By Shari Phiel
Like many little girls I fell in love with horses when I was very young. I also started riding when I was very young, probably not much older than 3, and have been riding — off and on — ever since. Naturally, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about horses and horse breeds.
But a few years ago, while attending the Longs Peak Highland Festival in Estes Park, I came upon a breed I had not only never seen before but had never even heard of before. Looking like a cross between a Paint and a Shire draft horse, Irish Cobs are a very old breed relatively new to the United States and a specialty of Parnell’s Irish Cobs north of Fort Collins.
Irish Cob horses are a compact but very powerful breed. Also referred to as Gypsy horses, Gypsy Cobs, Tinker Cobs and Gypsy Vanners, they have been used by the Romany or Travellers for hundreds of years to pull wagons and flat-carts across Europe, most especially in Great Britain and Ireland. In fact, Irish Cobs are still used today throughout Ireland by the Travellers, although they tend to ride in trailers behind the wagons rather than pulling them.
Charlie and Jan Cox, owners of Parnell’s Irish Cobs located at the Irish Rose Farm, became interested in the horses a few years ago after their daughter-in-law, who was working at Colorado State University, invited them to come see a special horse from Ireland brought in for breeding at CSU’s reproduction laboratory.
Charlie Cox laughingly notes, “We quickly discovered that it’s kind of like going out to look at a litter of lab pups. Unless you’re planning on bringing one home, you probably shouldn’t go.”
With both coming from Irish ancestry, it wasn’t long before the couple was looking for their own Irish Cobs to bring home. “We didn’t see the kinds of horses available, locally or in the state, that we thought would form the basis for a breeding operation here,” he said.
They soon headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland to look for just the right horses. After contacting a friend in Ireland with both a master’s degree in equine reproduction and contacts among breeders and the Travellers, they spent three “glorious” weeks traveling more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) to look at 250 different horses. In the end they picked out seven mares, some in foal, and shipped them home.
“We had two rules. One, we weren’t going to buy any stallions. Two, we weren’t going to bring home any babies — because it costs just as much to bring [a foal] back as it does a mare.” Charlie Cox said. “The airline doesn’t care, a horse is a horse is a horse — of course.”
Naturally, as plans go, that idea soon fell by the wayside. One of the mares dropped her foal, and the breeder began sending them pictures of mother and baby via e-mail. Jan Cox noted, “They said they would try to sell the baby for us,” but the couple realized the foal was not only adorable but would be a great addition to their new herd, so they brought her home.
Along with the 17 Irish Cobs now at the farm, of which six are brood mares, two are stallions and the rest younger horses, the Coxes have also taken on restoring several vintage wagons and carts used during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Charlie Cox noted that upon first seeing a vardo wagon, most people ask if it’s a miniature of the real wagon. They’re usually surprised to learn the answer is “no.” These small, highly-decorated wagons served as both the transportation and residence of the owners. The Travellers, who were often seen as thieves and were unwelcome in any one town for long, travel the roads performing odds jobs, repairing pots and pans, sharpening tools and generally applying the trade of a tinker.
Irish Cobs aren’t only used for pulling carts and wagons though. They do very well under both western and English saddles, have been ridden in dressage competitions and, thanks to the efforts of the Gypsy Horse Breed Association (which the Coxes belong to), are being used as equine therapy horses.
“We go out and find these horses that are just the right temperament, the right size, all that stuff, and then we foster them until they’re ready to go home their therapeutic riding center,” said Jan Cox. “We call them Gypsy angels.”
In addition to having educational displays at several regional festivals, including the Elizabeth Celtic Festival in Elizabeth, Colo., and the Fort Collins Irish Festival, Parnell’s Irish Cobs can also been seen in the Denver St. Patrick’s Day Parade and at Equine Affair in Columbus, Ohio and the Big Thunder Draft Horse Show.
Next up is the Continental Divide Horse Show and Gypsy Breed Classic being held at the The Ranch, Larimer County Fairgrounds and Event Complex in Loveland from Aug. 21-23. After that they’ll return to Estes Park for the Highland Festival’s parade and events.
For more information about Parnell’s Irish Cobs, visit their Web site at www.ParnellsIrishCobs.com. If you’re at the draft horse show or the highland festival, be sure an stop by for a look at these beautiful horses and maybe even learn a little about their history.