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The Magical Mystery of "A Gypsy Cob"

Image Copyright Gerald R Wheeler

Gypsy Cob

Article copyright: Colorado River Gypsy Horses
was BFSGH copyright

Many people seem to be very confused about what is considered "feathered", and what is considered "well feathered". We see many ads for these horses on the web that say the horse is "heavily feathered", of that it has "tons of feather" and things like this, and when we look at the horse we just sigh. Yes, it may be a good deal of feather compared to a light horse, or a Belgian draft, or even a Friesian, but that is NOT acceptable feathering for a gypsy horse. Below are some examples and comments on what is, and what is not, good feathering for a gypsy horse.

     For this discussion on feather, we will leave out all of the other things that make a horse into a good horse, and focus on the feathering, a very important part of the gypsy horse (cob, vanner, Irish cob, whatever you like to call them), breed. For the horses used as examples, we will assume that they all are equal in conformation and training, for the purposes of this article. This way we can "get to the heart" of this weighty issue in our chosen breed of horse. We realize that very few people get to spend the time that we do with the true gypsy people who created this breed, and want to share a bit of what we have learned over the years in relation to this matter.

     In basic terms, "feathered" means that a horse has ground-length hair completely around the hoof. If the hair in the front of the hoof doesn't naturally grow longer than about an inch, then you DO NOT have a feathered horse. These parts are very important, but just being technically "feathered" doesn't make your gypsy horse acceptable by gypsy standards. If a horse has a light amount of hair all the way around the hoof, but it's not THICK and FULL, then, by gypsy standards, this is not a high quality gypsy horse (of course this excludes horses that have been shaved, or "bog burned").

Feather on a Friesian horse.
To Shire, Clydesdale, or Gypsy Horse breeders, this is NOT a "feathered" horse. 

     To gypsies, the people who created our beloved breed of horse, there is no such thing as too much feather.  A moderately feathered stallion is never acceptable, a stallion has to have as much feather as is at all possible.  If a gypsy breeder is breeding a stallion that doesn't have an incredible amount of feather, he is a poor breeder, who doesn't have the money for good stock. "Each hair is a sovereign" is a term used by many of the old traditional breeders. This would translate to "each hair is a dollar" to us Americans. This is basically the "bible" of gypsy horse breeding, as the cheap horses don't have too much hair, and the expensive ones are the well bred, quality horses, that also have tons of feather. These horses can trade among gypsies for up to £100,000 (British Pounds, translates to about $175,000 dollars!).  If you have two conformationally identical fillies, and one has twice as much hair as the other one, that "heavier" filly is worth at least double what the other one is.  Double isn't actually an accurate description of the worth though, as most of the well-known gypsy breeders won't buy a light legged and feathered filly, no matter what her breeding and history, and no matter how cheap she is.  Most of these top breeders would spend several month's income for the "heaviest" nice filly though!  These top breeders wouldn't take a light-legged, lightly feathered filly of unknown heritage if you gave her to them, hence that filly is "worthless".  I cannot count how many times I have heard the term "worthless" when the big gypsy breeders are out buying stock for themselves.

     These "worthless" horses are what most of the breeders call "trade horses".  These are the horses that are sold at auctions and sent to France as meat for the French citizens (yes, they do eat horse there, in abundance).  These are usually lightly boned, lightly feathered horses of non-descript breeding. Unfortunately, most of the English horse people very wrongly assume that ALL gypsy bred horses are these "trade horses".  Aren't stereotypes grand!

     Back to the basics of feather... Feather is a recessive, and it is accumulative.  If you breed a feathered horse to any non-feathered horse, you DO NOT get a feathered horse.  If a gypsy horse doesn't have too much feather on it, the reason for this is that it has non-feathered horse in it's pedigree - not too far back!  If the horse has barely any feather on the front of the hoof, but a decent bit off the back of the fetlock, this horse has light-horse bred into it, mostly likely as one of it's parents!  There are actually dozens of these horses that have been imported into the USA that are direct, first generation crosses, but have been sold as "pure gypsy horses".  This is not a good situation, to say the least!  I will state again, if a "gypsy horse" doesn't have full feathering around the front of it's hoof, that reaches the ground, it is recent-generation cross-bred horse (and very likely a first generation cross)!  DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY on these horses. You can get a horse like this in the USA for MUCH cheaper, by simply crossing a smaller Shire or Clydesdale with a paint horse.  Don't fall victim to this scam!

     If you want a truly feathered gypsy horse, you will have to import, or buy offspring from good imported stock.  Many people make the terribly wrong assumption that if a horse is pinto colored, and from England, that it's a gypsy horse.  Don't make this mistake!  This is just like saying that any horse with a pinto color here in the USA is a paint horse.  This couldn't be further from the truth, especially when you take into account those miniature horses and Shetlands that are snazzy pinto marked!  Don't fall into this common gypsy horse trap!

     Back to basics... Mares are feathered too in this breed!  Many people will try to tell you that a mare doesn't have to have much feathering to be a gypsy horse.  Don't buy this!  Of course, there are "degrees of feathering" which I will show examples of below, but unless the mare has feather all the way around the hoof to the ground, she is just another "worthless" horse.  Below I will show you what a true gypsy breeder would consider acceptable, and what that breeder would not.  Not all mares can be "the heaviest mare" around, but there are limits as to what amount is acceptable to proper breeders.  There is never a reason to breed a gypsy horse mare that has what a gypsy horse breeder would consider to be an unacceptable amount of feather.  Doing this won't give you a nicely feathered horse, it will only give you a horse with slightly more feather than the mare, no matter how heavy (in feather) the stallion is.  We don't need to do this here in the states.  The gypsies have already gone through the trouble of breeding this type of horse into a perfect little feathered horse, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel.  This doesn't address the issue of tainting the breed with inferior, cross bred horses, but of course, that is an issue to be considered as well. 

     Bigger horses. Many of the larger (over 16 hands) gypsy type horses (and drum horses) have a good amount of Shire or Clydesdale blood in them.  These don't get as heavily feathered as the traditional gypsy horses, but should have AT LEAST as much feather as a Shire or Clydesdale.  This means full hair growing around the FRONT of the hoof all the way around.  Any less means that you don't have a feathered horse.  If you have a 14 or 15 hand horse with that lesser amount of feather, you have a "trade horse", one that most true gypsy *breeders*  wouldn't take a second look at (but the *dealers* would love to sell that to an American, guaranteed!). 

Rule to live by in gypsy horses:
Hair isn't everything, but, you can't have everything unless you have the HAIR!

Examples .... read more


The intelligence and human bond is present within this breed, right from the moment of birth, they are bred to interact with their human family, are willing to please, and are very trainable. Until recently the Gypsy Horse was not a registered breed. The careful and deliberate breeding of these magical horses including all details and history were kept in the collective memory of the families who bred them for  many generations. Gypsy families of the UK have been selectively breeding these horses, with known lineage for many years, although it has not been recorded, but only passed down through the spoken word.
Gypsy families often own many gypsy horses, but there are only a few that possess the potential to reproduce the quality of horse that is most sought for breeding purposes.

(Appleby Fair)

These are the horses kept away from prying eyes and only bought out on special occasions to suitably impress others symbolic of wealth and greatness.

Due to the recent interest and importation of  Gypsy horses, registries are being established in England, Australia, USA and in New Zealand to protect and continue the established bloodlines. 

The Gypsy Horse must possess a certain look and meet a clear conformation standard, ensuring that we may reproduce the same quality horse that the ancient Romany Gypsy dreamed of.

The sheer beauty of the Gypsy Horse will captivate both young and old alike.  Bred from a combination of draft and pony breeds they range in size from 13-15 hands.  They are sturdy horses with heavy bone, flat knees and a short back.  They come in a variety of colors;  bay/white, red/white, black/white, blue and tri-colored.  The most common color is black/white and occasionally you will find a solid color, however, all colors are prized!  Gypsy horses have an abundance of mane and feather.  The feathers should begin at the knee/hock and fully cover the hooves.  Manes and tails are long, thick and flowing.  The Gypsy horse is truly magic in motion, appearing to float as they move!

(Gypsy Vanner demonstration, Western States Horse Expo, 2003
Photo by: Becki Bell

The Gypsy Horse has many wonderful qualities.  Their beauty is immediately noticed, but time spent with a Gypsy Horse and their warm, gregarious nature, is a true blessing! Years of selective breeding has developed a personality that is likely the most gentle and docile in the world.  They are extremely social and eager to participate in your activities and will do so with beauty and style!

Traditionally used for driving, they also excel at dressage, hunting, show jumping and both English  & Western riding. 

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