The Gypsy Vanner is one of the most recognizable breeds in the world. Also known as the Gypsy Cob, Irish Cob, and Romani Cob, these horses resemble a smaller version of draft-type breeds and come in many different coat colours.

This breed descended from crosses between draft horses and native ponies in Ireland and Great Britain. Once used to pull the vardoes of nomadic Romanichal Travelers, Gypsy Vanners today serve as pleasure mounts in multiple riding and driving disciplines.

Thanks to their striking appearance and mild-mannered temperaments, Gypsy Vanners quickly gained popularity in North America after crossing the Atlantic in 1996. Unfortunately, the breed is susceptible to several genetic diseases.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Gypsy Vanner breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Gypsy Vanner horses.

Gypsy Vanner Horse History

Gypsy Vanners have a unique history that traces back to the nomadic Romani societies of Western Europe. However, questions have recently arisen about whether the Gypsy Vanner name is insensitive to the cultures that developed the breed.

Origin

The Romanichal Travelers of Great Britain bred cobs to pull their vardoes, the traditional caravans in which they lived and travelled. These travelers belonged to a subgroup of Romani people – an ethnic group from northern India that entered Europe around the 9th century AD.

Romani people faced persecution and discrimination throughout their history in Europe. While sometimes called Gypsies, the name is often considered offensive and inaccurate.

Records of the Romanichal Travelers in the British Isles date back to the 16th century, but they only began to live in vardoes around 1850. Few written records exist regarding the foundation and pedigrees of their horses. [1]

Some evidence suggests foundational stock of Romani breeding programs included coloured horses disregarded by mainstream society as unfashionable. These included colourful Shires and Clydesdales, adding pulling power and feathering to the Romani cobs.

The native Dales Pony likely contributed the most to the modern Gypsy Vanner type. This British draft pony had the strength, bones, and hair of heavier breeds in a smaller size. [2]

Historic Use

Ancestors of Gypsy Vanners needed robust strength to pull heavy caravans over long distances and hardiness to live off the land while travelling. The horses were closely intertwined in all aspects of Romani society, living alongside family members of all ages.

By the 1950s, these horses had become valuable symbols of social status and cultural heritage. Breeding continued to improve the quality of the cobs, eventually producing a distinct breed with striking looks and movement. [1]

Those attributes attracted the attention of visiting Americans, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, who imported the stallion Cushti Bok in 1996. The couple developed the Gypsy Vanner name and set the breed standard for horses produced in North America.

Breed Registry

The Thompsons founded the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, which maintains a breed registry for Gypsy Vanner horses in North America. However, several registries exist on both sides of the Atlantic for Gypsy Cobs.

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn - Equine Nutrition Consultants | Mad Barn USA

Breed Characteristics

Modern breed standards for the Gypsy Vanner trace back to the characteristics favoured in caravan horses. The breed’s type is often described as a draft horse in a smaller package, which makes the Gypsy Vanner suitable for many different disciplines.

Conformation

Gypsy Vanners have an average height of 13.2 to 15.2 hands. Although these horses are significantly shorter than the draft breeds they descend from, their conformation gives the impression of a small draft horse.

The breed has good overall substance and bone, with strong muscling throughout their bodies. Their small heads are more refined than draft horses, with a straight profile, broad forehead, generous jaw, and intelligent eyes.

Necks are medium-length with a slightly deeper throat latch than light breeds. Well-rounded withers connect to a short coupled body with a deep heart girth, broad chest, and well-sprung ribs. Muscular hindquarters give these horses their power and draft-like appearance.

The Gypsy Vanner’s full feathering, long manes, and full tails are some of the first characteristics most people notice. Feathering should start below the hocks and knees and extend over the hooves.

Colours

Gypsy Vanners can be any colour, and the prevalence of colourful coat patterns in the breed contributes to their popularity. Pinto coat colours are widespread in Gypsy Vanners. [3]

Temperament

Breeders favoured willing work ethics and docile dispositions in the cobs that pulled caravans through the countryside and lived alongside small children. These characteristics persist in the breed today, and most Gypsy Vanners have friendly and engaging personalities.

Their calm and sweet natures make Gypsy Vanners a popular family horse, while their intelligence makes them easy to train. However, every horse is an individual, and temperaments can vary significantly between members of the same breed.

Disciplines

Gypsy Vanners are popular with equestrians who want to stand out in any arena. The breed is still commonly used to pull carts and carriages in recreational driving, but Gypsy Vanners are also versatile mounts for pleasure riding.

Their substance makes them suitable for heavier riders who prefer smaller mounts. And their calm temperaments make them popular trail and therapy horses. They can excel in both English and Western disciplines, especially dressage and Western pleasure.

Health Problems

Although technically not draft horses, Gypsy Vanners are susceptible to health problems commonly found in drafts. Gypsy Vanner bloodlines also carry genes associated with several inherited diseases.

Because of the Dales pony influence in their heritage, Gypsy Vanners can be prone to developing metabolic syndrome and laminitis.

Genetic Diseases

As with other breeds descended from draft horses, Gypsy Vanners are susceptible to polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). This condition involves abnormal glycogen storage in muscle, which leads to muscle cramping and tying up episodes. [4]

Research has identified the GYS1 gene mutation responsible for PSSM Type 1 in Gypsy Vanner horses. While this genetic condition doesn’t have a cure, proper nutrition can help manage clinical signs. [4]

Foal immunodeficiency syndrome (FIS) is an inherited disease that causes fatal anemia and impaired immune function in affected foals. The genetic mutation responsible for FIS is found primarily in Fell and Dales Ponies and related breeds, including Gypsy Vanners. [5]

Affected foals are clinically normal at birth due to the passive immunity acquired from their dam’s colostrum. However, they cannot produce antibodies and are usually euthanized or die from infection by four months of age. [5]

Some genetic diseases are associated with colour genes found in Gypsy Vanners. Multiple congenital ocular anomalies (MCOA) is an eye disorder associated with the silver dilution gene. This condition is characterized by ocular cysts and other abnormalities that hinder vision. [6]

Health Problems

Chronic progressive lymphedema is a debilitating condition involving impaired lymph flow that is observed in most draft breeds. Gypsy Vanners are also susceptible to this incurable disease. Management can slow progression, but the condition often results in lameness and disfigurement. [7]

CPL is a progressive disease characterized by a build-up of lymph fluid in the lower limbs. Gypsy Vanners with CPL develop skin folds and lesions susceptible to secondary infections as swelling worsens, leading to severe disability and poor quality of life. [7]

Gypsy Vanners also frequently struggle with less severe skin conditions on their lower legs due to their heavy feathering. This extra hair can trap moisture and debris against the skin, leading to pasture dermatitis. [8]

Care and Management

Like all horses, Gypsy Vanners need quality basic care, including regular veterinary check-ups with annual vaccinations, deworming, and routine dental exams.

A thorough daily grooming routine is critical for maintaining the Gypsy Vanner’s long mane and tail and preventing skin irritations on their lower limbs. Their feathers can also trap moisture against their hooves and cause hoof problems, so good farrier care is essential.

Long periods of stall confinement can lead to stocking up and poor circulation in this breed. Limit stall time for horses at risk of CPL and provide plenty of freedom of movement. Daily turnout and exercise can support the physical and mental health of all Gypsy Vanners. [7]

However, unrestricted turnout, particularly on grass that is actively growing might not be suitable for Gypsy Vanners with PSSM or metabolic dysfunction, which can increase the risk of laminitis. These horses required controlled intake of simple sugars (ESC) and starch to avoid insulin resistance and metabolic problems.

Consider turning these horses out on a dry lot instead or using a grazing muzzle along with good pasture management practices. [9]

Nutrition Program

All Gypsy Vanners need a balanced diet to support optimal health, but nutrition is also critical for managing metabolic syndrome and muscle disorders in the breed. While these horses are naturally heavy for their height, overfeeding can lead to excess weight gain.

Weight Maintenance

Gypsy Vanners are generally easy keepers. Bred to survive on the road, these horses have an efficient metabolism and can quickly gain weight with improper management.

Because they are at risk of developing metabolic syndrome, Gypsy Vanner horses may easily become overweight or obese.

Unfortunately, obesity is often overlooked in draft and cob-type horses. Owners may mistake excess fat for the breed’s characteristic heavy muscling. [10]

Learning how to accurately evaluate your horse’s body condition can help you monitor his weight and make adjustments to his feeding program.

Unexplained weight loss or weight gain on a balanced diet could indicate an underlying medical problem, so consult your veterinarian about any significant changes.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 650 kg / 1,430 lb Gypsy Vanner with normal body condition at maintenance.

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mature Grass Hay (8% crude protein) Free choice
Salt 45 g (3 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 300 g (3 scoops)
w-3 oil 60 ml (2 oz)
Diet Analysis*
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 125%
NSC (% Diet) 6.9%

 

*These values are estimated based on NRC requirements and average forage values. For a more precise assessment, analyze your forage and submit your horse’s diet for evaluation.

A forage-only diet should provide enough energy for Gypsy Vanners in light work. But these diets are often deficient in essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a concentrated vitamin and mineral balancer that provides key micronutrients commonly lacking in hay. Omneity does not contain any grains, fillers or added sugars, making it ideal for Gypsy Vanner horses to maintain a healthy weight.

Omneity is formulated with 100% organic trace minerals, yeast, digestive enzymes and optimal levels of biotin to support hoof health, skin and coat quality, metabolic function, gut health, and overall well-being.

Omneity – Premix

5 stars
88%
4 stars
6%
3 stars
4%
2 stars
1%
1 star
1%

Learn More

  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

Clean water and plain loose salt should be available to your Gypsy Vanner at all times. Always add 3 – 4 tablespoons (1.5 – 2 ounces) of plain salt to your horse’s daily ration to ensure they meet their sodium requirement.

Forage Selection

Forage should provide the foundation of your Gypsy Vanner’s diet. The amount of forage your horse needs in their diet is determined by their body weight. Heavier breeds need more hay than lighter breeds of the same height.

The average 1,430 pound (650 kg) Gypsy Vanner should consume about 28 pounds (13 kg) of hay per day. These horses typically do well on average-quality, low-starch grass hay. [11]

While constant roughage intake supports healthy digestive function, Gypsy Vanners may consume too many calories when provided with free-choice forage. Using a slow feeder and grazing muzzle can slow consumption while promoting natural grazing behaviours.

Some forages have high NSC levels that might not be suitable for Gypsy Vanners. Studies show that hay with NSC content of 17% or higher can be detrimental to horses with PSSM. Ideally, get a hay analysis to help you formulate a balanced diet for your horse. [9]

Hay Analysis
Know exactly what nutrients your horse is getting in their diet with our comprehensive equine forage testing.
Order Now

Feeding Recommendations

Grain-based complete feeds and other concentrates typically have high starch content, which can increase the risk of digestive problems, including colic and ulcers.

Splitting grain into multiple small meals throughout the day can reduce these risks, but grains are still not as safe as fat- and fiber-based feeds for adding calories to your Gypsy Vanner’s diet. [12]

If you need a carrier for your horse’s supplements, consider using soaked hay pellets, unmolassed beet pulp or another forage-based alternative instead.

If your Gypsy Vanner is in heavy work and needs additional energy, consider fats and oils as a source of cool calories. Research shows that fat is particularly beneficial for PSSM horses to avoid episodes of tying up. [13] Consider using a fat supplement with omega-3 fatty acids for additional anti-inflammatory benefits.

Nutritional Supplements

When formulating a feeding program for your Gypsy Vanner, the first priority is to ensure you feed a balanced diet with adequate levels of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Once your horse’s diet is balanced, you may consider other nutritional supplements to support well-being and athletic function.

Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is a fat supplement high in omega-3 fatty acids to support healthy regulation of inflammation in horses. This oil is enriched with DHA and natural Vitamin E to support joint mobility, respiratory health, skin and coat quality, and antioxidant status.

w-3 Oil

5 stars
79%
4 stars
11%
3 stars
7%
2 stars
2%
1 star
2%

Learn More

  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

Adding vitamin E to your Gypsy Vanner’s diet can help support muscle function and neurological health. This antioxidant is also beneficial for horses with muscle disorders.

An equine nutritionist can help you formulate the best diet for your Gypsy Vanner based on their individual health needs. Submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation today.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Lee, R. Roma in Europe: “Gypsy” Myth and Romani Reality – New Evidence for Romani History. Studies in European Culture and History. 2007.
  2. Winton, C. et al. Genetic diversity within and between British and Irish breeds: The maternal and paternal history of native ponies. Ecol Evol. 2020.View Summary
  3. Avila, F. et al. Breed Distribution and Allele Frequencies of Base Coat Color, Dilution, and White Patterning Variants across 28 Horse Breeds. Genes. 2022.View Summary
  4. Valberg, S. et al. Breeds of Horses Positive for the GYS1 Mutation Associated with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Equine Vet Sci. 2009.
  5. Fox-Clipsham, L. et al. Identification of a Mutation Associated with Fatal Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome in the Fell and Dales Pony. PLoS Genet. 2011. View Summary
  6. Komaromy, A. et al. Equine Multiple Congenital Ocular Anomalies (MCOA) syndrome in PMEL17 (Silver) mutant ponies: five cases. Vet Ophthalmol. 2011.
  7. Affolter, V. Chronic Progressive Lymphedema in Draft Horses. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2013.
  8. Yu, A. Equine Pastern Dermatitis. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2013.View Summary
  9. Borgia, L. et al. Glycaemic and insulinaemic responses to feeding hay with different non-structural carbohydrate content in control and polysaccharide storage myopathy-affected horses. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutrit. 2010.View Summary
  10. Furtado, T. et al. Exploring horse owners’ understanding of obese body condition and weight management in UK leisure horses. Equine Vet J. 2020.View Summary
  11. National Research Council. Nutrient requirements of horses: 6th ed. The National Academies Press. 2007.
  12. Metayer, N. et al. Meal size and starch content affect gastric emptying in horses. Equine Vet J. 2010. View Summary
  13. Ribeiro, W. et al. The Effect of Varying Dietary Starch and Fat Content on Serum Creatine Kinase Activity and Substrate Availability in Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Vet Int Med. 2008. View Summary