All About Feather

How to evaluate feather in the Gypsy Horse

Original article by Christine Bartko




     Many people seem to be very confused about what is considered "feathered", and what is considered "well feathered".  We've seen many ads for these horses on the web that describe the horse as "heavily feathered", or that it has "tons of feather" and other similar claims.  Yet, when we look at the horse,  we can only sigh.  Yes, it may be a good deal of feather compared to a light horse, or a Belgian draft, or even a Friesian, but that is NOT acceptable feathering for a gypsy horse.  Below are some examples and comments on what is, and what is not, good feathering for a gypsy horse.

    For this discussion on feather, we will leave out all of the other things that make a horse into a good horse, and focus on the feathering, a very important part of the gypsy horse breed.  For the horses used as examples, we will assume that they all are equal in conformation and training, for the purposes of this article.  This way we can "get to the heart" of this weighty issue in our chosen breed of horse.  We realize that very few people have gotten to spend the time that we have with the true gypsy people who created this breed, so we wanted to share a bit of what we have learned over the years in relation to this matter.

     In basic terms, "feathered" means that a horse has ground-length hair completely around the hoof.  If the hair in the front of the hoof doesn't naturally grow longer than about an inch or two, then you DO NOT have a feathered horse.  These points are very important, as just being technically "feathered" doesn't make your gypsy horse acceptable by gypsy standards.  If a horse has a light amount of hair all the way around the hoof, but it's not THICK and FULL, then, by gypsy standards, this is not a high quality gypsy horse (of course this excludes horses that have been shaved, or "bog burned").

friesian feather Feather on a Friesian horse.
To Shire, Clydesdale, or Gypsy Horse breeders, this is NOT a "feathered" horse. 

     To gypsies, the people who created our beloved breed of horse, there is no such thing as too much feather.   A moderately feathered stallion is never acceptable, as a stallion has to have as much feather as possible.  If a gypsy breeder is breeding a stallion that doesn't have an incredible amount of feather, he is a poor breeder, who may not have the money for good stock.  "Each hair is a sovereign" is a term used by many of the old traditional breeders.  This would translate to "each hair is a dollar" to us Americans.  This is basically the "bible" of gypsy horse breeding, as the cheap horses don't have too much hair, and the expensive ones are the well bred, quality horses, that also have tons of feather.  These horses can trade among gypsies for serious money.  If you have two conformationally identical fillies, and one has twice as much hair as the other one - that "heavier" filly could be worth at least double what the other one is.  Double isn't actually an accurate description of the worth though, as most of the well-known gypsy breeders won't buy a light legged and feathered filly, no matter what her breeding and history, and no matter how cheap she is.  Most of these top breeders would spend several month's income for the "heaviest" nice filly though!  These top breeders wouldn't take a light-legged, lightly feathered filly of unknown heritage if you gave her to them, hence that filly is "worthless".  I cannot count how many times I have heard the term "worthless", and "rubbish"  when the big gypsy breeders are out buying stock for themselves.

     These "worthless" horses are what most of the breeders call "trade horses".  These are the horses that are frequently sold at auctions and sent to unknown futures.  These are usually lightly boned, lightly feathered horses of non-descript breeding.  Unfortunately, most of the European horse people very wrongly assume that ALL gypsy bred horses are these "trade horses".

     Back to the basics of feather... Feather is a recessive, and it is accumulative.  If you breed a feathered horse to any non-feathered horse, you DO NOT get a feathered horse.  If a gypsy horse doesn't have too much feather on it, the reason for this is likely that it has a non-feathered horse in its pedigree - not too far back!  If the horse has barely any feather on the front of the hoof, but a decent bit off the back of the fetlock, this horse has light-horse bred into it, most likely as one of its parents!  There are actually many of these horses that have been imported into the USA that are direct, first generation crosses, but have been sold as "pure gypsy horses".  This is not a good situation, to say the least!  I will state again, if a "gypsy horse" doesn't have full feathering around the front of its hoof, that reaches the ground, it is recent-generation cross-bred horse (and very likely a first generation cross)!  DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY on these horses.  You can get a horse like this in the USA for MUCH cheaper, by simply crossing a smaller Shire or Clydesdale with a paint horse.  Don't fall victim to this scam!

     If you want a truly feathered gypsy horse, you may have to import, or buy offspring from good imported stock.  Many people make the terribly wrong assumption that if a horse is pinto colored, and from England, that it's a gypsy horse.  Don't make this mistake!  This is just like saying that any horse with a pinto color here in the USA is a paint horse.  This couldn't be further from the truth, especially when you take into account those miniature horses and Shetlands that are snazzy pinto marked!  Don't fall into this common gypsy horse trap!

    Back to basics... Mares are feathered too in this breed!  Many people will try to tell you that a mare doesn't have to have much feathering to be a gypsy horse.  Don't buy this!  Of course, there are "degrees of feathering" which we will show examples of below.  Unless the mare has feather all the way around the hoof to the ground, she is just another "worthless" horse.  Below I will show you what a true gypsy breeder would consider acceptable, and what that breeder would not.  Not all mares can be "the heaviest mare" around, but there are limits as to what amount is acceptable to proper breeders.  There is never a reason to breed a gypsy horse mare that has what a gypsy horse breeder would consider to be an unacceptable amount of feather.  Doing this won't give you a nicely feathered horse, it will only give you a horse with slightly more feather than the mare, no matter how heavy (in feather) the stallion is.  We don't need to do this here in the states.  The gypsies have already gone through the trouble of breeding this type of horse into a perfect little feathered horse, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel.  This doesn't address the issue of tainting the breed with inferior, cross bred horses, but of course, that is an issue to be considered as well. 

      Bigger horses. Many of the larger (over 16 hands) gypsy type horses (and drum horses) have a good amount of Shire or Clydesdale blood in them.  These don't get as heavily feathered as the traditional gypsy horses, but should have AT LEAST as much feather as a Shire or Clydesdale.  This means full hair growing around the FRONT of the hoof all the way around.  Any less means that you don't have a feathered horse.  If you have a 14 or 15 hand horse with that lesser amount of feather, you have a "trade horse", one that most true gypsy *breeders*  wouldn't take a second look at (but the *dealers* would love to sell that to an American, guaranteed!). 


Rule to live by in gypsy horses:

Hair isn't everything, but, you can't have everything unless you have the HAIR!




Stallions Stallions need to have feather in order to be considered worth breeding in the gypsy community.  Not just feather, but TONS of feather.

Figure 1.)  This is the feather of one of the top stallions (7 years old) in England.  This guy has thicker feather than some of the silky-feathered stallions.  The heaviest-feathered stallions are usually this type of feather.  The feather MUST start on the front of the cannon bone at the knee for a colt to even be considered for growing up for stallion potential. 
good feather



Figure 2.)  Feather of a 6 year old stallion.  Not coarse, not silky, somewhere in between.
good feather



Figure 3.)  Feather of a 5 year old well bred gypsy stallion.  Although it's not clean or brushed out, this is the straight, silky feather that is so in demand among gypsy breeders.  This is about as much hair as you will see on a straight-feathered stallion.  If the hair is in good shape (not burned out or anything), and you can see hoof, you don't have a good stallion.  NOT ALL horses will grow feather like this. 
good feather



Figure 4.)  Feather of a 3 year old stallion.  In stallions, this is about the least amount of feather that would be acceptable to even the poorest of gypsy breeders.  This is mid-grade feather, not straight, but not curly either.  By 3 years old a stallion has pretty much all the feather he will ever have (unless it's burned out or shaved or something).  Anyone who tells you different that this is trying to sell you an inferior horse! 
average feather



Figure 5.)  Feather of an 8 year old stallion.  This is an unacceptable amount of feather in a stallion over 6 months old. No proper gypsy breeder would even consider this horse for breeding under any circumstance.  This horse is a cross between a feathered gypsy horse and a non-feathered horse, but was sold as a full gypsy stallion.  This is a good example of a "half-legger".   Compare this full grown stallion to the 2 year old colt below (figure 8), you will definitely see the difference!  I was lucky enough to see these two horses together at one time, and I had doubts as to whether they were even of the same breed.
poor feather




Figure 6.)  Feather of a 2 year old colt.  Any 2 year old that only has this much feather will be gelded and sold on, never to be bred. This is the amount I would expect to see on a weanling colt.  On a yearling colt it would be marginal, but on a 2 year old, it's unacceptable. 
 poor feather



Figure 7.)  This 5 MONTH old colt has as much hair in front (this is where the difference is at this age, the front of the hoof) as the 2 year old colt above.  Don't make the mistake of looking at the back of the leg to determine how much feather a horse has!  Some Belgians and Friesians have hair in the back that goes down to the ground, but still none in the front.  Remember, that's not a feathered horse. 
good feather



Figure 8.)  Feather of a 2 year old colt with excellent feathering, a prized colt from one of the best known gypsy breeders.  You can see there is a Profound difference between the 2 year old colts in figures 6 and 8!
 good feather



Figure 9.) A yearling colt with lots of great, straight, silky feather.  Grade = excellent, you will have a hard time finding more in a yearling. 
good feather



Figure 10.)  A yearling colt with a nice amount of feather.  Grade = good, has good potential.
good feather



Figure 11.)   A yearling colt with an average amount of feather.  Grade = acceptable.  The length is almost at the ground already in front, but it is not as full as some of the other colts.  Any less on a yearling is not acceptable in a potential breeding stallion.  This yearling still has a good amount more than the 2 year old in figure 6!
average feather



"Flow Chart"

Top class:  A young colt like the five month old in the figure 7 becomes a yearling like figure 9, which becomes a two year old like figure 8, which becomes a stallion like figure 3. 

Middle class:  A colt like the yearling in figure 10 becomes a stallion like the three year old in figure 4.  These are the types that the poorer, but still proud gypsy breeders will breed.  Not bad, but not the best. 

Not even in the same class:  In contrast:  A two year old like figure 6 will turn into a stallion like figure 5.  Don't let unscrupulous sellers try to tell you that they will eventually get tons of feather like the horses you see in the calendar pictures.  If they don't start out with feather, they will never have it. 


Mares:  The heaviest mare won't have as much feather as the heaviest stallion, but a good mare will have more feather than an average stallion.  The heaviest (this means feather) horses around will be stallions, but the top mares anywhere will be close in feather amount.  Those mares are few and far between, but that shouldn't be an excuse to take an unacceptably feathered mare and try to breed something good with her.  It just won't work, which has been proven over generations by our gypsy breeders.  We don't need to reinvent the wheel with these horses, all the hard work has been done for us by the gypsies.  Put your money into buying what they consider to be a good horse, and you will never be disappointed, either personally or financially.  Mares are every bit as important as stallions (some say more important) in breeding, so don't make the common mistake of getting a decent stallion and trying to fix inferior mares with him.  That trick never works.

Foals:  It's easiest to get a good idea of hair in a foal by waiting until he is close to a year old.  Another good way to get some sort of idea is by looking at the parents.  This does not mean that the two heaviest parents will always produce the heaviest foal, but I can guarantee that two unacceptably feathered parents will NEVER produce an acceptably feathered foal.  If you breed a mare like this
(figure - Mare 1)
 poor feather

or this
(figure - Mare 2)
poor feather

to a stallion like the one in figure 5, you will get a foal like the two year old pictured in figure 6, who  will never have more hair than his parents.  If you breed a mare like Mares 1-2, to a great stallion, you will get somewhat more hair, but still not as much hair as you, and the market, want.  Remember, hair is accumulative and recessive.  If you want lots of feather, you have to breed from lots of feather ON BOTH SIDES.  Even this does not always give you incredibly heavily feathered foals, but it's the only way to even have a chance.  Breed the most feather you can afford to the most feather you can afford, and you have a pretty good chance of producing what the educated buyer wants. 


Figure - Mare 3 - Feather of a three year old, larger mare.  This is about the least amount of feather that is at all acceptable in a mare (and only if she is the larger sized, shire-ish type of mare).  It still covers the front of her hooves, so it is "feather" by definition, but it's not good feather.  Put to a greatly feathered stallion, she has a good chance of producing an acceptably feathered foal.  A mare with this amount of feather shouldn't be too expensive to buy.  She still has much more than the mares in figures 1 and 2 (and those mares are both mares who have been imported into the US as pure gypsy horse mares!!). 
average feather



Figure - Mare 4 - Three year old mare - unacceptable.  It doesn't matter what kind of bloodlines a mare like this is *supposed* to have - one like this is considered "worthless" to any true gypsy breeder, even the poor ones.  We have NEVER found a mare like this one in a broodmare field of a true gypsy breeder, but we have found hundreds of horses like her in the horse dealers fields.
poor feather



Figure - Mare 5 - By contrast, another 3 year old mare.  This gal has the right kind of silky feather starting up at the knee in front like it should. It would be fuller and silkier if it were clean, but you can get the general idea.  BIG difference in the two mares!  Unfortunately for the buyer of the above mare, the prices on the two mares were similar!  Beware of unscrupulous sellers that will tell you that hair like in figure 'Mare 4' is acceptable! 
good feather



Figure - Mare 6 - Four old mare.  Grade - Very good.  Nice and silky, and plenty of it coming from the knee IN FRONT, just as it should.  This is a very high-class mare in the hair department. 
good feather



Figure - Mare 7 - Top of the line six year old mare.  Grade - Excellent, as good as it gets in a mare.  This is the kind of mare you need to produce foals like in figure 9.  This is the kind of mare that has more hair than most stallions.  If she were a stallion, she would be like the stallion in figure 1.
good feather



Figure - Mare 8 - Two year old filly.  This filly will turn into a mare like figures 6 or even 7.  She has wonderful feather for a two year old. 
good feather



Yearling filly feather
poor feather Unacceptable feather in a yearling filly.  By this age, it should be well down the hoof in the front.  This gal will never have hair worth anything.  She is "worthless" in the eyes of gypsy breeders.
good feather Nice feather
good feather Really nice feather
good feather Exceptional feather,
REALLY hard to find in a yearling filly!

     "Bog Burn", AKA "Burned Feather" - No discussion on feather is complete without mentioning the problem of "Bog Burn" in feathered horses.  This is a problem caused by a feathered horse being kept on wet land for extended periods of time.  It's a bigger problem in the winter months, because ice can play a part in it, although ice is not required to bog burn a horse.  Since the winter of England and Ireland consists mostly of mud and more mud, this is something that you see often in gypsy horses.  Gypsies keep their horses outdoors, on fields, almost exclusively.  They try hard to get "good land" in the winter time so as not to "ruin" their horses, but that is not always easy to do, unfortunately.  Sometimes they are forced to use land that they know will "ruin" the feather on their horses in order to keep the horses well fed.  "Ruin" isn't really the proper term, as when the hair is pulled out it grows back of course, but if you have a great mare or stallion in perfect condition feather-wise, it is a huge disappointment to have all that perfect feather pulled out, and have to wait months before it looks the same again. 

     It isn't too tough to tell the difference between a bog-burned horse and a horse that is just poorly feathered, but it does take some experience at looking at different types of feathered feet. 

    Photos below:   The first picture is a 9 year old mare of great breeding, but that was kept on bad land through the winter and spring earlier this year.  The picture on the left was taken in July, after about a month of the hair growing back.  The picture on the right was taken 10 weeks later.  The hair isn't completely back, but it's almost there!  This mare will have hair in front that drags the ground, like a good mare should have!  To the untrained eye, the picture on the left could look like a mare with not-good feather.  The short in the front and long in the back is a classic symptom of bog burn, but that is also a trait of not-so-great feathered horses.  It takes a bit of practice looking to notice the subtle differences between a burned, well feathered horse, and a half-legged horse that doesn't naturally have much feather.  Many unscrupulous dealers will tell interested buyers that a horse is just burned when it's actually a non-feathered horse, so be careful, and know that you can trust the person doing the telling.


burned feather  burned feather grown back


shires with burned feather


This picture shows that it's not just a problem in gypsy horses!  The shire on the left has been kept up nice and dry for the winter, but the ones to the right (it's a team) have CLASSIC bog burn going on.  It looks shaved in the front, but it's not.  It's just burned off.  It will come back, and be full and beautiful again, but that will take a bit of time.  This picture was taken in March, just after a long, wet winter in England, so it's not an uncommon sight, unfortunately.  Just remember, it's temporary, the horses will look fabulous again in a few months. 

In closing:
     If you are new to feathered breeds, don't show your "newbie-ness" by calling what is on horse's legs "feathers".  Horses have "feather", Birds have "feathers" (with the "S" on the end).  All of this is moot when talking to the gypsies, as they just call it "hair"!