There is a very special breed of horse that has been much beloved in Great Britain and Ireland for more than 150 years… and yet was relatively unknown in this country, having first been exported to the United States just 20 years ago. These horses are colorful with a beautifully refined head; long-flowing manes and forelocks, and heavily feathered lower legs; small but sturdy and strong; great of heart and kind of temperament; they can pull, drive, or perform in the Dressage ring.
Long associated with the Romany nomadic “Travelers” or traveling people (often referred to as Gypsies) of the British Isles since about the 1850s, the breed was improved by the Romany of Great Britain shortly after World War II to create a ‘perfect caravan horse.’ Using the strength and stamina, hair and good looks of the draft breeds of Shire, Clydesdale and Friesian, along with diminutive size and pulling capability of the Dales draft pony, the Romany came up with what they believed was the perfect caravan horse, meeting their goal of a “small Shire, with more feather, more color and a sweeter head.”
This breeding cross continued on for more than half a century, and was relatively unknown outside of the UK until Dennis and Cindy Thompson, an American couple who was traveling through the British Isles, saw what they described as “a magical looking horse standing in a field.” They were so impressed with the small stallion that they embarked on a quest to learn all they could about the breed; and were invited by the horse’s owner to attend Appleby, the oldest (300-year) Gypsy horse fair in the world. They spent 10 days at the fair, seeking out everyone there who bought or sold the highest-quality horses, and documenting all the information they learned. After four years of diligent research and hard work, the Thompsons were successful in identifying the two foundation stallions, “Sonny Mays” and “The Coal Horse” that inspired the breed (which was as-yet unnamed) as well as the genetics that created them. Probably most exciting was being able to trace the genetic heritage of the little stallion they were first enamored with, “Cushti Bok”, through three countries; and discovering that Cushti Bok, when he was a yearling, had been considered “the most highly prized colt in all of Great Britain” at the Appleby horse fair.
The breed was named “Gypsy Vanner Horse” in honor of the owner of the special horse that had started their quest and in 1996, a registry was created, the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society. The very first issued Registration Certificate for the Gypsy Vanner Horse was given to Cushti Bok, and with this action the new breed was officially recognized and the recording of the horses within that breed began.
The Breed Standard was formulated with respect to the commitment and work of the Gypsies over many lifetimes to achieve their dream of the perfect caravan horse. The Gypsy Vanner is not a color breed, but rather a body type-draft breed. Thanks to the bloodlines of the Dales Pony, the Gypsy Vanners are a small draft; most will stand between 13.2 and 15.2 hands high at the withers. They are strong and sturdy, with heavy bone and a broad body; and they include any color, as described in the Breed Standard of the Society:
- Piebald – Black and White Tobiano
- Skewbald – Combinations of Brown, Red and White including tri-colored Tobiano
- Blagdon – Solid color with white splashed up from beneath
- Odd Colored – All other colors
Facial and leg markings follow the traditional terminology for white markings; all true white markings must have white or pink skin below. Hooves may be of solid color or vertically striped; white or partially white hooves will have a white leg marking immediately above.
The most unique characteristics of this breed are their abundant leg feathering below the knees and hocks and covering the hooves, as well as their long, free-flowing manes and tails (that sometimes drag on the ground!) The leg feathering serves as a natural protection to the legs from the weather and working conditions; and the long and full forelock, which covers the face, protects the eyes.
The breed standard describes the trot for the Gypsy Vanner as a natural forward, free-flowing two-beat diagonal gait. “The pride of the breed is best expressed in watching these horses trot, with a snappy animated style of movement, yet with the natural ability to extend the gait when requested. The knee and hock are synchronized in their elevated, flexed and extension movement. The horse will travel with its head up, flexed at the poll, and neck carried with a natural arch. The shoulders are supple and the hocks are engaged. The animated trot of the Gypsy Vanner is a “trademark” of the horse’s powerful fancy image. The Gypsy Vanner’s conformation allows them to trot willingly and freely under a load and at liberty.”
The goals of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society were identified to preserve and protect the Breed with the look and temperament envisioned by select Gypsy families, as defined in the Breed Standard; the genetics that created the look, by documenting and verifying pedigrees within the Registry; and the feelings of the status, pride and values that Gypsy families felt for their selectively bred horses.
The first two Gypsy Vanner fillies, Bat and Dolly, were imported to the United States on Nov. 24, 1996; followed by the first two Gypsy Vanner stallions — Cushti Bok on Easter Sunday 1997, and The Gypsy King on Easter Sunday 1998. A total of 14 mares and two stallions were imported in June of 1998 for the breed’s introduction at Equitana USA, held in Louisville, KY. At this time they were also introduced as a new breed via the internet.
Having been intrigued by these unusually attractive horses, I was delighted to learn that a breeding farm for Gypsy Vanner Horses, Dell’s Farm Vanners, was located just over the mountain — on Burnt Hill, near Roscoe, NY. Owners Andrew and Maxine Delli Paoli of Rye, NY and Naples, FL, purchased the 135-acre former dairy farm in 2006 and had extensive renovations done to create a fine horse breeding establishment.
When asked how the Delli Paolis had decided to raise Gypsy Vanner Horses, as they are such a new breed, and relatively rare, Andrew said he had first seen the colorful horses while visiting his father in Miami in the late 1960s, when groups of Gypsies would come to the next-door neighbor’s place. They arrived in elaborately decorated carts (vans) pulled by distinctively beautiful horse. At that time, the horses were not recognized as a formal breed nor had their brood stock foundation established. The Delli Paolis greatly admired these gentle horses with their long flowing manes and feathered legs, the caravans and the Gypsy people; and so many years later, as they were searching for horses to ship up to their newly-purchased upstate New York farm, they saw a notice in a Florida newspaper offering Gypsy Vanner Horses for sale.
They went to Leslie Rush’s Partner Up farm in Orlando, FL, and recognized those same qualities they had seen so many years before in Miami, and decided these were just the horses they were seeking to raise. In 2007 they purchased their first Gypsy Vanners, Golden Nugget and Hustler In Paris, from Leslie Rush. These horses were shipped up to their farm; followed by more Gypsy Vanners that were purchased from Jorge and Kristina Rodriguez’s West Hills Ranch in Sherburne, NY.
The Delli Paolis began their breeding program in 2009. The first foals were born in 2010; in the intervening years a total of 18 foals have been produced and all have been sold; many shipped to outlying states such as to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Michigan, Florida, and Massachusetts. Today the Delli Paolis have a stock of seven brood mares, two stallions, and a gelding. They are assisted by Mary Muhlig, of Roscoe, who began working at the farm in 2007; Dave Halaquist of Walton, who began three years ago and serves as Farm Manager; and Amber Zellers, formerly of Sussex, NJ and now of Livingston Manor, NY.
A new filly was just foaled on June 3, by King of the South, out of Golden Nugget. I visited with Mary Muhlig just four days after the foal was born, and was impressed at how gentle, friendly and interactive mama and baby were, thanks to those all-important efforts by their human caretakers. The foal has been named King’s Golden Lady, and will be offered for sale. Dell’s Farm Vanners has a Facebook page, which serves as the network for advertising; and photos and videos of the new foal as well as the other horses are on the Facebook page. Another mare is due to foal later this summer.