Two items have found their way to my desk recently connected by a single name: Frank Yardley. The first item is the Spring 2002 Fell Pony Society newsletter. In it, Frank shares how he started with Fells and what he used them for. He began in the 1950s; two ponies became available after the company he worked for changed to the motor variety of horsepower. He used them every day on local farms, carting muck and chain harrowing for hire. He also mowed with them early in the morning, sometimes loaning them out during the day, then mowing again at night. In addition, he hauled sawdust for sale with them. Eventually he sold them when his farmer-clients went to tractor power.
The second item on my desk is a stack of articles from Heavy Horse World about coloured cobs. In photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, Frank Yardley is shown with horses that he bred. “I proved to myself over the years that a Clydesdale mare with a nice cob bred a good cob with nice bone, good action and nice straight silky hair.” Frank says, about a pair he’s shown working in the 1980s, “There are not many coloured cobs working in pairs on the land. These were both mares, six and eight-years-old, and worked very well together, doing any job they were put to.” (1) Frank bred them both and owned the sire and dam. In the 1970s, Frank had a well regarded stallion named Prince: “The stallion was 15.3hh, nice bone, plenty of feather, very kind and good tempered, and was a half-bred Clydesdale.” (2)
Back in March, I wrote a blog post called “Judging Feathers in the Draft World.” The post was about a draft horse friend attending a judging clinic for Gypsy Horses. I was greatly confused, then, when the comments I received on Facebook about this post had nothing to do with what I had written, yet were lively and full of strong opinions.
I am indebted to my friend Eddie McDonough for clearing up my confusion. The comments on my post came predominantly from people from Great Britain, and they were reacting to the term “Gypsy Horses.” It appears that this is a name given much attention in America, but it is used much less often in England. Instead, these horses are often referred to as coloured cobs, and they often have little connection to ‘Gypsy’ people, travelers, or Romanys. In addition, they are often not even members of a standardized breed in England, as Frank Yardley’s comments above suggest.
The strong opinions that my post elicited were reacting to the American interest in these horses that has perhaps romantically but not fully accurately labeled them ‘Gypsies’. Frank Yardley’s involvement as well as many others with coloured cobs indicate that these horses are bred and used by many outside the traveler community. (It’s also interesting to note how often the name ‘Gypsy’ shows up in the Fell Pony Society stud book, indicating that the name may not be so much associated with a breed as with a type of pony, of which Fells can be one representation.)
American interest in standardizing a breed that hasn’t been well-defined in its homeland also seems to be a point of contention. I don’t quarrel with this sort of effort, as a breed has to start somewhere, and there are definite benefits to getting people organized and cooperating. In addition, none other than former Fell Pony breeder and author Clive Richardson has written in Carriage Driving magazine that ‘gypsy ponies’ deserve to be considered the tenth native breed of British pony. (3)
Richardson acknowledges that gypsy ponies as a breed have not been defined in the same way as other British natives: “Unlike most native breeds whose characteristics evolved from the geographical area from which they took their name, this breed developed in all parts of the country. There are no written records to chart its evolution, until comparatively recently no breed societies to supervise its preservation and welfare, no agreed breed standard other than an accepted oral tradition, and not even an accepted name for this well-established breed. Despite all this, it may justly claim to be one of Britain’s native breeds and the only one to have developed specifically for harness work.” (4)
I have long known of a close connection between Fells and ‘Gypsy Horses.’ Appleby Fair is often cited as a vibrant market place for Gypsies, and it is located in the heart of Fell country. It is not uncommon for Fell breeders to also keep coloured cobs, and Fell blood is known to have contributed to the Gypsy ‘breed.’ With time perhaps Gypsy Horse lovers in America will give recognition to the broader history and use of these horses in England outside the traveler community, though I’m sure the name is so well-established here as to be unchangeable. And perhaps people from Great Britain will understand that organizing a breed society for these horses might endow coloured cobs with some of the same benefits that the Fell Pony Society provides for our breed.
There is always plenty for all of us to learn about equine history and breeding, regardless of which side of the pond we live on. Rarely is it as romantic and simple as it first appears. That’s been true for me in learning about Fells, and it certainly also seems to be the case for ‘Gypsy Horses.’
1) Yardley, Frank. “Tips about working cobs,” Heavy Horse World, Autumn 2002, p. 53.
2) Yardley, Frank. “When the Royal Mews missed out!”, Heavy Horse World, Summer, 2003, p. 63.
3) Richardson, Clive. “The Tenth Native Breed,” Carriage Driving, February/March 2005, p. 51.
4) Richardson, p. 51.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012