These wonderful horses were developed in Britain (UK/Ireland) from their native pony stock, having varying input from draught/draft horse blood (Clydesdale and Shire)–more common in large vanner stock–as well as local mountain and trotting ponies (Dale, Fell, Welsh, Highland and Shetland). These breeds combined to create the “proper cob” of the Romany gypsies/Traveller people and “littles” currently being developed.
The wandering gypsies–Romany folk, Tinkers and Travellers used the quietest and soundest horses they could find to pull their family’s living wagons. Irish cob horses have some influence from the Connemara and Irish Draught, of course. Some say the coloured horses came to be a favorite of the Romany because of circumstances of Wars where the armies selected plain marked horses and left the ones with white patterns at home. Also, the travelling community preferred the highly individual markings of the pinto/tobiano horses because they were hard to confuse with another horse, easily identified as belonging to a certain person. The horses with lots of white markings were known to be more visible when on the road after dark, and gypsies frequently camped at roadside. Some others say the piebald horses could be easily slipped into a field with dairy cattle and not be obvious to the pasture management! But most agree that these beautiful black and white patterned horses with their feathery feet flying down the roads pulling the living wagons were flashy status symbols. It is hardly surprising that horse-loving gypsy folk would develop Cadillac engines for their ornate vardos!
Cob is a horse term fondly referred to in the British Isles and refers to a gentle natured, all-purpose kind of horse in sizes that range from large (over 15 hands) to very small. Their kind, intelligent and hard-working temperament along with a body heavier in bone and muscle than the average horse or pony has made them the first choice of many people in Britain (and more recently all over the world). Cobs fill the bill for people who want strength and stability but don’t need a full size draft–they are efficient, talented and safe work horses and riding mounts. Stout ponies are treasured pets for children and adults alike, being sure-footed and people-loving.
Gypsy cobs have a preferred height for pulling the vardo wagons said to be 14-14.2 hands or possibly larger or smaller depending on the vehicle (within towns ponies were often used for pulling “trade vehicles” such as produce, delivery vans, or junk–the “rag and bone man” would have a charming colorful pony in the shafts that the neighborhood looked forward to coming out for a pat on the neck). In a recent discussion among UK gypsy horse breeders as to what qualities they felt a top quality gypsy cob displayed, the reply was “they should look like a pony on steroids!”
Taken from a book published around 1948, the ‘classic’ old fashioned cob “Stands between 14.0hh and 15.2hh. Big powerful bodied, short legged “stuffy” horse with extremely short cannon bones, a small quality head set on a short, arched and elegant neck. Strong shoulders laid obliquely, wide chest, the back short and the girth very great with well sprung ribs. Generous quarters with great depth which, when viewed from behind, exceed expectations with second thighs to match.”
Historical records tell us that prior to the development of the Shire horse and the modern transportation (building of railroads) system, British beasts of burden were usually the heavy native pony stock that measured 13-14 hands. These horses were used to carry loads over foot path tracks for the most part as roads were not well developed yet. In the cities they did pull carts, but it was quite late before stage coaches were developed (along with more specialized horses for that need). As pack animals, these native ponies (often refered to as “our mares” by historical writers) were expected to carry up to 400 pounds! Physically, this kind of animal needs to have heavy bone (8-10 inches around cannon bone) and wide muscular loin area. This is the legacy Britain has given us with the mountain pony and cob; a small heavy draft horse of exceeding strength yet of agile build to negotiate rocky to swampy terrain; Those who were ridden were also expected to have a comfortable gait; and as racing came to be popular some of these cobs proved to be very especially ground-covering racers (some paced vs trotted)! A very special type of equine lately being rediscovered around the world in its incarnation as the gypsies’ horse and coloured cob!
“Cob” in the USA is usually seen in reference to a size of harness or halter, fitting an in-between size of horse/pony in the 13-14 hand tall range. This pony size equine might also fit a halter that is marked for yearling horse.
“Cob” as referred to in Britain, however, refers to any heavy-boned, stout and solid kind of equine that retains qualities from draft ancestors and has good ridden horse qualities; larger horses are frequently used for hunting/jumping sports and smaller stock is still popular among farmers.
“Proper Cob” refers to the type sought for trotting ability and speed with more exaggerated movement vs steady upright pulling strength.
“Tight Cob” is valued for its extremely short back. “Heavy” refers to amount of feather, not just bone and general mass.
This statue depicts an early reference to a cob horse in the historical records, and resides in a German cathedral.
Research into the history of the cob has revealed that the earliest references pointed to a type of horse used during the days of mounted knights (drawings are very similar to the pictured statue). The knight used his great horse to ride in battle. His squire was responsible for leading the great horse otherwise and thus needed a bigger heavy horse to manage the great horse, and so the cob was developed (in modern times this type fits the hunter/jumper world). Meanwhile, for travel the knight rode a palfrey, which was commonly a gaited smaller riding horse for the smoothest cadillac ride possible. It seems that many of the palfrey horses were imported Spanish genets, which were gaited stock that later in history evolved in the Americas into the Paso breeds. Here is a very interesting webpage: http://www.spanishjennet.org/history.shtml
At the same time, native mountain pony stock retained value for their own easy, nimble and steady gaits, plus this type was stout enough to do agricultural work as well as carry goods along the tracks that meandered through the countryside for hundreds of years until roads were developed. The Spanish breeds seemed to lose favor in Britain as the middle ages passed away (politics?).
Thank you for allowing me to share some of the historical aspects of the terminology you might hear when discussing the gypsy horse!
This picture below was taken at Bellbottom Farm in April 2008 and shows four nice cob fillies:
Bluebaby’s Doll is a yearling here, 12 hand range pony cob, sire Toymakker and out of a nice welsh mare. Next in line is Bellbottom Truffles, at the time just at 13 hands. The little black one to her right is Q.T. Pony (Quite The Pony) also sired by Toymakker and out of a cute little 11 hand welsh pony mare. Arctic Spring is at the far right.