse Journals, around 10 percent of the nearly 3,100 registered gypsy vanner horses live in Canada.
“We all knew what we had, it was something special, and we all knew it had to be shown,” said Dan. “We just hope it continues the way it’s been going.”