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A versatile athlete: The Gypsy Vanner

Curious and gentle - Eight-week-old Juneau greets Sasha, a four-year-old mare, and rider Kendra Taylor at the Wellington County Gypsy Vanner Horse farm in Ariss, which is owned by Kathy and Dennis Mutti.  photos by Kelly Waterhouse

A versatile athlete: The Gypsy Vanner

by Kelly Waterhouse

ARISS - Gyspy Cob. Tinker Horse. Romany Horse. Coloured Cob.

The small draft horse with the feathered legs and long, flowing mane and tail has been a source of the pride for generations of Romany travellers, or Gypsies, in a culture whose extravagance in colourful clothing and vardo caravans is the fodder of legends.

Since the establishment of the world’s first breed registry acknowledged the Gypsy Vanner horse in 1996, here in North America, the composed stature of these horses has captured the hearts and imaginations of horse lovers far beyond their native Europe.

Kathy Mutti and her husband Dennis, owners of the Wellington County Gypsy Vanner Horses farm in Ariss, knew this breed of horse was the right choice for them.

“After researching various breeds, we decided that, due to their size, beauty and temperament, the Gypsy Vanner was the horse for us,” Mutti said.

The horse farm was her dream since semi-retiring, and the couple have done extensive work on their 45-acre property to accommodate their small stable of horses since they bought the former aggregate construction property in 2006.

“The breed is phenomenal because they are so easy to train. They were bred as a family horse by the Romany people to pull the family caravan,” Mutti explained. “They were bred to have an easy-going, gentle nature, but they are powerful, as a small draft horse.”

The horse’s lineage is linked to Shire horses, Freshians, Dales Ponies and Clydesdales.

“We are a very small boutique breeder, choosing to limit our foals to one or two per year. Our focus is on the quality of our breeding horses, the training of our sales’ horses and the post-sale support and education for those who purchase our horses,” she said.

“In our first few years we established a relationship with an experienced U.S. breeder to help us select horses with superior conformation and temperament, and partner with us on our first Gypsy Vanner foals.”

Mutti’s Wellington County stable consists of four Gypsy Vanners, including five-year-old stallion Alaska; Sasha, currently in foal for a March 2013 delivery; and Andi, the main broodmare, originally imported from a breeder in England to the United States, before moving to the Ariss farm.

Stealing the show is Juneau, a colt sired by Alaska to Andi.

“At eight weeks old, he is an independent spirit, learning basic manners like leading, lifting feet, bathing and clipping,” Mutti  said.

Juneau, like his parents, will have a lifetime of special grooming, and true to his bloodline nature, he’ll be happy to endure it.

“With Gypsy Vanner horses, the embellishment is the feather,” Mutti said, referring to what she describes as the profound hair covering the hooves. “One of the unique characteristics of the breed is the abundance of feathering found on the rear of the fore and hind legs, starting from the knee and hock and extending down and over the hooves.”

The attractive feature requires diligent maintenance.

“They are a special horse for care ... it takes more to get them clean,” Mutti said, adding, “because they are feathered, they retain moisture and can get sores. You have to do regular maintenance. We keep them dry and brushed out.”

Another characteristic of the breed’s physical appearance is facial hair, including pronounced beard, whiskers and muzzle hairs.

“Some Gypsy Vanner horses will grow a mustache. Generally growing on horses with abundant mane, tail and feather, the mustache is said to be a sign of a lucky horse,” explained Mutti, pointing to the white hairs above Andi’s mouth, now shorter from a summer of grazing.

“Both our mares sport a mustache over the winter months, but they wear off with grazing and when the horses shed their winter coat in spring and summer.”

Mutti said routine use of products such as mineral oils for cleaning and regular checks for mites and other irritants help keep the horse healthy.

She points out that owners must be vigilant in watching for chronic progressive lymphedema, also known as elephantiasis; a condition of lower leg swelling caused by abnormal functioning of the lymphatic system in the skin. It can also cause secondary infections and fibrosis, common in draft horses such as Shires, Clydesdales and Belgian Draft horses.

“Elephantiasis in an issue,” she said.

She credits the relationships  she formed with both her farrier and veterinarian.

“The Gypsy Vanner is a unique breed with unique health and care challenges. We work closely with our vet, Christina Mohos of Wellington Equine Services, who is now becoming somewhat of a Gypsy Vanner expert,” Mutti said.

“Our farrier, Ashleigh DeBoer of DeBoer’s Farriery is also becoming adept at helping us with the challenges of hoof care with a feathered draft horse.”

She added, “The beautiful thing about living here is we have so many choices in farriers and vets.”

Like the Romany people Mutti and her fellow Gypsy Vanner horse owners take tremendous pride in their horses. This inspired Mutti to join the executive of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, the North American registry for the breed.

Promoting the breed is important to her.

“Serious breeders should be evaluating their horses and maintaining the characteristics of what the breed is,” she said, noting, “The more breeders who do the registry evaluation program will make good pairing choices.”

When these horses are evaluated for breed standards, they are judged based on their characteristically elegant feathering, mane and tale, but also their heavy build, which includes a draft leg stature that comes together at the hock and goes straight down.

“It is a draft horse, so it has more of a draft shoulder,” Mutti describes, noting the muscle in both the neck and shoulder areas, and the angle of the shoulders set for pulling.

The head should be straight, with a flat nose and ideally smaller, pointed ears.

“Our stallion, Alaska, has perfect ears,” she adds proudly. “Andi is a heavier build with huge feather that spreads out.”

Evaluated for conformation and movement last year, Andi achieved the highest five-star rating. Alaska will be evaluated this fall.

As the horse grows in popularity, Mutti expresses valid concerns about the bloodline.  

“People tend to over-breed them since they’ve come here. I am concerned the breed will change in North America because people are mixing them for different purposes,” she said.

“I am concerned they will change the breed forever.”

Mutti refers to the issue of altering the horse’s colouration. While the Gypsy Vanner is not a specific colour, they are traditionally black and white tobiano or, piebald. Others can be skewbald.

“You will now find more and more North American breeders choosing to breed for particular trendy colours to distinguish their horses in the marketplace,” she confirms. “It is important to ensure that the breed type is not compromised if purchasing for a particular trendy colour.”

Her passion for horses has Mutti currently enrolled in the University of Guelph’s equine studies diploma.

Education about this unique horse is key, and Mutti shares hers as acting coordinator of the Canadian Gypsy Vanner Horse Club, which includes show demonstrations such as the Spirit of the Horse showcase at the annual Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and Can Am Equine events.

She also participates on the advisory committee of the Vanner Fair, a Canadian event held every other year to celebrate the breed at DeerFields Stables Country Inn in Caledon.

“People think they are just pretty horses,” she said. “But this breed is very adaptable for doing whatever you need, because it is such an easy horse to work with.

“We’ve chosen dressage with Sasha. It was a perfect fit. In the show arena, driving classes are also an option.”

Mutti said the temperament of the horse comes from its cold blooded background, making it relaxed, mannerly, and respectful of its environment.

“A lot of families looking for a trail horse will buy them, and older people who want a horse to enjoy that won’t be a challenge for them,” Mutti said.

“They may not take you to the Olympics, by any means, but they’ll be the same horse that they are at the barn as they are at the show.”

For 21-year-old trainer Kendra Taylor, of Fergus, the experience of working with Mutti’s four-year-old mare Sasha over the last two years has been rewarding, both in the show ring and on a personal level.

“I had never heard of the breed before I met Kathy,” said Taylor, who has been riding since age three and has an extensive resume as a coach, trainer and equestrian competitor in both jumping and dressage.

Coached in dressage by her sister, Jess Stovin, Taylor and Sasha have so far had a successful 2012 show year. They started off the season winning two firsts at a Conestoga CADORA Bronze Dressage show at the training level.  

The duo went on to win Open Training Level Champion at the two-day Caledon Silver Dressage show in June, and recently qualified for the Provincial Silver Dressage Championships in September after achieving a test score of over 80% and again winning Open Training Champion at the July Caledon dressage show.

“Because of Sasha’s movement and height, she is very good for this discipline,” Taylor explained. “Sasha does whatever I ask. She is very willing to work.”

Taylor added, “People were shocked by Sasha’s age and what she can do. Last year, as a three-year-old, she accomplished so much. Now that she’s four, I can’t wait to see what she does.”

Mutti agrees temperament is an important aspect of Sasha’s showmanship, saying, “She is the same horse in the barn that she is at the show.”

Taylor agreed.

“Sasha’s personality is so great that she remains calm, no matter what is going around us in a show environment,” she said. “I always say Sasha spoils us at the shows because she is so well behaved.”

Taylor believes her work with Sasha has changed perceptions about the breed in general.

“People don’t know that they’re really fast learners and so gentle, or that they’re movement is nice to ride,” she said. “They are very comfortable and well mannered.”

“Sasha stands out to me against other Vanners,” Taylor said, smiling while acknowledging her bias.

“I have met people who remember her from Vanner Fair [in 2011]; her movement, her looks ... she has very nice movement. And her temperament and personality.”

Mutti added Sasha’s friendly nature means she loves attention, especially from children.

“I always spend so much more time with Sasha when I’m riding her, because she is such a joy to be around,” Taylor said.

Mutti confirms the Gypsy Vanner breed is growing in popularity in Canada.

“There are currently 300 registered Gypsy Vanner horses in Canada, with about 200 of those in Ontario,” she said.

Her hope is the breed maintains its integrity with a  respect for its history. To do so, she plans to continue to educate and share the elegance and grace of these horses.

 “Stunning beauty, compact stature, a gentle disposition and versatile athlete ... the Gypsy Vanner horse will prove to be your equine companion for life,” Mutti said.

For more information on these horses visit the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society at

The Wellington County Gypsy Vanner Horses is located at Mutt ‘n Wood Farm, 6019 4th Line E., in Ariss. To contact Kathy Mutti, call 519-846-0131 or email

July 27, 2012


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