The Magic of Gypsy Vanners Print E-mail

Main Line Today

November 2010

In a rolling pasture at the El Brio Ranch a trio of Gypsy Vanners trot across the Chester County countryside.  Easily recognizable by their marbled white and black coloring, the horses’ long thick manes dance in the wind.  Their lower legs are showered with an abundance of "feathers," typical of English draft horses.  Possessing a mystical appearance, Gypsy Vanners move across a field as if they are floating.  

Soon the three horses are joined in the pasture by another mare and her foal, Storybook. It’s a perfect name for the exceedingly friendly and inquisitive three-week old filly as well as for the tale of Ed Fitts and Sue Rathbone who have forged a storybook tale of their own. 

Back in 2000 the couple traveled to Ocala, Florida for a close-up look at the breed imported to the United States in 1996.  They returned to El Brio with a pair of weanling fillies purchased from Dennis Thompson, co-founder of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society.  Ever since, Fitts and Rathbone’s mission has been to breed and raise animals that retain the the Vanner’s purity and distinctive characteristics-- a muscular and powerful build combined with a gentle temperament and impressive athletic ability.

(Photos by Jared Castaldi)

 Inside El Brio’s handsome barn a dozen Gypsy Vanners relax in their stalls.  Odd Job Bob munches away on a bale of hay.  There is little fanfare for Bob who the couple imported from Ireland in 2000 after they saw a photograph of the horse pulling a carriage.

“He’s our ambassador for the breed,” says Rathbone, a smile stitched across her face.  “He has this magnetic personality.  He competes in dressage and (carriage) driving.  We take him to horse shows and demonstrations.  He does everything, Odd Job Bob.”

A couple of years ago he was featured in the children’s book “Odd Job Bob and Hairball: A Day in the Park” told mainly through El Brio trainer Megan Coy's lushly colored illustrations. The 14-year old gelding regularly appears in the children’s area during readings at various horse shows.  Odd Job Bob promoted the breed at the World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in September 2010, and will appear in the Rose Bowl Parade in January. 

Then there is the movie.  Odd Job Bob is the equine star of the family film “The Greening of Whitney Brown.” He teamed up with veteran actors Kris Kristofferson, Brooke Shields, Aidan Quinn and 15-year old dynamo Sammi Hanratty.  The film follows the misadventures of Whitney Brown, a privileged and popular Philadelphia teenager.  Her world is upended when her parents experience a sudden economic freefall that necessitates a family move to Whitney’s grandparents’ old farm in the country.  She befriends an amazing horse of a crusty old rancher, and learns some vital lessons about family and life.

Fitts and Rathbone are executive directors of the film that supposedly unfolds in downtown Philadelphia and Chester County.  Due to a sharp increase in union costs, the movie was actually filmed in Atlanta and its surrounding countryside.  The couple spent roughly $9 million on the 90-minute film that is slated to be released in 2011. 

With the movie finished, Fitts and Rathbone have focused on to their latest venture-- the building of a winery structure in St. Helena in Napa Valley, California.  It’s a spot where the volcanic soils in the arid, rocky hills above Lake Hennessey produce grapes with powerful and unique flavors. Under the direction of acclaimed winemaker Philippe Melka, a native of Bordeaux, the vineyard’s first release, Feathered Horse 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, has received a batch of positive reviews hailing its complex flavors. 

“We got very lucky with the property, it’s high up on Pritchard Hill, a great area for growing Cabernet Franc grapes,” says Fitts.  “We plan to have the winery opened in early 2012.”

Their vineyard has expanded to ten acres and when everything is up and rolling, the winery will produce upwards of 1,500 cases a year.  The couple’s Gypsy Vanner stallion, Charlie, is pictured on the label.

“It’s kind of funny, we started out naming our foals after wineries and then we named the winery after our breed,” adds Rathbone with a laugh.
The Vanners have been selectively bred over the past 50 years to create a kind of small Shire that is colorful enough to match the Gypsy’s colorful caravans.  Gypsies, Romanys or Travelers as they are known, are excellent horsemen, and are as distinctive as the horses they breed.  Powerfully built with impressive athletic ability and magical looks, the Gypsy Vanners’original job was to pull a heavy vardos (living wagon) that held all that was precious to their owners.

Typically, the horses were tethered on the side of the road or in fields, eating whatever grass they could find and living without shelter in the cold winters.  They needed to be patient, quiet and trustworthy in order to be safe for pulling caravans and carrying gypsy children who often ride bareback. Any horse without a good temperament was immediately culled from the breeding stock.  

While Gypsies no longer live in vardos, they continue to raise selectively bred horses for showing, driving events, horse fairs, and to provide a good source of income from their sales.  Bred from a combination of feathered draft and pony breeds, the Vanners range in size from 13 to 15 hands weighing 1000 to 1,200 pounds. They are sturdy horses with heavy bones, flat knees and a short back.

Feathering is an inherited trait passed down and enhanced through generations of careful breeding. The amount and quality of feather separates the superior Gypsy Vanner from the average one. Manes and tails must be long, thick and flowing, and their leg feathers should begin at the knee/hock and fully cover the hooves.

Vanners come in a variety of colors-- the most common is piebald (black/white)-- and also solid colors. To become a member of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society a horse must possess a certain look and meet a clear conformation standard, ensuring that they are the same quality horse first produced by Romany Gypsy breeders.  Still quite rare in the United States, the Vanner numbers are increasing each year and currently total roughly 1,300.  Traditionally used for the sport of driving, Vanners also excel at dressage, hunter-jumper events and both English and Western riding.

Fitts’ and Rathbone’s El Brio Ranch stretches over 188 acres across three separate parcels.  The tail end encompasses what was once the fabled old King Ranch.  In addition to 11-year old gelding Odd Job Bob, their purebred stock of Gypsy Vanners includes five broodmares, one gelding, 15 foals and two stallions, Charlie and Turley.  The latter is a striking piebald who won Supreme Champion at the Dream Park Classic in New Jersey in 2009. Charley’s offspring have earned titles at a variety of competitions and he is the first Gypsy Vanner to be honored with the High Point GV of the Year Award by the U. S. Dressage Federation.  

El Brio’s “Golden Opportunity” embryo program offers several stallion/mare combinations. The  program utilizes one of the top reproduction centers on the east coast, the University of Pennsylvania Hoffman Center for Reproduction, located 15 minutes from the ranch.  Rathbone, along with two assistant trainers, Aaron Leon and Megan Coy, tends to the horses. They had four Gypsy Vanner babies this year and expect six in 2011.  The horses sell for $8,000 to $45,000.

“We work with all our horses from birth and they learn their barn manners early-- from cross ties, clippings, blacksmiths and baths,” says Rathbone.  “They are lunged and ground driven, trailered and shipped.  As two-year olds they come under saddle and hooked to the cart. They have such sweet dispositions and are easy to work with and train because of their willingness to learn.”
It’s always been all about the horse for Rathbone who grew up in Pennsville, N. J. where she got her first pony at age nine.

“Neither of my parents were horse people and my dad was trying to figure out what to do with me on weekends, so he got me a pony,” Rathbone recalls with a laugh.  “I traveled with a brat pack of kids that all had ponies.  Back then you could ride all day and no one bothered you. We would tie up to a tree and go swimming in the creek.  I didn’t show, just rode the trails.”

Rathbone and her former husband owned and operated a 70-acre standardbred facility in Woodstown, N. J. with a half-mile racetrack for training and barns for lay-ups for other trainers.  At one time they had 40 horses in training and racing in the mid-Atlantic region. He trained the 1976 New Jersey Horse of the Year, Dozer, while Rathbone trained Cherry Bambino, winner of the New Jersey Sire Stakes in 1984 and the 2-year old Filly of the Year.  She also operated a USDA quarantine business for horses leaving the country. Most of them were pony trotters or carriage horses headed to Bermuda by ship.

Serendipity plays a role in all our lives, some more so than others. In 1995, Rathbone and a girlfriend traveled to the town of Sedona, Ariz., where modern mystics claim to balance psychic energies.  On a private ride Rathbone guided a lovely Peruvian Paso palomino stallion through the gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon. 

When she returned five years later with her 14-year old son Rathbone learned the horse had been sold to a man from Chester County.  That man was Fitts.  The woman who had finalized the purchase contacted Fitts, who later phoned Rathbone and invited her to visit the horse and his farm.

“That was ten years ago, and I never left,” Rathbone says with wry smile.  “Why would I?”

As for Fitts, he is not a man deterred by bumpy roads.  In a life full of insistent interests, filmmaking and a smart, new winery are only the latest two.   A native of Littleton, N. C., he graduated from North Carolina State with a degree in industrial engineering. Nearly 50 years later Fitts is still coming up with spot-on solutions.

"You figure out how to do things better,” says Fitts.  “I tend to look at industrial engineering as enterprise engineering, or the people-engineering side of it. I think that's where good industrial engineers are able to be very successful in business.  It takes more than a passion.  You need to translate that passion to your associates that work with you."

Fitts began his career with Sunoco Products Company, a packaging solutions business in Hartsville, S. C., where he eventually rose to vice president.  In 1979 he led a management team that purchased a paperboard packaging operation from Sonoco and transformed the operation into the food service packaging firm, Dopaco Inc.  It makes drink cups, food trays and other packaging for fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys. The company is headquartered in Exton, Pa.

Fitts was able to satisfy his thirst for entrepreneurship and apply a mixture of industrial engineering and business attributes to his company.  During his 26-year tenure as chairman and CEO, Dopaco grew from a company of 115 employees to 1,500 across nine plants with annual sales of more than $400 million when Fitts left five years ago.  Cascades Inc., a Canadian maker of paper packaging that previously bought 50 percent of the company, purchased the remaining half in 2005.

“I had plenty of time to plan for retiring,” Fitt says with a laugh.  “I bought a boat, bought a Harley and bought some horses.  It’s kind of interesting the only one I stuck with was the horses.”

The most charismatic one, Odd Job Bob, will soon make his debut on the silver screen.

The idea for the movie started when a videographer who had included El Brio Ranch in a part of a video promoting the Gypsy Vanners approached the couple about financing a screenplay.  They hired producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason as consultants who explained that it was too much of a drama, not suited for a feature film.  Fitts and Rathbone’s vision was a kid’s story, so they purchased the rights to the screenplay and started fresh.

“We were spending the winter in Florida when the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scam dominated the news cycle 24/7,” recalls Rathbone.  “The story was everywhere, in your face.  Financially, people were losing everything.  That’s when we came up with the outline with a set of bullet points that were vital to the story.  Set in Philadelphia and built around a family who loses everything in the recession but realizes that family is most important after they move to Chester County countryside, and the daughter befriends a horse.”

To get the ball rolling the couple contacted Moore-Lewy and Mason, the owners of Perfect Weekend productions of Venice, Calif.  The company has produced six films in recent years including “The Open Road” starring Jeff Bridges and Justin Timberlake in 2009.  Peter Odiorne made his feature film directorial debut guiding an original script by Gail Gilchrist, screenwriter for the family film "My Dog Skip." 

“We wanted to produce something that was missing in movies today,” Rathbone explains.  “Our requirements were no one dies, it teaches life lessons and there would be a wonderful connection between the horse and the little girl.  We wanted a happy ending, a movie that kids, parents and grandparents could enjoy.”

A native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., Odiorne worked as an editor and director guiding projects from hundreds of television commercials to web films and documentaries.  He describes his directing style as emphasizing composition, light, editing and visual communications.  Both Odiorne and Mason attended the Haverford School.

“Charlie and Justin had put me on the short list of directors and in July of 2009 they gave me the nod,” says Odiorne, 38, the father of four daughters.  “My years as an editor were a real plus. Both of them and Ed and Sue were looking for a process that would go easy where everyone could enjoy themselves.  I kept a light attitude over the 29 days of shooting.”

Shot in the fall of 2009 the shooting featured 14-hour days.  It was an eye-opening experience for Fitts and Rathbone watching the actors at work.  Brooke Shields plays Whitney Brown’s mother, Aidan Quinn is her father and Kris Kristofferson, now 74, turns up as her estranged grandfather, Dusty Brown. Cameo roles were landed by well-known Chester County residents-- former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil as a youth football coach, while Susan Roberts, wife of Comcast Chairman Ralph Roberts, plays the head mistress at the private school.

“With Kris, he can look into the camera and you know what he’s going to say,” Fitts explains.  “His facial expressions are amazing.  He is amazing and both Kris and Brooke are so genuine.  They do their jobs so well and then they’re back in the trailer. As for Sammi, she doesn’t have a shy bone in her body.  She’ll do a great job promoting the film.”

The movie opens with aerial shots of the Schuylkill River and the skyline of Philly, zooming over William Penn.  However, New York film unions put the quash on future scenes in Philadelphia and Chester County when they upped their rates in August of 2009.

“Filming in Chester County was very appealing to us, we started hiring people, picking site locations,” says Fitts.  “At the eleventh hour the New York unions said ‘nope, we’re putting you into the $50 million category,’ so our costs would have gone up 50 percent. There were also no film tax credits available because at that time there was no state budget.   

“Both of those issues crushed it from being able to be filmed here.  So we pulled up stakes and moved everything to Atlanta.  We were very fortunate since the countryside outside the city is very similar to Chester County.”

Seven different locations in Georgia were involved in the shooting.  The production company needed a long, straight railroad track that runs through the middle of town. That’s exactly what Bowersville (pop. 350) had, and not much else.  Nearly the whole town turned out to watch. Exterior shots of the Biltmore Hotel were substituted for the Atlanta Women’s Club, the filming site of an elite private school prom where Odd Job Bob crashes the party. 

Rathbone and Fitts imported Odd Job Bob from Ireland in 2003.  He trained with legendary Tommy Turvey for ten months preparing for his role.  Turvey is the most sought after equine trainer and entertainer in America.  His trainees have been seen by millions around the world. 

“Odd Job Bob did the more technical work—bowing down, pushing a swing, laying down pretending he was hurt and sitting down,” Rathbone explains.  “He was trained to be ridden without a bridle.”

Still, Bob balked at running alongside the moving train in Bowersville.  Instead, El Brio’s mare Mariah (a stunt double) galloped alongside the track before the rider leapt onto the train.

“Mariah is a much more spirited horse,” Rathbone relates. “She did all the running and jumping scenes. She loved the train.  She would hearing it coming and get so excited.  She did six takes and they were pulling her back when she was trying to meet the train.  No fear at all.”

Due to film regulations there were serious time restrictions put on Sammi Hanratty and the horses.   Driving Sammi to and from locations, setting time aside for schooling and lunch, her actual filming time was whittled down to two hours a day.

“The one big thing I learned is you can’t will the art department, the wardrobe people, the electricians to do their job,” explains director Odiorne.  “You just allow them to work through the process.  As the director you’re guiding, helping, pushing and pulling and doing it all with moving parts.  There is never enough, never enough money.  I’m a painter, so I know that even though there is more that could be done,  you have to stop at some point.

“In this business the old adage is don’t work with kids and animals.  Well, here’s my first feature film that was a very enjoyable experience.  So, I think I shattered that notion.”      


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