Victoria Bylin: City Girl on Horseback

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 “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 sprspring-rocking-horseings.  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 hobbhobby-horsey 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.  Antique Hobby Horse on wheels

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.

Child on Hobby Horse c. 1860

 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.

 collectible-rocking-horse

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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Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

38 thoughts on “Victoria Bylin: City Girl on Horseback”

  1. Vicki,

    I remember playing on my horse-on-springs (the safe model) but I don’t think we had one. Probably a friend’s. But I have fond memories of an old stick horse. I grew up on a busy street so a lot of my formative playing was in the backyard under the watchful eye of my grandparent’s lab mix, Hobo, and our collie. I couldn’t get to the front yard to “ride” because I was constantly being herded back around the house. lol

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  2. Oh we had one of those “bouncy horses” as we called them when we were kids. It lasted through five kids in our family.
    It brought back some great memories..

  3. Love this, Vicki! My grandpa, who was a carpenter, made a little rocking horse for my sister and me. Wishing I still had it, but it’s long gone. I also have fond memories of trekking down to the willows that grew along the canal bank. We’d cut fresh willows for stick horses and ride them all day long. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Hi Vickie, what a lovely post. The pictures are fantastic. I don’t remember it but my mom says we had a rocking horse, but one of those that was a little bench inside two horse-esque wooden sides. I had cousins with the wonder horse and do remember it.

    Our son got a beautiful leather hobby horse as a little boy…it’s in the attic somewhere and should be resurrected for our little two-year old grandson. WHen she was little, our daughter had a pale blue rocking-horse theme in her bedroom. I still remember the pretty wallpaper border.

    Oh, I love hobbles down memory lane. Thanks! oxoxoxox

  5. We had that wonder horse, Vickie. I had one as a child and my children had one.

    So, we’re supposed to like…free associate whatever comes to our minds when we read a blog, right? Even if it’s pretty badly off topic?

    So here’s what this made me think of. A high school senior, a friend of one of my daughters, got his senior pictures taken and he was clowning around in the photographer’s studio and he was playing in the area where the children’s pictures were taken and the photographer took one of him on this tiny wooden rocking horse.–you’ve seen those toddler pictures posed on a rocking horse right? Or with a rocking horse in the background?

    Well, the dorky kid picked that picture to use for wallet poses. His parents went along with it just because they thought it was so funny.

    He got a scad of them and handed them out to everyone. It was the most popular picture of the class that year.

    It’s just hilarious, this six foot tall kid all scrunched up on this small wooden horse, his knees near his ears, sitting on that horse with a huge grin on his face.

    I laugh every time I think about it. It’s actually a brilliant picture and perfectly captures the nice, but perhaps overly fun-loving young man. 😀

  6. You know, now that I think of it, our Wonder Horse is out in the weeds in a small wooded area near our house. I saw him up there a while back. It’s in perfect shape…I mean the springs and all that are gone so only the horses apparently indestructable body, is laying there on it’s side, forever frozen in plastic splendor.

    I loved that horse. My children had hours of fun bouncing along on him.

    I obviously have no idea what to do with it now, but I loved it.

  7. Hi Tracy, It’s such fun being a kid with toy horses and real dogs. I grew up with boxers. We had two, both named Shadow as in “Shadow Boxer.” Hobo sounds like a a wonderful canine friend!

  8. Hi Kathleen! The bouncy horse is great for active little boys. When my oldest son was maybe 3 or 4, my parents got him one for Christmas. My youngest rode it, too. It got passed along in one of our many household moves, but I wish I had it now. One of these days, we’ll have grandkids (I hope!)

  9. Hello Elizabeth, There’s real artistry in making a hobby horse. In my research travels, I came across several websites for craftsman who have carried on the tradition. My uncle made a wood horse from my kids. It was very small, toddler sized. I bet your grandpa loved making the toy for you and your sister.

  10. Hi Tanya, You’ve got all sorts of rocking horse memories! Very cool! I love the idea of rocking horse wallpaper for a child’s room. You’ll have to track down that leather rocking horse for your grandson. Two-years-old is the perfect age to learn to ride!

  11. Hi Mary! LOLOL for the young man on the mini-rocking horse! You must be a writer, because I can see him perfectly and I laughed out loud : ) Of all the pictures taken that year, his will be the most remembered. You gotta love originality!

    So your Wonder Horse has been put out to pasture, literally! We hear about plastic bottles in landfills. Looks like the Wonder Horse has the same long life!

  12. Howdy Charlene! I looked all over the internet for a picture of the horse you described, the one made of red plastic. I had a black one, and I think they came in white. When I started this blog, I didn’t intend to go into hobby horses, but I kept picturing that old stick pony. Then the Wonder Horse galloped into my mind … you know how it goes!

  13. Hobo was just that – a hobo. He wandered into my grandparents yard when he was barely weaned. He’d eat anything and everything–including an entire baked ham still hot from the oven!–and he was the best friend a kid could have.

    My grandmother taught elementary grades in the school just a half block from her house. At recess, the littlest children would line up on either side of Hobo, put their tiny hands on his back, and he’d walk around the schoolyard with them. He was a great dog!

  14. As a kid, we had a Rocking Horse on springs… a few years ago we had a small furry rocking horse that sang, for my older nephew. My newest nephew has one that is like a baby bounce chair that also makes noises and sings! On my shelves are a few different collectible statues of rocking horses… Does my family love Rocking horses or what!?! 😀

  15. Hi Colleen, You’ve covered all the bases! As I was researching thist post, I couldn’t but notice how much the world has changed. A furry rocking horse that sings is light years from a 17th c. barrel horse or one on wheels from medieval times. And yet it’s all kinda the same . . . Kids play and inmagine and have a good time.

  16. Son #1 was the recipient of a tiny wooden rocking
    horse for his first Christmas when he was 10 months old. We also got him a cowboy outfit and hat. He
    was so cute, our little cowboy! (I think the horse is still in the attic.) As he grew older and he was joined by siblings, we ended up with a herd of four Wonder horses because everyone needed a mount. Every Texan needs his own horse!

    Pat Cochran

  17. Hi Pat! Four Wonder Horses is defintely an entire herd! It’s funny how sounds come back to me. I can still hear the springs squeaking. Four of them together would be a stampede!

  18. I grew up with several horses. They were shared by the family.
    My children(4) had a Wonder Horse that they rode to death. By the time the fourth child finished with it, it was ready for horse heaven.

  19. I don’t recall having a hobby horse or rocking horse, but I recall riding them at friends’ houses. At school, some friends and I used to use sticks as pretend horses. Great memories!

  20. Hi Estella, It must have been fun to grow up with horses. I grew up in the suburbs, but there was a small farm / ranch with horses about five blocks away. It was always fun to visit. It was eventually turned into a park and apartments.

  21. Hi Jennie, I remember playing with stick horses with my cousins. They were more into Barbie dolls, so I had to do some convincing : ) Hobby horses definitely stimulate a child’s imagination.

  22. Hi Vicki!

    Great post. I remember having a wooden horse when I was growing up. Whatever happened to it, I don’t know. Remember stick horses, too. Only we didn’t necessarily have a horse head at the end — they were truly just sticks. : )

  23. Hi Karen, A child’s imagination is always the best toy. I didn’t plan to blog on hobby horses, but I stumbled on some pictures and decided to have fun with it.

  24. Good decision, Vicki!

    xoxoxox

    This has nothing to do with rocking horses, but Mary’s post reminded me: we know of a Nebraska kid who had his yearbook senior picture taken with his prize heifer.

  25. Had a wonder horse for our girls. In the mid 1970’s they came out with a small sized one that had an infant seat on it. The child straddled the saddle, but had a protective seat around them. We used it for many years until our children out grew it. It was the same style as yours only smaller and painted blue, pink, and yellow.
    Ten years later, my brother-in-law built a wooden rocking horse for our son. We still have the wooden one. I found a small one with aluminum rockers and frame and seat and a wooden head (from the 1940/1950’s I think).
    We have had several stick horses over the years.
    My daughter has horses now that she is married, but we never did.

  26. Oh Vicki, this brought back such memories – not just of the rocking horse I had as a kid but of the two wonder horses we had for our own kids. The two oldest nearly wore them out, but my twins still got a lot of use out of them after they came along. They are safely put up in the attic for someday when we have grandkids to entertain

  27. My cousin a couple years younger than me had a red wooden horse on strings and frame, and he rode it non-stop. He fed it colored wooden building pegs. I saw one in Walnut Iowa, the antique capitol of the world (little trivia there for ya) and took a photo for him.

  28. Hi Patricia, A blue, pink and yellow rocking horse sounds adorable,the stuff of a little girl’s dreams. I’m glad you still have the one your brother-in-law made. It’s a family heirloom.

  29. Hi Winnie, The Wonder Horse turns into a tradition, I think. When my parents bought the one for my oldest son, it took us all down memory lane. I’m sure those future grandkids will enjoy it : )

    Hi Cheryl! What a sweet picture of your cousin “feeding” his horse. Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs would fit the era, too. I’d love to visit Walnut, Iowa! Thanks for the tip!

  30. Hey Vicki, I’m ridin’ in late, but…

    When I was around 8, my brother had a spring horse but we were too big to ride on it.

    When I was 12, my dad traded our mini-bike for an ornery Shetland pony. When we tried to mount it, it stepped on our toes. Once on, it tried to bite our knees. If we got it going, it would trot. Not a nice easy walk or a smooth lope, but a butt-thumping trot.

    A few years ago we raised goats and showed them in the big world-renowned Canadian Agribition. One of the prizes was for a goat race for which we needed a hobby goat. You know, like the hobby horse, but with a goat head. Of course we couldn’t buy one, but I’m fair with the sewing machine, so we made out own and attached them to a broom stick from the hardware store. Got a lot of compliments, too. 🙂

  31. Hi Vicki!! I not only remember the Wonder Horse, but I actually still have it and it is in great shape with original springs. My granddaughter who is now just turning 30 rode it when she was little. I think I am going to pass it on down to her on her birthday on Sept. 1st. I have tried to do an internet search on this horse and could not find out anything until I came across your site. You even offered the picture of the one I have, light brown with springs. Thanks for the information.

  32. Hi, I was searching for rocking horses and came upon your site. I had one of those plastic palomino horses. I think that it was the same one, but I had mine in the mid 1950’s.

  33. hi, i have a rocking horse with wooden pegs holding it together, w/no nails on the horse, it has a leather saddle w/ gold studs? holding that on, the ears on the horse are down, and the hair on the horse are leather also like sliced… please can you tell me what year this horse is from????????????????/ i can send you pic from my email… thank you so much.

  34. Love that hobby horse..it is just perfect. Was that just a picture that you found? Do you know where I could buy one just like that?

    Thanks

  35. Hi Kim, I found the pictures online. You might try googling “Wonder Horse” or “Antique hobby horses” or “Vintage Toys Rocking Horse.” Somethng interesting might pop up. Thanks for visiting Petticoats & Pistols!

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