Nowhere is the history of humans and horses more closely intertwined than in nomadic societies, with the Arabian breed being perhaps the most widely known example. Developed by the desert-dwelling Bedouins, these horses were bred for centuries specifically for the characteristics needed to survive under the harsh conditions of the Bedouins roaming lifestyle. Although less familiar to the general horse world, the Irish Tinker was developed by the itinerant gypsies of Ireland in response to a very different but equally demanding climate and lifestyle.
Like the Bedouins, the Irish Travelers, as the gypsies are properly called these days, needed a thrifty horse to accommodate their nomadic way of life. But where the Bedouins also had camels at their disposal, the Travelers depended solely on their horses for all transportation. As a result, they developed a unique animal, strong and sturdy enough to pull a 2,500 lb. Gypsy caravan all day through the rolling Irish countryside, yet calm and docile enough for the children to play with and ride once a campsite was reached.
Since the Irish Travelers kept no written records to speak of, historians differ on when this remarkable horse first appeared, with estimates ranging as far back as 600 BC. Throughout most of their history, Travelers were primarily tinsmiths and metalworkers. Until recently, Travelers themselves were often called Tinkers. Tinker is now considered a derogatory term when referring to the Travelers, however the name has remained in use for their horses, although they are sometimes called Irish Cobs, Gypsy Cobs or similar variations. Regardless of the name, what remains constant is the distinctive type of horse developed by the Travelers as a result of centuries of careful selection.
The Travelers required a horse that was absolutely safe under all circumstances, since it was responsible for pulling the caravan carrying the family and all its worldly possessions, typically a 2,000 to 3,000 lb. load. The Traveler children, who often rode bareback at the end of the day, considered the Tinker a friend and playmate. In addition to an unflappable temperament, the Tinker had to be an easy keeper, able to thrive on whatever grass was available by the side of the road or at the campsite. As a result of so many centuries of selectively breeding for these traits as well as conformation and color, today’s Irish Tinker is highly heralded for its kind, quiet intelligence, hardiness and durability.
It is generally agreed that the Irish Tinker is a result of crossing the blood of the Irish Draught, Clydesdale, Shire, Friesian, Fells Pony and Dale Pony. The result is a horse that combines the substance of its draft-type ancestors with the height of an average saddle horse.
“Farewell to the pony, the cob and the mare
The reins and the harness are idle
You don’t need a strap when you’re breaking up scrap
So farewell to the bit and the bridle”
(Verses from a traditional Irish Travelers folk song)
As the above verses illustrate, modern times have forced significant changes in the Travelers lifestyle and means of earning a living. Although some families still traverse the countryside via horse-drawn vehicles, a large number have moved up to motor homes or settled into permanent houses and businesses. Yet many Travelers still view their horses as an integral part of their life and a measure of their wealth, thus continuing to breed these special animals. The horse they so proudly developed is finding a new niche in numerous disciplines, both under saddle and in harness, with eventing, dressage, fox hunting and all types of driving activities being the most common uses today.
Most importantly, a whole new audience around the world is quickly discovering that the unique traits required by the Travelers have resulted in the perfect family horse, kind and quiet enough for beginners, yet athletic and durable enough for experienced and serious competitors. More and more Irish Tinkers are exported to the U.S. and other countries every year, ensuring a bright future that matches or surpasses the proud heritage of this incredible horse.
Although all colors are possible, the most common are piebald (black and white) and skewbald (brown and white). With their heavy manes and tails, bright coloration and flowing feathers, these horses are truly breathtaking.