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Hobby Horses: A Brief, Brief History

Author John Cech
Air Date 12/12/2005

Hobby Horses Transcript

One of the most ancient of all children’s toys — and a familiar resident under the Christmas tree for centuries — is the hobby horse. It’s a simple stick with a horse’s head and reigns attached, and, with it, you can go anywhere you’d like. It’s definitely low-tech by today’s standards, but it was state of the art in the 4th century B.C. when it is first mentioned in the historical record as a favorite toy in the household of the King of Sparta, who was once surprised by a visitor as he was taking the pony out for a spin, much to the amusement of his children. And even Socrates was reported to have had a gambol on the toy horse, too. There is even an ancient engraving of the Christ Child riding a hobby horse with St. Dorothy. As Leslie Daikin points out in his wonderful book, Children’s Games Throughout the Year, the hobby horse is actually a plaything that the child Jesus would have know about.

Evidently, Henry VIII is responsible for bringing into popular use the word, “hobby,” which referred to the small horses that he loved to race called “hobi.” The name of these ponies spread to mean anything that one didn’t do as part of a regular job description but solely for the sheer joy of doing it. In the middle ages, elaborate hobby horses were used to stage mock tournaments and pageants in the great halls of Europe, and, over the centuries, the simple effigy with all its primitive magic became more elaborate, more decorated, and even earned itself some rockers.

By the 19th century, the simple rocking horse had become spring-mounted on two parallel bars for a very life-like riding experience. Some of these rocking horses were huge, and they were used not only in the nursery but by local saddle makers. Some researchers have speculated that the bicycle emerged as a kind of substitute for the horse, when in 1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and plunged much of the globe into what was called “the year without a summer.” This natural disaster ultimately led to the devastation of the horse population in Europe, which led, in turn, according to David Gordon Wilson at MIT, to the invention of what was called the Hobby Horse bicycle. Who would have guessed that this familiar and yet mysterious steed, tied up with bows for the holidays, and still the delight of children, could lead one on such a merry, ancient chase?


Posted in Play, Toys