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 he 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 a hundred years or more. In recent years, he has also become widely known in European Countries, "outside" the Gypsy communities. The breed in the US can still be considered in it's infancy however.
While most Gypsies could not read or write, some lines of the breed and their ancestry was well known and passed down through generations.
Don't think for a moment, that because pedigrees were not written and recorded on paper, that some of what is known about the different lines, cannot somehow be correct. That said however, let's not at the same time, believe that everything we have been told, is true!
Gypsies 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 (pedigree) even though there seems to be a widespread myth to the contrary. 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.
Sadly, as some breeders in the UK, decided to try to make a quick buck by selling to unwary Americans, they have sold horses here in the last few years, with "made up" pedigrees. With the advent of DNA testing, many have come to light as not being of the pedigree they were said to be. 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 in the US.
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 more quickly.
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 and caravans 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. Often, just the women actually "drove" and 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 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 "easy keepers"
To meet their requirements, it is without doubt that in the beginning there was some introduction of Shire, Clydesdale and many pony breeds, which went to make 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. Originally, Gallowers were not Gypsy Horses, but rather 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. Gallowers were also "pacers" and there is little doubt, that Gypsy Travellers, 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. Interestingly, in some areas of England, old-timers still refer to all horses as "Gallowers".
One might question where the "spots" originated. My personal thought, is that years ago, Shires came in all colours and spotted Shires were plentiful and prized. It is only 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 the spotted gene appeared. 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 breed for feather. Many of their horses had it, due to their background, 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 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. Their being bred in a fairly small Geographical area, also ensured their 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 infuse him with Araby heads, neater, more refined 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!
To do that is surely a disgrace to the breed and certainly a stab in the back, to those Gypsies who spent generations breeding a quality horse
It is, and was, part of his heritage, for a long time now.
Let's keep it that way!


Go back to...

All text, pictures, animations and backgrounds appearing
on this page, are the sole property of E.DeLeo and S.Clark,
unless public domain or otherwise noted
and may not be copied without permission
Pictures and graphics on this site are watermarked.
Copyright E.Deleo 2003.

Website Design by Lizzie