“Hold on!’ shouted the trail guide.
As I grabbed the saddle horn, the horse I was riding (sitting on would be more accurate) jumped over a narrow creek. Judging by the way my stomach lurched, you’d have thought we’d taken a five-foot fence. Far from it . . . I was on a trail ride in the San Emidio Mountains in southern California, doing a news story for a local newspaper.
For a western writer, I have appallingly little experience with horses. I’m not someone who grew up in the saddle. My first horse was made of plastic and attached to springs. Does anyone else remember “The Wonder Horse?” They were made in the 1960s and graced living rooms throughout America. I rode my Wonder Horse for hours, but it was my brother who tested the limits. He managed to bounce it into the wall.
Hobby horses have been around for ages. They became popular in 17th century England, but they’re believed to have originated in ancient Egypt. Carved horses would be placed on four-wheel carts and children would take rides. A few of these toys have been found in ancient pyramids. With a son living in Cairo, I’m fascinated by the Egypt connection.
The hobby horse (or broomstick horse) became popular in medieval times. A hobby horse consisted of a stick, a fake horse head and a child’s imagination. Can’t you just see a little girl naming her horse “Star” and dreaming of adventure? For a boy in medieval times, a hobby horse was more than a toy. Pretending to ride imitated adult behavior and prepared him for a life of battle. Boys also practiced jousting with horses on wheels.
Hobby horses eventually morphed from sticks into barrel horses. A barrel horse was made from a log mounted on four legs and had a crudely made head. They didn’t move or rock, but they gave a child the feel of sitting on a horse. As cabinet-making and carpentry skills advanced, the legs of these barrel horses became more elaborate.
The rocking horse as we picture it now came into being in the 17th century. Someone figured out that mounting a toy horse on a half barrel would create a rocking motion. Later the barrel evolved into the wide rockers we picture today. The earliest example belonged the boy who’d become King Charles I of England.
It was only a matter of time before the rocking horse exploded in popularity. In the 18th century, some were elaborate works of art made by masters of the trade. Only the wealthiest of family could afford them. When the Industrial Revolution took hold, what had been a cottage industry turned into mass production and rocking horses were accessible to the general public. The dappled gray became the most popular model when Queen Victoria presented that style to her children.
The rocking horse underwent another evolution in 1880 when J.P. Marqua, an American from Ohio, patented a safety stand. Instead of moving on rockers, the horse was mounted on springs in a frame. The safety base made rocking horses more stable than their ancestors, and the toy took up less room as a child played. They were also considered safer. Fingers and toes couldn’t be pinched under the rockers, and the horse was less likely to tip over. (I can vouch for this. My Wonder Horse made some wild leaps in my imagination, but he never threw me off.)
Up until World War I, rocking horses grew in popularity. Unfortunately, the start of the war led to a shortage of materials and skilled craftsman. The Great Depression further lessened the interest in such toys. They never did make a strong comeback, possibly because of the advent of the automobile. Instead of imitating their parents on horseback, children wanted toy cars they could pretend to drive.
Even though interest has faded, rocking horses aren’t gone forever. They’re still made by artisans and loved by children with vivid imaginations.
What about you? Did you ever have a rocking horse? Do you remember Wonder Horses and stick ponies? Or maybe you were the girl I envied . . . Maybe you had a real horse of your own. Memory lane, here we come at a gallop!
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