The Gypsy and the Horse
In spite of the usefulness of cars and trucks, there remains a close historic tie between gypsies and horses. A gypsy could usually find work as a horse dealer or handler in the past, and gypsies developed one of the strongest and gentlest horse breeds in the world - the Gypsy Cob.
The gypsies and their horses developed a closer bond than other horse owners for a number of reasons, the main one being that the two lived much closer in day to day existence. Gyspies had no stables so the horses lived around the caravans and were part of the everyday life of the camp. Children played with them, adults stopped to pet them and they were constantly aware of the movement of humans around them.
Gypsies practiced the `horse whisperer' style of breaking and training. I was priveleged once to watch this in action.
A young mare, who had been badly frightened as a foal and refused to lead, had been sent to the knacker's yard. She was bought for a small amount of money by a traveller, along with the advice that she would never be any good.
It took all the morning even to get her loaded into a horse box. She was in a constant state of terror, wouldn't lead and wouldn't let anyone touch her head without a fight.
The traveller built a small enclosure and turned her loose in this. Everyday for a week, he would visit her, and spend time talking to her. She had no food or water in the enclosure. She could only drink from a bucket held by her new master and eat from his hand.
By the end of the week he was sitting on the fence, with no sign of her usual panic. The next week he started climbing in with her, always talking, always gentle, always insisting she ate and drank from his hand.
When I called in to see them again, he was in the pen, crawling all over her back while she stood quietly. Soon he was able to lead her outside the pen and teach her to accept a saddle and bridle. All through gentleness - all through patience.
Known as master horsemen, gypsies were always to be seen at county fairs, horse races and horse sales. They were shrewd bargainers and always on the look out for a good horse. It was this knowledge of horses that led to the development of the Gypsy Cob.
The Gypsies bred their horses amongst themselves as early as the 17th Century to concentrate certain characteristics that were useful or considered beautiful. They wanted a strong, powerful horse to pull their vans, but also a safe and gentle animal that could be trusted in a camp where small children ran freely about.
For looks they preferred the two coloured horses; the piebald, which is black and white, and the skewbald, which is brown and white. In fact, these colours became so associated with gypsies and circus travellers, that they were frowned on in the show ring and racing circles.
They bred from heavy draft horses, like the Friesian and the Clydesdale, and the small tough English ponies such as the Dales and the New Forest, to produce a compact, short bodie, sturdy all purpose breed that could be ridden or used to pull carts.
The heavy horses added another characteristic - the `feathers', or deep fringes of hair, around the hooves. Soon the gypsies were vying with each other to produce the animal with the lushest feathers, and mail and tail. These, and the two coloured coats, became the basic characteristics of the breed.
These magnificent horses have been revived as a breed today, with studs in the UK and the US.