The horse plays a central role in Romany culture, as Gypsies depended on a ‘kushti grai’, a good horse, for their transport and livelihood. The Romany preference has tended to be for ‘coloured’ Welsh cobs, a stocky and versatile breed with a good combination of strength and stamina. Gypsies also believed their piebald patterning would put off unscrupulous army officers – who preferred animals of one solid colour – from taking their horses into military service.
This attachment to the horse has proven to be resilient and for most Gypsies it has outlasted the move from life on the road to a more settled, modern existence. Today’s horse fairs still attract thousands of visitors. Many of them – including Appleby Fair, which takes place in Cumbria each June – began as general livestock sales or drovers’ gatherings, which attracted Romanies because they offered chances to trade horses and other key goods, such as harnesses, parts for wagons and flat carts, fabrics and lace. A family could pitch camp for several days or weeks, exchange news and tales with other Travellers, and hope that eligible youths might meet a potential partner from a good family.