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Gypsy Cob Horses From Santa Clarita Valley Make Rose Parade Debut

Acton Horse Breeder Is Also Exec in Charge of Production for ‘American Idol’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’

By Stephen K. Peeples

High-stepping horses and colorful equestrian groups have livened up the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena for the last 124 New Year’s Days now. But a relatively new breed of steed called the Traditional or Proper Gypsy Cob made its Rose Parade debut in 2013, and the stallions and geldings all came from the Santa Clarita Valley, specifically SD Farms in Acton.

A Gypsy Cob horse pulls an 80-year-old gypsy flat wagon in the 2013 Rose Parade.

Combining power, grace, beauty and an easy-going temperament, Gypsy Cobs have been bred in England over the past 200 years by three generations of the Down family. Stevie Downs, who heads the original SD Farms in Wantage, England, about 75 miles west of London, is legendary in worldwide equestrian circles as a Romany Gypsy horse breeder. His British herd numbers around 1,000 horses.


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A shared love of the wooly-legged Gypsy Cobs and the Down family’s desire to propagate the the breed in the United States led Stevie Down to partner up three years ago with Wylleen May, also a horse breeder and an Acton resident for the past 19 years.

“The first Gypsy I ever bought was a filly that was bred by Stevie” a few years before they met, May said. “And I just loved her look, because he has always bred them very traditional Gypsy Cob — lots of bone, lots of feather, a nice, sweet little head, and very stocky.”

Down and May finally met face-to-face at the World Gypsy Horse Show in Fort Worth in January 2010, compared notes and decided to join forces breeding horses. That summer, the 50/50 partners established May’s ranch as an SD Farm, and the herd of Gypsy Cobs there now numbers 40.

“We wanted a platform to expose this amazing horse to a larger audience,” May said, explaining why they wanted to join this year’s Rose Parade on Jan. 1, one of the 21 equestrian units from around the world to participate.

“It's a new breed to America,” she said. “Gypsy horses first came over (from England) in 1996, and a lot of people are still not familiar with the breed. So, we were looking for a way to get the word out, because they’re not only beautiful, but also have incredible temperament. Three of the horses that appeared with us in the Rose Parade were stallions. So, we were looking for that opportunity, and there is no bigger parade that accepts horses.”

May rode shotgun (on the left side of the seat, English-style) as Down drove an 80-year-old, flower-festooned gypsy flat cart owned by his family in England, pulled by a sturdy Gypsy Cob from Acton.

The magnificent, beautifully groomed animals and their riders thrilled the estimated 700,000 spectators on the five-and-a-half-mile march through Pasadena. Untold millions more viewed the live broadcast on more than half a dozen TV channels in the U.S. and another 220 networks around the world, not to mention those watching online.

“It was an amazing experience,” May said. “The sheer size of the parade is really unbelievable. You don't realize it until you're actually in it.”

There’s a lot of showbiz to the Rose Parade, of course, and that’s just fine with May. In her other life, she’s the executive in charge of production for the top-rated, long running TV series “So You Think You Can Dance” and “American Idol,” working behind the scenes to ensure each show runs smoothly.  

She has been with both series since their first seasons; they’re now in their ninth and 12th seasons, respectively. When one show is on the air, the other is in pre-production; as “American Idol” is airing from January to May, “So You Think You Can Dance” is auditioning talent and gearing up to hit the air in the summer, after “Idol” wraps its season.

“I administer the budgets, all the logistics,” May said. “It’s (determining) where we are going to shoot, how we are going to shoot it, who the crew is going to be, getting the staff hired, making a deal with the studio. It’s very much money and logistics and problem-solving. If we have an issue while we're on the air, I'm the one who will try and sort it out, like a technical issue or if somebody got hurt. Whatever that problem might be, I'm there to get us through it.”

May’s the shows’ ramrod, the handler, the fixer. Every TV or film production needs at least one.

“Exactly,” she laughed.

SD Farms partners Stevie Down and Wylleen May are pictured at Equefest 2012.

Preparing to appear in the Rose Bowl Parade was quite a production even for May, who hails from Rock Rapids, Iowa, studied theatre at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and has more than two decades of in-the-trenches experience as a TV production exec. Her own professional background gave her a unique perspective and added respect for the Tournament of Roses Association, the mostly volunteer non-profit group that stages the event each year.

“The Rose Parade is one of the most organized experiences I have ever had — they're phenomenal,” May said. “Being a logistics person myself, I really appreciate what a phenomenal job they do. It is so well pulled together, it’s just unbelievable.”

May described the application process. “You prepare a video and have everything submitted by the middle of May,” she said. “Then they look at all the submissions. Come August, we found out we had been accepted. We’d started training the minute we decided we were going to apply, so we literally trained from March until Jan. 1, when we stepped out on the parade route.”

A Gypsy Cob mare and her foal enjoy the lush pastures of SD Farms in England.

The training, some of which took place on the roads around Acton as summer turned to winter, was to get the horses used to walking side-by-side, and to the long walk on pavement, May said. They had a dress rehearsal of sorts in late November when they strode across the red carpet on Hollywood Boulevard in the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

May says aside from their striking physical attributes, Gypsy Cobs’ aforementioned mellow temperament distinguishes them from most other breeds.

“It’s something Stevie has been breeding for, and his father and grandfather before him,” she said. “They're beautiful, but also very laid-back, very kind and willing. The stallions run with mares and babies. In England, where we have them out grazing all summer long, we have two stallions running in a pasture together, each with his own band of mares. Their temperament is really just phenomenal.

“They also have a lot of stamina because they are a horse the gypsies created to work, so they love to go out on the trail — they are the greatest trail horses,” she said. “And they also have the kind of bone structure that makes them suitable for dressage. You can just put them to anything, and they’re such a pleasure to be around.”

All the effort Down and May and their staffs on both sides of the Atlantic put into getting ready for the 2013 Rose Parade was worth it, May said. She thinks their mission to achieve greater exposure for the breed was certainly accomplished.

“I spoke to our webmaster, and on New Year's Day, traffic on our website quadrupled,” she said. “It's been unbelievable. We’re getting a lot of hits on our website and emails from people who are looking for their first Gypsy horse, (or) who want to talk with us about how to find that first horse. People who are horse-lovers but have never really seen a Gypsy horse in action are now thinking that perhaps they'd like to switch breeds. So the response has been phenomenal.”

For more info, visit the SD Farms website. Also check out the SD Farms Facebook page, welcome video on YouTube and a short clip of SD Flash William, a Gypsy Cob stallion who lives at SD Farms in Acton.

Photos: Courtesy Aylleen May/Stevie Down & SD Farms