Is It Time For The Gypsy Vanner Horse To Find A New Moniker?

May 20, 2021 - 3:00 PM

The Gypsy Vanner horse has become the subject of recent online debate as the sensitivity of the term “Gypsy” faces a cultural reckoning. But getting to the bottom of the name—and whether it harms or helps the people it describes—is a thorny issue with an extraordinary history at its heels.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the term “Gypsy Vanner” was popularized—if not actually started—in the United States. The distinctly feathered, usually piebald horses have been variously referred to as cobs, Irish cobs, traditional Gypsy cobs, Gypsy horses and a number of colloquial nicknames based on commonly used slurs, but the addition of “Vanner”—that is, a horse suitable for pulling a caravan—was largely introduced when the breed came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s.

Beautiful irish cobs on autumn pasturage
The distinctive, feathered and usually piebald cobs called Gypsy Vanners in the United States go by many other names in their homeland. iStock Photo

To understand the genesis of the debate, it’s important to untangle some of the realities of Romany and Traveler culture.

“Gypsy” has become a catch-all term, used to cast an umbrella over Romany peoples and Pavee, English, Scottish and Welsh Travelers, despite the fact that the latter are indigenous nomadic groups, and the rest are nomadic peoples with roots in a completely different continent. What they all have in common, though, is a long history as subjects of discrimination and a shared, continued fight to be recognized as ethnic minorities rather than simply communities. In fact, despite evidence of Romany people residing in Great Britain as far back as the 16th century, “Roma” was provided as an ethnicity option on the United Kingdom census for the first time just this year.

The early origins of many nomadic communities have been subject to speculation—and prejudice. The term “Gypsy” originated as a shortening of “Egyptian,” because of a snap assumption that the dark-skinned and -haired Roma people must have migrated from North Africa. Their origins more likely are in northern India and the nomadic Banjara, lingering traces of whose culture have been carried through generations, intermingling with influences from the many countries in which they stopped along the way.

Throughout the last millennium, Romany people have been exiled repeatedly, often because of the church’s distrust of their cultural practices. In the 16th century, any Romany person found in Switzerland was put to death; this would be mirrored some 400 years later when as much as half of the European Roma population was killed in the Holocaust.

The persecution of people who fall under the “Gypsy” umbrella continues apace in the 21st century. The culture has shifted from a largely nomadic one to settlements, be they in brick-and-mortar homes or caravan parks, as local authorities have shut down more of the traditional stopping places used by Travelers. But many find it difficult to integrate into local communities due to the many prejudices facing Roma and Traveler people, who often are labelled as petty thieves—hence the phrase “to be gypped” by someone.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that, with its ties to early cultural misrepresentation and ongoing prejudice, Romany and Traveler groups might want to distance themselves from the word “Gypsy.” But for many, reclaiming the word is a point of pride.

Reclaiming “Gypsy” With Pride

“I come from a background of traditional Romany Gypsies—and my dad actually finds the word Traveler really offensive, because the groups are totally different. It’s been watered down because people find the word ‘Gypsy’ offensive, and to be honest, it’s usually non-Gypsy people taking the offense,” says British five-star event rider Phoebe Buckley.

The (London) Daily Mail milked her background, fabricating a false rivalry between her and Zara Tindall (then Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips) to craft headlines like “The Princess and the Pauper.” But while Buckley and Tindall could laugh at the papers, it was the callous comments on online forums that rankled more.

“They’d say things like, ‘I never usually lock my car doors at Badminton, but I guess I’ll have to now,’ ” she recalls.

For Buckley, the importance of recognition is twofold: It is crucial that the ongoing plight of the Gypsy and Traveler communities is recognized and addressed, and it is crucial that their achievements and culture are celebrated.

“You don’t want to be a victim,” says Buckley, though certainly, her family has been victimized: Despite owning a plot of land and being granted planning permission for their home, the local council enacted a series of legal loopholes designed to prevent Gypsy families from permanently settling in the area, resulting in a four-year legal battle to save the home they’d lived in for nearly a decade.

Though Buckley’s career in the horse industry sees her ride an entirely different stamp of horse, she views the success of the distinctive feathered cobs as a particular point of pride.

She’s not alone in that sentiment.

The breeding and selling of quality cobs is often a multigenerational family legacy. To support a nomadic lifestyle, a special horse was needed: It had to be strong enough to pull a laden caravan and hardy enough to cope with living from the land. Above all, it needed to be quiet, sensible and stoic, whether being passed by speeding traffic or tolerating the family’s young children, who would be expected to help care for the horse and might consider it an oversized playmate, too. Standing somewhere between a large pony and a small horse in stature, traditional cobs look like miniature Clydesdales, with short-coupled frames, plenty of substance, a shapely neck leading to an attractive head, and, of course, lots of feathers. They can be found across the color spectrum, but are most commonly piebalds.

Appleby Horse Fair, Cumbria
Spectators gather by the river Eden to watch horses being washed prior to trading during the annual Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England. The fair, which was canceled last year due to COVID-19 and postponed this year, typically takes place the first week of June and draws about 10,000 Gypsies and Travelers—and three times as many spectators. iStock Photo

Much of the genesis of the breed is speculative, though links to Britain’s native pony and draught breeds are evident. While horse breeding is ingrained in Romany and Traveler communities, their knowledge of bloodlines was passed along by word of mouth rather than an established studbook, often at sprawling horse fairs that act as an important cultural gathering point extending well beyond the appreciation of quality horseflesh.

Gypsy Vanner: A New Name In A New Country

The beginning of the cobs’ American story came in 1996, a year after they ostensibly were “discovered” by Dennis Thompson and his late wife, Cindy, of Ocala, Florida, during a trip to the U.K.

So enamored were they with a piebald stallion they’d spotted in a field—which they learned was owned by a Traveler named Fred Walker—that they brokered a deal to buy the horse the following year. In 1996, the Thompsons established the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society using the stallion, renamed Cushti Bok, as their foundation sire.

Thompson said they grappled with what to call the little piebald horses they had imported.

“The aim, from day one, was to bring dignity to the people who started the breed,” he says. The inspiration for the name came when Cindy found a small caption in a copy of “The Coloured Horse and Pony,” by Edward Hart. Under a picture of exactly the type of horse they’d stumbled upon, the text read, “the traditional Gypsy Vanner horse.”

“I said ‘neat name’, and then awoke up every night for the next two years thinking about it,” Dennis recalls. “I thought, ‘Am I really bringing honor by using a word that can be used as a slur?’ ”

The Thompsons consulted the friends they’d met in the Romany and Traveler communities, from whom Dennis says the consensus led firmly in the direction of naming the breed the Gypsy Vanner, rather than the Romany horse, which would negate the input and influence of Traveler cultures beyond the Roma people.

“It was the only word that honored everyone,” he says.

Differing Views Among Roma

Buckley, the eventer, recognizes the horses are referred to by myriad names in their home country—including some that incorporate universally offensive nicknames for Gypsies and Travelers—and supports encouraging use of monikers that link them positively to their heritage.

“It would be terrible if the Romany Gypsy association with the colored cob was taken away,” Buckley says. “It does open people’s eyes to a history that can get diluted, and it’s a really special part of our background. We’re horse people. A lot of Gypsies, I think, try to shy away from the word because they know it’ll get them judged, but to take it away [from the horses] would dim the good part of our community.

“We’ve created this amazing product—it’s useful and hardy, and people love it, and that’s come from our background. It would be a shame to lose something that makes people proud to be Romany Gypsy again.”

Harry Pannell, of Sussex, England, part of the youngest generation of a long line of Romany horsemen and women, feels differently.

“It probably isn’t really recognized as culturally offensive in this day and age, as it has become a phrase of pride and racial empowerment,” he explains. But, he points out, its origins as an ethnic misnomer muddy the waters. “If somebody today incorrectly labelled an ethnic group of people by a country’s name due only to their skin color, it would be thought of—quite rightly—as abhorrently ignorant. But now, there are a lot of people of similar descent to my own who are probably not aware of what happened in the Middle Ages.

“Of course they should be proud of their heritage, but the fact is, the term ‘Gypsy’ was, and still is, a phrase given as a name to the Romany people by ignorant medieval British people that didn’t know where the sun went at night, let alone about where ethnicities originated.”

His own family, he says, chooses not to use the term Gypsy self-referentially, instead choosing to call themselves Travelers—and even then, only in conversation with others of the same heritage.

Cristiana Grigore is a Roma and the founder of the Roma People’s Project at Columbia University (New York), which serves to restructure the narrative around Roma and Traveler people. Part of her mission is removing the word “Gypsy”from the cultural lexicon entirely.

Her focus has been on mainstream media and fashion, in which bohemian leanings have often been packaged and sold as Gypsy style, inferring a freedom of spirit that demeans the fight for better representation.

“Think about me going to, let’s say, Congress, to talk about the Roma plight,” Grigore said in a 2020 Vogue interview. “And they say, ‘Ah, beautiful clothes and parties!’ You cannot make a serious argument when you have the culture so objectified and treated this like a cute little thing, like a pet. We try our best to not shame and criticize people, because they use the word without knowing how charged it is. I think there is some meaning and beauty in being inspired by other cultures. The key is how you do it: in a way that is respectful and empowering towards that culture, or in a way that is depleting those people from their voice and their power?”

While camps remain divided on the use of the name “Gypsy Vanner,” one thing is certain: The discussion provides a rare opportunity for Romany and Traveler voices to have a platform and push forward a narrative of re-education which recognizes the complexities of both heritage and modern-day discrimination.

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