Practical, adaptable, good-natured and multi-talented – the gypsy cob is worth its weight in gold. Stephanie Bateman investigates their growing popularity
Gypsy cobs go by many names: traditional gypsy cob, Irish cob, gypsy horse, gypsy vanner – and even tinker horse. As the name suggests, traditional gypsy cobs were originally bred by Romany gypsies to pull their bow-top caravans all over England and Ireland. They needed to be powerful, hardy, fearless and intelligent to cope with life on the road, yet docile enough to be handled by all the family.
“They have since found their way into the hearts of the non-traveller community who recognise their adaptability and suitability for many equine disciplines,” says Andrea Betteridge, founder of the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association (TGCA). “Today, gypsy cobs are one of the most honest, hard-working and gentle breeds in the world.”
Potted history of gypsy cobs
With no official records, the exact history and origin of the traditional gypsy cob is unknown.
“What we do have through research and learnings is a good guide as to the history of today’s traditional gypsy cob,” says Andrea. “Romany gypsies had been using horses to travel across Europe for centuries and some settled in the British Isles. During World War I, many horses were bought by the army and taken overseas. One type of horse the army refused was the coloured as they could be too easily seen.”
The Romany gypsies capitalised on this and bred hundreds of colourful horses to pull their wagons and work.
“Our own native breeds roamed freely across the highlands, moors, mountains, fells and dales,” adds Andrea. “The Romany gypsies favoured the flashiness of the coloured horse; the feather, hair and steady, hard-working nature of the heavy breeds; and the sure-footed, sturdy, compact bodies of the Fell and Dales ponies. They bred their horses using this mix, adapting the size and type to suit their needs and likes. The other merit of the ever-popular coloured was that each one was so easily recognisable.”
Andrea set up the TGCA in 2005 to form a verifiable studbook to recognise the breed, and to create a place for non-coloured traditionals in the show ring. Now a breed association approved by Defra, the TGCA holds the studbook for traditional gypsy cobs.
It’s also a passport-issuing office (PIO) and holds an international studbook with registered horses and members worldwide, as well as a well-supported national breed show – the Traditional of the Year Show, known as TOYS.
“Through our studbook, we record old established bloodlines and encourage responsible breeding to maintain the quality and stamp of cobs,” explains Andrea. “We have around 9,000 registered cobs and all our pedigrees are DNA verified.”
It was for this reason that a TGCA showing championship was created at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) through the SEIB Search for a Star competition.
“Not every traditional gypsy cob is coloured – they’re a breed, not a colour – so I wanted to create a championship for non-coloured gypsy cobs to give them recognition,” says Andrea. “It was the ultimate dream seeing them at HOYS.”
Alongside the TGCA, Andrea also coordinates Cob Care, which is the charitable arm of the TGCA and strives to preserve, protect and promote the breed.
“The aims of the charity are to educate and support breeders of gypsy cobs, ensuring they reduce over-breeding while endorsing responsible breeding practices,” says Andrea. “We educate people and encourage them to breed quality and not quantity. We have a lot of families who have really raised the bar.
“There’s a lot of stigma around travellers who breed cobs, but true Romany people love their horses, and are dedicated, knowledgeable and skilful in breeding them.”
Gypsy cobs: conformation
The breed standard states that a traditional gypsy cob “should be a strong, sturdy and powerful cob coupled with an abundance of luxuriant flowing mane, forelock, tail, and leg hair which is known as feather.
They should always have plenty of heart room, and a deep girth to match.
They should display ample bone and be well muscled within a broad compact body with powerful hindquarters.
Traditional gypsy cobs make a versatile all-round animal, most suitable for driving, riding and are ideal family horses.”
A hallmark is their temperament. They should have a kind, willing, intelligent and gentle disposition and sensible nature, for which they are renowned.
“One thing the gypsies wouldn’t tolerate was a bad-tempered horse, so all their horses had to be totally trustworthy and safe,” explains Andrea. “Over time, this has given us the very placid, even-tempered cob of today.”
Uses of gypsy cobs
Although famous for pulling highly decorated wagons, gypsy cobs are also found in the show ring at the highest level, dancing between the white boards in dressage, jumping and everything in between.
Dressage rider Sam Wood previously only ever rode warmbloods until the gypsy cob Lexus II (see feature, p30) she bought for her mother to hack started beating her dressage horse.
“I took him out to keep my young warmblood company at dressage competitions,” says Sam of the 10-year-old gypsy cob whom she also shows. “I started entering him in classes, too, but every time he’d end up beating my warmblood, so the warmblood was sold and I began buying cobs.”
Sam has since trained Lexus up to prix st georges and competes at advanced medium, winning three TGCA dressage championships and the first round of the Area Festivals.
“Lexus is naturally talented in that you don’t really have to train him, he just picks things up,” she says. “He’s also very reliable – he’s never sharp or spooky so you can take him into a big arena and he doesn’t react. I never have to do arena walks with him.”
Sam also owns eight-year-old Champagne Showers who is working at novice level.
“They’re safe but have a bit about them which means they can progress,” says Sam. “A common misconception is that they’re a plod on a rope, which they are on the ground, but you can tune them up. The temperament for me is what makes them incredible.”
Another cob convert is Hayley Mossop, who showjumps for a living.
“Three years ago, I had an 18.2hh sport horse stallion who wouldn’t travel alone, so I thought I’d buy a gypsy cob to travel him with,” explains Hayley. “I ended up rescuing 12hh Stoney Meadow Aurora, who went on to win in-hand all over the country, including taking numerous championships and supremes at his first TOYS. He is the loveliest little cob and really converted me.”
Two years later, Hayley decided she wanted another one big enough for her to ride.
“A friend who rescues cobs found a stallion left to die in a barn, so she got in touch and ended up giving him to me,” says Hayley. “He was a pretty sorry sight, so the idea was to rehab him and then have him cut and sell on, but I soon realised how nice he was.”
Stoney Meadow The Greatest Showman (Chaz) is now a 138cm, five-year-old, dual licensed stallion.
“He has the kindest, sweetest temperament you could ever wish from a pony, which is testament to this breed,” says Hayley. “He works as light as a sport horse and the power from the hind end is incredible, but he’s also safe enough to put anyone on.”
The stallion has won numerous championships under saddle, but also enjoys jumping.
“If you asked him to jump off a cliff, he would,” says Hayley. “He has loads of scope and will easily jump a six-bar gate and logs out hacking. He’s also working at advanced medium-level dressage.”
Hayley tries to convert her showjumping friends, too.
“They ride Chaz and can’t believe how light and easy he is to ride,” says Hayley. “I never thought I’d be a cob convert – I thought they were riding school horses for people who had lost their nerve, but I wouldn’t be without them now.”
When Kirsty Warnes bought a gypsy cob mare from a local dealer, little did she know she was getting two for the price of one.
“We got Daffodil as a four-year-old from a local gypsy cob man, unbroken and a bit feral,” says Kirsty. “He assured me she wasn’t in foal but when I started breaking her in, she wasn’t quite right so I had her scanned and sure enough she was in foal – we had a filly out of her who is now broken and ridden away.”
The 14.3hh Daffodil was originally bought as a hack for Kirsty’s mother-in-law.
“It turned out she was a little bit too good for that,” laughs Kirsty, who now competes the mare in showing and won the 2019 SEIB Search for a Star traditional cob of the year at HOYS. “She also competes up to novice level dressage and loves jumping. My daughters ride her and she is exceptionally well-behaved. A bomb could go off and she wouldn’t notice. She is really kind.”
What can you expect to pay for gypsy cobs?
Gypsy cobs aren’t just for travellers – they are one of the most popular UK breeds.
“Everywhere you look, there are traditionals or part-bred traditionals,” says Andrea.
And it’s not just the UK that is smitten –America and Australia as well as other European countries are big fans, too.
“Australians tend to breed their own gypsy cobs because of the £25,000 export fee, but Americans still buy from here, sometimes straight from a photo or video,” explains Andrea. “We had one stallion go to the USA about 15 years ago and they paid £90,000. He hadn’t won anything; he just had lots of fluff and feather and had bred some nice foals.”
To buy a good one over here, you are looking at £5,000 to £6,000 for a broken-in gelding and more for a mare or stallion.
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