Friday, 09 July 2010 07:44

Old World Treasure: The Gypsy Cob An Enchanting Journey to Appleby Fair

Written by  Story & photos by Judy Brodland
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There is much more to the flashy colored cobs of England–also known as Gypsy horses, Gypsy Vanners and Irish Tinker horses–than meets the eye. The Romany people are charismatic and their horses are charming and inimitable. Those with the reputation for bringing out their best colored cobs uphold an annual event in Cumbria, England, each June known as Appleby Fair, and anyone who is anybody within the Romany circles attends the fair with their best Gypsy horses. It’s a rite of passage for many in the Romany circles of distinction. Stateside, we’ve all seen them cropping up like the February crocus, those sturdy little cob horses in a myriad of colors looking like Old English Sheepdogs with hooves. The gypsy horse wears a lot of hats and in many ways is the all-terrain vehicle. Some call him the ultimate women’s draft horse. But why all the fanfare and the spendy price tags for a horse whose ideal height is about 14 hh, preferably under? Much of the Gypsy Cob’s enchantment is energized by an old world culture sustained and preserved for centuries by the Romany people of Great Britain. 

On the busy carriage way, the lead vardo is driven by one of the skilled young grandsons who remains seated inside the wagon behind his horses; the remaining vardos and a flat-cart are driven in proper Gypsy fashion by walking beside the vehicles.
Whenever the kettle is on the prop, the ever-cheerful Romany are quick to welcome even the gadje to their stick fires for sandwiches, tea and stories.
During the evening stick fire, a senior member of the Romany family rests and reflects after a long days journey with the Gypsy horses.

A sea of spectators parts to allow for horses coming off the tail end of the flash. Down the street from the flash is the town of Appleby where constables, seen in the bright green vests, try to maintain some semblance of order.
Driving Miss Daisy is Randy Hearon with his trainer at the lines. True to her Gypsy heritage, Miss Daisy obliges all that is asked of her with that trademark calm and intelligence.

Like any young girl who cherishes the stories handed down by her family, I would sit at the slippered feet of my grandmother as the wood-stove crackled beside us and filled her lakeside cottage with warmth. I was enraptured by my grandmother, and I absorbed everything she did, shadowing her every move and asking of her the questions I had about her life. Her mind was a brilliant and well-organized repository of knowledge and experience, and I was often swept away by her vivid recounts of the days of her youth that took place during the roaring twenties. Because I was similar to the millions of teenage girls growing up with that inexplicable fascination with horses, one of my favorite stories was a circa 1925 classic involving her friendship with the Gypsies who traveled through her town each year with their bands of horses.

My grandmother was a beautiful girl with a zest for life and discovery, and she satisfied a mild rebellious streak by sharing campfires and stories with a mysterious traveling people that came through her Pacific Northwest logging town each year. They camped at the lake where the water tower fed the steam engines that hauled timber to the lumber mills dotting Puget Sound. The perch and crappie they caught from the mill docks were rolled in flour and fried up in cast iron pans that sizzled beside large wrought iron kettles of boiling water for tea. It was there that my grandmother would join these traveling people who survived by peddling their wares to anyone who would buy them. The townsfolk warned children to beware of the Gypsy people, but in spite of their counsel, my grandmother laughed in the faces of those who insisted that she would be stolen, instead slipping away with a best friend and visiting her nomadic friends whenever they arrived in town. My grandmother brought them eggs from the henhouse, and in return, the Gypsies taught my grandmother to ride their horses. It was a deed that seeded a life-long admiration of horses and it quickened her pulse each time she recounted these stories to me a half-century later in vivid detail. She told me that some of them had English accents and that they were exceptional horsemen. She also said that the very old members of the clan came from families of slaves in Europe. Other than that, little else was known about them and, as the 20th century approached the end of her reign, the Gypsy Travellers, like the logging camps, faded into history.

I was introduced to the Gypsy men by first name only. After that it didn’t matter. Surrounded by the panoramic English countryside whose beauty kept pace with us along the carriageways, it was the sound of horses’ shod feet on the asphalt as they towed their bow-top wagons and flat-carts at a steady trot that reminded me that I was not dreaming. Northern England is lush and wonderful in June, and as I watched Grandpa, the honored head of state of his extended Romany family as they drove their colorful Gypsy horses, it was hard to conceptualize that this was a people who had existed for centuries as slaves. I couldn’t imagine this outgoing gentleman and his kindhearted grandsons being held captive by anyone, except by the horses they lived for.

Only yesterday we had departed Grandpa’s farm with the entire family in tow, some driving wagons and some following in cars to take photos and meet up with us at checkpoints. This would be a 60-mile journey by the horse-drawn caravans of the Romany whose conclusion lay on the banks of the Eden River in the small borough of Appleby, the county town of Westmorland. Appleby Fair resulted from an official charter some 400 years ago issued by King James II. Today, Appleby Fair flourishes as the largest horse fair in the world and is branded unique by its gathering of the Gypsy people, who converge to challenge one another in friendly and sometimes not so friendly contests with their colored cob horses and trotters. There are no official judges, no placings, no prizes. It is a showing of the pinnacle of finery among Gypsy horse breeders. Generations of Grandpa’s family have been there since its charter in 1685.

My friend Christine was the incentive for my journey, and while we waited in Grandpa’s kitchen before the departure, she fetched a tin of biscuits from atop the refrigerator and placed them next to our tea. She looked me in the eye. “Remember, you are 'gadje,' you are not Romany. Until you are trusted, you will not be welcome, and until you are welcome, you are nothing but an outsider.” Gadje is a term for describing those who are not Rom; gadgo is masculine and gadji is feminine. Her suggestion was blunt, but it did nothing to dim my experience of accompanying this Romany family on a journey that would prove epic for me. I was also to learn that for the Romany and their horses, this was not a journey, but a celebrated pilgrimage to their shrine of heritage: The horse fair of the royal and ancient borough of Appleby.

Grandpa comes into the house as we finish our tea and biscuits. He makes me feel welcome. “God bless you, Judy. We’re glad to have you,” he tells me, ushering us into the yard where family gathers with wagons and horses. The first thing I notice is that Gypsy horses are not taught to back. Amidst growls and grunts, the men crowd the cob horses and shove them backwards into the shafts. Though two horses are harnessed to each wagon, there are shafts only for one. The second horse is harnessed to the right of the first and is called a side-liner. A side-liner’s primary function is to help the main horse pull the wagons up steep hills. There is also no formal announcement that we are leaving, and as the wagons begin filing out of the drive at a quick pace, I have to run to catch up.

We blend smoothly into traffic at the roundabout, and the horses pursue their duty with admirable instinct, their hairy rumps bouncing along in front of me. They are as hardy, determined, and enduring as their Romany owners who have struggled to survive the centuries of hardship and persecution. Just as the first Gypsy cobs arriving in North America were regarded as some sort of vagabond breed, the Romany people today are still faced with potent discrimination and constant harrying.

I rode on the open flat cart that followed at the rear of the procession as traffic raced by us on the carriageway. The large covered wagons in front of us are called "bow-tops" or "vardos." The vardos are ornate beyond description and are equipped for living while the flat cart is more of a utility vehicle and carries a lot of our supplies. I am told that the flat carts were used during the war to collect scrap metal, and most are inscribed with a family name. I am also told that this is where the term "Tinker Horse" comes from. The vardo is much rarer and commands prices of $100,000 or more. The reason for the rarity is that upon a Roma’s death, Gypsy custom was to burn the vardo and all the deceased’s belongings. As more of the cherished vardos disappeared, that tradition was eventually discarded in favor of preserving Gypsy history, and today, the burning of vardos is frowned upon among the Romany.

On the carriageway, vehicles often sped by with only a couple of feet to spare, but the horses were steady and unflinching. The stone-carved fields clotted with sheep stretched up and over the Pennines all the way to Scotland. Everything in the English countryside is soothingly second-hand from barns, fences, fixtures, inns, and the homes themselves, to the lifestyle they have handed-down for centuries. History is well-preserved on many levels, including the unique style of Gypsy driving. At a walk, drivers walk beside the wagons and drive their horses from the ground more often than from the vehicle. It’s tiring, but it’s the proper Gypsy way, and it doesn’t take long for me to recognize that for the Romany people, the road is much less a means of travel than it is their hallowed mantra.

In Penrith, the centuries of skirmishes between the Scots and the English are evident in the narrow thoroughfares that were designed this way to aid in its defense. The horses trek along the uneven streets where centuries ago, Penrith’s industrial heart teemed with tailors, coopers, saddlers, rope-makers and whitesmiths. The town folk are polite, and since it’s time for another rest, we stop in the market square next to a solicitor’s office that offers us water for the horses. While the horses dip their noses into plastic buckets of cold water, two large tour buses navigate around the resting Gypsy horses and come within inches of them. They remain trusting and unfazed, and passersby stop to look and take photos of the colorful cobs while Romany grandchildren return from the corner shop with bags of sweets.

Throughout the day, I would take a break from the caravan to rest and to accompany Christine by car to collect supplies. We also drove on ahead of the caravan to select the choicest spots for me to photograph. On one such trip we had to backtrack to the previous town for a specific item, and on our return, I caught sight of a small metal object in the middle of the busy carriageway. I cut through traffic and snatched the precious metal piece from the asphalt, smearing my hands with grease as I sprinted back to the car and away from traffic. We recognized it as a crucial hub from a wagon wheel. Ten minutes later we pulled in behind the disabled caravan. A beleaguered Grandpa approached me as I hurried toward him with the greasy knob in my outstretched palm. His white tank-style T-shirt clung to his reddened skin. Sweat coursed from his frowning eyebrows and dripped from his sunburned nose. His brows released their frown when he recognized the missing part that he took from my hand. He held it up near his cheek and smiled at me. “Aye, Judy! Ya just earned your keep.”

Of great importance in being a proper Gypsy is finding a proper Gypsy camp. Grandpa tells me this. He does not camp in a spot that has already been camped in as it is "dirty." Over decades of traveling by wagon and his status among Traveller and English alike, he has laid claim to the choicest of spots along the way. A used camp, of course, is obvious to even the non-Gypsy by the grazed and trodden grasses and the presence of manure, camp ashes and a bit of rubbish. His chosen campsites, though lush and beckoning to the migrating groups of families and horses en route to Appleby, remain strangely untouched. Though not a confrontational man, I am intrigued that other Travellers respect him and do not cross this line or propose any challenge to his rank. Even the residents acknowledge him with courtesy, offering their tap water for thirsty horses and camp use.

At the selected campsite which is fresh and full of untouched grass, unharnessing begins while the grandsons disperse to fetch a bit of stick for a good old Gypsy stick fire. After the horses are staked out on long tethers to graze, Grandpa breaks the branches and twigs by stepping on them. “We don’t cut or saw. Not Gypsy style,” he explained. “Only the dry stuff so we don’t make much smoke.”

A grandson returns with two jugs of water from the neighboring farmhouse. Pouring some into a small basin, Grandpa places beside it a bar of soap. Even before the kettle is hooked on the prop and without being told, the succession of family young and old set about washing their hands and faces with vigor. Grandpa is forthright. “Don’t be afraid of the soap, Judy,” he tells me. Though tempering his order with his usual wit-tainted tone, it is nevertheless an order to wash. Clean is of extreme importance to the Romany.

When the fire was roaring and chairs had been set about, the old black kettle was filled with water and hung on the kettle hook. After tea was served, we gobbled Grandpa’s popular bacon and sausage sandwiches that he fried up on the kettle’s mate, a well-worn cast iron pan. Next to the stick fire, I am seated beside Grandpa’s brother, John. He is handsome and shaven, and smells of cologne. John leans away from his cigarette and asks me again if I liked my travels with their family. I had no words that were worthy of my gratitude. I smiled and squeezed his arm.

The three-day journey is passing quickly. It is a breathtaking trip, but tiring, and as we approach Appleby, both humans and horses are feeling a bit of wear. We pass other migrating Gypsy families with their cobs and wagons, and some of them pass us. The carriageways are busy with the Romany headed to Appleby Fair, and signs are put up to caution motorists. Though most of the Gypsies are openly born-again Christian, superstition and tradition are not completely shaken from their habit. Caged birds are taken with them during their travels for good luck, and I can see the birdcages in the passing bow-tops. John waves his hand toward the stone wall beside us. His eyes remain focused straight ahead as he tells me of the bad accident that claimed one of their own a couple years back. “The lorry driver said he didn’t see the wagon. Crashed into the back of it, killing everyone and the horses.” John’s jaw is tight and he speaks of it no more. I pat his hand and process the tragedy in silence.

Grandpa’s daughters arrive by sunset each day with a steaming pot of stew, slices of soft bread and tea. Their serving routine is one oft rehearsed as the Gypsy family and gadje are speedily served up huge bowls of aromatic stew with seasoned dumplings that sloshed from ornate bowls and made us weak with hunger. They passed around cups of tea with milk. When the stew disappeared, dessert was begun from a home-made trifle prepared with custard, tin fruit and jelly. Grandpa’s beautiful daughter wears dangling earrings that sparkle as she serves up the trifle. She winks as she hands me a slice. “I never eat it,” she smiles, patting her shapely thigh.

By the close of the second day, not only was I warmly invited to photograph all of them, I was invited to drive the flat cart along the carriageway. Christine tells me that I am the first gadji allowed to drive with the Romany. Later at the stick fire, John converses momentarily with Tommy and Grandpa, then back to me. The Gypsy men have decided to offer me the extraordinary privilege of sleeping in the vardo. Christine tells me that this is a great honor and that she has never been offered such a mark of respect and welcome. The decision was entirely mine, but after a bit more discussion, we conclude–and not because I am a gadji–that it is more proper for me as a female guest to retire instead at the inn not far from our camp in Brough. The Gypsy men are exceedingly proper.

Appleby Fair is a vague concept to those who have never visited, and nothing can prepare you for it. From the moment of our arrival, its near-delirious level of pandemonium and chaos surpassed all that I knew of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. The hub of excitement is the area known as "the flash" where the competition is constant and danger remains a steady threat to the unwary, especially the gadje. The flash’s purpose is a fanfare of exhibition and competition, and Grandpa and Tom give me several stern warnings to be careful since horses always have the right of way and many have been trampled. Crowds swell into masses along the road where I hear the shouts of “Watch your back!” and “Out of the way!” as carts whiz by with foaming Cobs and trotters hard on the bit. Not far from the bedlam of the flash is a spot known as "the corner" where the spirited and highly animated negotiations of sales take place. Here, circles of Gypsy men crowd the most spectacular colored cobs presented for bidding, and the wagering begins. The best cobs are those that are extremely heavy, and heavy is a Romany term that has nothing to do with weight, but rather, the copious amounts of hair and good bone on the shorter, stout-bodied, true-style cobs. Grandpa tells me that a 13 hh heavy cob will bring a much dearer price than those that are 14 hh and over, and he emphasizes that the preference for taller cobs reaching or exceeding 15 hh is an American preference, not Romany.

He also points out the lowly half-legger. “Not true cob,” he says, fingering a Gypsy horse with more refined bone and very little hair. “Only a gadjo would buy such a horse.”

Of extreme importance to the Romany is a man’s word. His greatest concern is being branded a liar, and if a Gypsy man is discovered to be a liar, he is all but exiled from the horse trade. Because of this time-honored tradition of selling horses by their word and a handshake, contracts are wholly fictitious to them while the mark of honesty is a most honorable virtue.

Up the hill from the corner where an extraordinary-colored cob stallion is engulfed by a sea of admirers, Tom sets up his vardo amidst rows upon rows of other wagons and displays the wrought iron wares that he offers for sale. We build a stick fire, and after hooking the kettle to the prop, he educates me on the method of buying and selling horses while we wait for the water to boil. Tom holds a worn brown finger next to his nose and tells me that vital to the wagering is bartering down the asking price. This is expected, and only the gadje are foolish enough to pay full price. “When you bid on a horse, always ask the seller what he will give you for your luck.” The more the seller agrees to give you for your luck, the more sanctified the transaction, and of course the lower the price. After a handshake on the agreed-upon price, the lead rope is handed to the buyer and the transaction is complete.

I watched the spirited and chaotic event with fascination, and even after three days, Appleby Fair sustained its riveting allure until the commotion wound down and participants and spectators begin drifting toward home. At its close, the fields of Gallows Hill were littered with rubbish and with memories of the cob horses that had raced through the flash or bathed in the Eden River or stood patiently in front of the pubs and chippies for hours while their owners ate and drank and bartered. As I packed my camera for the trip to Manchester airport, Grandpa hurried toward me with something in his arms. “Here,” he said, out of breath. He transferred to my arms an enormous kettle identical to the one we used at the stick fires to make tea. “Tom wants you to have it. We used it last night at the stick fire, so it’s a real Gypsy kettle.”

At the 2006 National Western Stock Show in Denver, I caught my first glimpse of Gypsy horses when a pair of cob mares made an unprecedented and crowd-cheering appearance to a packed coliseum for the feed team races. If the chubby Gypsy mares knew that they were vastly different from the Percherons and Belgians with their tidy tails and scale-tipping weights, they didn’t show it. And the fans certainly weren’t deterred by the smaller newcomers with their big hearts and drag-the-ground tails. After the competition and back at the stalls, I mingled with the throngs that descended upon the 14-handish, hairy mosaics with the no-friction attitudes and wondered how this compact draft with oodles of hair and a murky lineage that murmured of Shire was becoming so popular.

For the majority of purebreed enthusiasts, the absence of papers should be deterrent enough, but it wasn’t, and proof of the no-boundaries vogue of the Gypsy Cob is further armored by its rapid ascension to pinnacle status in the U.S. and Canada. In the age of bloodstock validation by venue of registration papers, many newcomers to the Gypsy Cob are openly bedeviled by the registration paper void of Romany horses; in America, registration papers are heavily vested as the glue that binds together most breed registries. Though the horses the Romany export are eligible with several Gypsy horse registries in the U.S. and Canada, all of the Romany families I visited with do not register their horses. They have no registry and they never have because Romany creed denounces any form of it. They also tell me that they do not like signing contracts, preferring instead to adhere to centuries-old traditions of sealing deals in the pub over a pint and a handshake.

Today, Gypsy horses are a phenomenon that have not only ignited the flames of fanfare by equine agnostics, new recruits are tumbling in by the hundredfold as converts are sidelining or even abandoning other breeds altogether in favor of the sturdy and heavily-feathered Gypsy Cob. One of the many silver linings of the Gypsy Cob is that their propensity for gentle-quiet has been the dernier cri for the multitudes of 50-something women–many of them accomplished and well-seasoned equestriennes–who are more reluctant to take risks with the spirited breeds of their youth. Another discipline for individuals in their conservative years or for those seeking a working relationship with a horse that doesn’t require being in the saddle, driving the Gypsy horse has been the resounding answer for those more cautiously engaged.

One such aficionado is Oklahoma’s Brenda Hearon of 4C’s Gypsy Horses. Brenda and her husband, Randy, are illustrative of the many newcomers to the Gypsy horse, and Brenda’s confession is immediate and sincere. “My love for this horse has become insane. What more can I say?” Brenda asserts that the Gypsy horse was the perfect breed for the Hearons with the kind of rough-cut history that is similar to her childhood with horses. “I can remember as a child going out to catch the horses and then riding them back to the barn bareback with a long weed I had found in the pasture. We didn't know that horses needed training to do these things, and we had absolutely no fear. Our horses were not known by a breed name. We just loved them and cared for them and shared our secrets with them.”

As the Hearon’s Gypsy horse family continues to expand, they have enlisted the help of a trainer to teach them how to harness and drive one of their mares, Miss Daisy. “Randy and I are novices, but we have big plans for our Gypsies. I will be training to skid logs and operate horse-drawn farm equipment with Miss Daisy. In the meantime, we try to do all kinds of things with them. We love to entertain groups. We have taken the horses to nursing homes, schools, and we attend every expo we can get to. I recently attended a clinic and did a little cow cutting. The Gypsy is simply the most wonderful breed I have ever experienced.”

Backing the Hearons' claims, several industry notables including Don Langille, Aaron Frietag, Bob Olson and Todd Draheim have answered the call to help new Gypsy owners enter the driving arena. Langille speaks highly of the easy-going nature of the Gypsy and has had several in his Big Shoe Stables training barn in Meeker, Oklahoma. “They’re a good horse to be around and they always do what you ask of them. Care and maintenance is very similar to that of the Clydesdale, except for a little less foot and a lot more hair.”

And a do-anything attitude–that’s what I can personally tell people. Today, the kettle sits on my fireplace and reminds me of Grandpa and Tom and the colored cobs of Appleby Fair. When I look at that big kettle, a cherished memory from my night at the inn at Brough is often evoked. From my room that night, the sheep chimed in softly with the village clock. Noise from the pub below me was audible, but undisturbing. The night skies shifted their color and became darkest near 11:00 p.m., but they were never completely dark. I lay in my bed next to the window that allowed me a shadowy view of the heavily-mossed slate roof that lay unevenly atop the stone building that was hundreds of years old. While a single star peeked at me from beyond a worn chimney, the church bell tolled at midnight, and I thought of my grandmother and how,  decades later, my journey to Appleby Fair inspired a rousing conclusion to a story that began 85 years ago when she was a teenager. They were enchanting thoughts, and before I fell asleep, the full realization of what the Gypsy Horse truly was transcended all the first impressions I ever had about him.

Now I understood.

~In memory of Christine Bartko 1968-2010. Rest in peace “gadji.”
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