William the Gypsy cob stallion was an eating machine, so when he lost his appetite Cora and Karl Hohenberg knew something was wrong.
A vet looked William over, and the couple continued about their day, puttering around their wooded property near La Broquerie until the phone rang. It was the local vet telling them to take William to the equine hospital — now.
Cora and Karl left the lawn mower in the middle of the yard and loaded William into his trailer.
At the hospital, the vet took more tests. Karl asked her, “Are we just wasting time here, or should I be on the highway to Saskatoon to the vet hospital?”
This was above her, she said. They should go. She made them cups of coffee, and the couple sped toward Saskatoon, still in their rubber boots and barn clothes.
William, weak and suffering from diarrhea, had Potomac horse fever — a disease in which, if the horse can survive the dehydration and weakness brought on by colitis, may still have to be put down because of laminitis, a condition which, in severe cases can cause the hoof walls to collapse.
At University of Saskatchewan, vets and veterinary students met them with a crash cart ready. William made it to an ICU stall before he collapsed.
William was at death’s door, “and the door was cracking open,” Karl said. He would need round-the-clock care.
“There was never any question about it,” Karl said. “I would just sell everything that I owned.”
But William pulled through. A few days later, Cora and Karl got a message that William was interested in food.
Give him bread — he’s crazy about bread — they said. Soon, veterinary students were running around the campus collecting stale bread and picking grass in green spaces.
The Gypsy cob community rallied to fundraise to help pay the Hohenberg’s astronomical vet bills and held an online auction.
The stallion would ride home on a bed of straw and sleep on a “princess mattress” in the barn, where Cora would massage and stretch his damaged feet.
William, of course, expected no less. At Cyclone Gypsy Horses, he’s king — and among Manitoba horse people, he’s famous.
A city kid and a horse lady
Karl grew up and spent much of his adult life in Winnipeg, but he knew he’d leave eventually.
“There was a nagging thing in the back of my head since I was about 18 years old. ‘Get out,’” he said.
One day he was standing at a bus stop on McPhillips Street watching traffic go by and he asked himself: “What am I doing here?”
Friends of his had moved to La Broquerie in southeastern Manitoba. In 2000, he found property for sale there and moved a house onto the yard. Meanwhile, he met Cora.
Cora grew up in Anola, east of Winnipeg. As a little kid, she’d ride the neighbour’s pony. She’d shovel stalls at another neighbour’s barn so she could be with horses.
“Everything was about horses,” she said. “I was one of those awkward horse kids. I didn’t care about anything else.”
At 16 she got her first pony, and since then she’s gone exactly one week without a horse in her life.
Her life has been, “in and out, through and through, a life dedicated to horses,” Karl said.
She studies horses, observing how they take care of themselves — when and why they lick dirt or eat willows. She reads obscure studies and books from the time when horses were the main means of transportation.
At the time Karl met her, she was working with Arabian horses. When she’d moved to the La Broquerie area, she’d made friends with an Arabian breeder.
“Next thing I know, I had about 20 Arabs in the back pasture,” Cora said.
An adult-sized Shetland pony
But with the less-experienced Karl around, Cora began to wish for a more even-tempered horse.
“You can’t beat a good Shetland pony,” she said. “If only a Shetland pony would come in the size for an adult to ride.”
In her search for a safe, family horse, she came across the Traditional Gypsy cob — a breed developed by the Romany people in the United Kingdom. The Romany bred draft horses and smaller breeds to create an even-tempered, intelligent horse to pull the family wagon.
Cora and Karl said the cobs needed to be smart enough to not wander away while grazing on the sides of country roads and gentle enough that the children could tend them.
The result was a breed of medium-size horses with white and black or white and brown colouring. They have long, luxurious manes and tails and feathering around the hooves.
They don’t, however, come cheap.
After Cora’s mother died, she received an inheritance. At first she intended to use it to pay off debts.
“I said no,” Karl said. “I want you to buy something tangible so you have meaning.”
After extensive research, Cora found William — then two years old and living in Colorado. They didn’t have a proper trailer to bring him home, but they found one for a good price in Ottawa.
In a week they drove to Ottawa, got the trailer, drove home to sleep one night, and then drove to Colorado. William took a sniff of their hay and walked right into the trailer.
“It felt like it was meant to be,” Cora said.
William was the first Traditional Gypsy cob in Manitoba, and one of the few in Western Canada at the time. He drew a bit of attention at horse shows.
He produced some beautiful offspring with Cora’s Arab mares, so Cora and Karl began to shop for a cob mare. They bought “Reason” with her foal “Rhyme” and their herd was born.
Today, they have 13 cobs. William has a “wall of shame” (their words) of an estimated 150 to 200 championship ribbons, and his offspring are collecting ribbons of their own. The Cyclone Gypsy horses compete in events including western-style dressage, endurance riding and breed shows.
In the years since Karl and Cora got William, Traditional Gypsy cobs have become more popular in Canada, though the Hohenbergs estimated there are less than 1,000 in Canada. However, they’ve yet to be recognized as a breed in Canada. The breed’s studbook remains in England where it began.
Increased numbers led to the creation of Traditional Gypsy Cob Association Canada. Cora, and the association are working to have the breed registered.
“It’s a work in progress,” she said.
Cora went through a TGCA judging program in England where she saw first hand the quality of English Gypsy cobs.
In North America “we’re getting close,” she said.