I grew up an admirer of the draft breeds. I dreamed of owning and riding a Clydesdale more than anything.
Then I learned of the Gypsy Vanner – perhaps, in my opinion, the most stunning horse breed in the world – and one of the smaller “draft” horses. It was love at first sight.
This past year was my first time finally seeing a Gypsy up close. It was at a fair and I was there for an entirely different reason, to check out the miniature horse show because I had just bought a mini mare and was interested in learning about driving. It was then that I thought, “Wouldn’t a miniature Gypsy Vanner be something?!”
Imagine a miniature, heavily feathered, thick horse, that was easy to manage but with better pulling power than a regular mini. I jokingly said something to one of the mini horse owners at the show, and she said she wanted one too! I thought I was the only crazy person to think about a miniature Gypsy.
Imagine my surprise when I went home and googled “miniature Gypsy Horse” just for fun, and found that there is a fairly large group of people who have been working on developing this very breed for years now! I decided I needed to investigate and to bring this little horse to the public eye, because it really is quite amazing.
So, I contacted Melanie Block, owner of Bellbottom Farm in Illinois. She is the administrator of the Mini Gypsy Horse Facebook Group . She was kind enough to answer some questions, as well as provide pictures of some of the stock that is being bred (because, let’s face it, you all want to see them, too!).
For her, it started with kid’s ponies. She wanted “good old-fashioned ponies” for her kids and just couldn’t find them. That’s when she stumbled upon the Gypsy. Like me, she fell in love instantly:
“In 2006 I went to visit Dennis Thompson [in Florida] and fell in love with the breed completely, upon meeting his mare Shampoo Girl, as well as the Gypsy King. My search continued, always looking for pony size stock. Very few people on the internet were talking about developing small Gypsy ponies – except I did find Pamela Renfro Dickey in Pennsylvania who has the wonderful Toymakker stallion. The picture of the Tom Dooley Horse in UK turned up about that time as well, a black very heavy feathered pony that has been an inspiration to me.”
Her farm started that year as Bohemian Gypsy Cob Ponies.
Her foundation stallion and mare came from Black Forest Shires and Gypsy Horses who were importing European breed-quality Cobs from the UK to North America.
13hh stallion, Cold Fusion (AKA Lexington/Lex)
13.2hh mare, Bellbottom Truffles
According the to the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association in the United Kingdom, the breed in the UK is divided into several size divisions:
Up to 14.2hh short, stocky, compact ponies used for pulling working flat carts.
Up to 15hh big, powerful Cobs used for pulling the living wagons and heavier loads
- Over 15hh Cobs with more Shire/Clydesdale blood used for heavy loads and agricultural work
The Trotter Cobs usually crossed with standard bred horses, used for road racing in Sulky traps or sulkies
In this case, they have a category already in place for small ponies, though originally they were closer to 12.2h and above – people weren’t thinking of a miniature horse.
In the United States, The American Miniature Horse Registry has miniature horses in two height divisions: A) horse up to 34 inches, and B) horse between 34 – 38 inches. Block is looking to develop the Miniature Gypsy at around 36 inches.
The below mare is an excellent example:
Obviously, this is no quick task. It takes time and careful breeding. She wants the resulting offspring to be small, but still look like a Cob and have the heavy feathering that is the Gypsy’s signature trait. Block explains how she is breeding down, while maintaining the Gypsy blood:
“I did start my own breeding program to create a mini gypsy at that time with Lex and three yard-tall AMHR miniature horse mares. As time passed, I have switched up every few years the stallion I have used, as I found purebred stock that was smaller (12.3 hand The Executive and then 11.3 hand Wyatt). At this time, I am re-focusing my program and using my own good small stallions that I have produced, with six purebred Gypsies, unrelated mares in the 50” range. I will be striving to produce ever smaller, well feathered young stock. I also have six part-gypsy mares to work with that I’m very proud of.”
Block began to learn, as I have, that she was not alone in the idea of a Miniature Gypsy. She became aware that in the United Kingdom and Ireland, many farms were producing feathered, pony-sized stock. When she joined Facebook and created her group, she was able to connect with these other enthusiasts.. Many of these horses had been mixed with Shetland or other United Kingdom ponies.
In fact, she believed ponies were used in the creation of the Gypsy Vanner themselves, since you can often find ones in the pony height range (under 14.2hh). This, of course, helps breeders now looking for smaller horses, as they sometimes occur naturally. Block explains:
“It is clearly part of the Gypsy Vanner narrative that the native pony stock was used to ‘sweeten’ the looks of the bigger coarse draft bred mares of earlier times when the family wagons were very heavy and required a bigger horse. They used exceptional smaller stallions, such as the Dooley Horse on wagon mares 14 hand range and over. This was a very successful means to produce the best Gypsy horses. This is why we get smaller ‘throwbacks’ [pony-sized offspring] from the 14 hand horses. When so many of the bigger feathered breed quality Cobs were being sold to people around the globe, savvy Romany/Tinker breeders were starting to focus on special smaller ponies. Thus the size range of the ‘Mini Gypsy Cob’ is under 13 hands.”
Today, there are a handful of very beautiful small Gypsies that are the future of the Miniature Gypsy Horse breed. For example, Fred Walker from the United Kingdom has a 12hh stallion name Valentino. And, even more notable, is the famous Galway Boy, whom Joseph Delaney of Ireland just sold to Christine Cantrill of Australia. He is just 9.2hh (that’s 38 inches!) and he is the epitome of a Gypsy Vanner in looks.
While Block is continually working toward that 36 inch mark, she said the nice thing about what they doing is that it is creating diversity for buyers.
“The neat thing about the Mini Gypsy is that, for many years anyway, there will be a range of sizes available for whatever beautiful, kind and usable work pony people want to have, ranging from in general 13 hands and under.”
If you are like me, you may be wondering, “Can I breed my mini mare to one of these small Gypsy studs then?” The answer is…maybe.
The breedings that are happening are carefully down to not just keep the traits, but to make sure genetic diversity is maintained and that foals are born healthy to health mothers. No one wants to lose a mare and/or her foal. So size is very much a consideration when it comes to breeding.
The biggest issue here is foal size. You don’t want the foal to be too big for mini mare, or there will be complications. Block suggests finding a stallion smaller than your mare. You also want to use a mare that has Cob-like traits:
“For breed type, focus on what makes a Cob “a Cob”: heavy bone, stout and strong with large joints and steady disposition. Temperament is everything in the end! If you don’t have the gentle quiet temperament you will not have a Gypsy Cob, in my opinion.”
This may be hard for mini breeders and owners, who have been dutifully breeding for the 30 inch, “Arabian” type for the show ring.
“What I believe in is using at least 34 inch mares with generous pelvic construction, with a Mini Gypsy stallion that is hopefully within two hands of the mare height. The mare genetics should not allow large fetal growth in the cross and they seldom have any increased risks in birthing. However, the next generation you need to find a stallion definitely within the same size range as the mare that is half Gypsy Cob because the risk is there where she carries a large growth gene. The nice thing is that every year that passes we will have more small stallions available to use.”
If you would like to know more about this amazing endeavor, or maybe purchase an upcoming foal, you can check out some Facebook groups including: “Purebred Gypsies under 13 hands” (ran by Steffanie Christensen) and “Mini Gypsy Horses.” On the latter, there is a pinned link to the new effort to provide registration and membership organization for this emerging breed with the International Gypsy Equine Association. In addition, check out Block’s blog, Miniature Gypsy Horses.