When the young Victoria came to the throne in England at the age of 18 in 1837, Christmas celebrations rooted in pagan beliefs were banned. However, when she married her first cousin Albert from Germany, he brought with him many Christmas customs, and holiday fun finally found a foothold. Along with the growing popularity of the holiday season, good food, decorating and Christmas trees, was the giving and receiving of toys. While children’s toys at that time were made of tin, paper and wood, one stands out as the quintessential gift for children of all ages and has endured the test of time. This was and is, of course, the rocking horse.
While toy horses have been in existence for several thousand years, they were initially made for boys so that they could mimic their fathers going off to war or hunting or driving. In fact, James I of England wrote to his young son: “The honourablest and most commendable games ye can use are games on horseback.”
The earliest form of riding horse was a plain hobby horse with a crudely carved head stuck on a stick, perhaps also with a wheel at the end. It was this wheeled hobby horse, along with the traditional rocking cradle and the pull along tilting seat that are credited with the initial beginnings of the rocking horse.
The oldest known rocking horse was owned by Charles I (November 19, 1600 – January 30, 1649) and was bought in 2006 by The Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in England for £25,000 (about $39,000 in today’s market). Apparently, it had been made for the sickly boy with rickets who would become heir when his older brother died of typhoid years later. This simple horse was made of two flat boat shaped plants bridged by a seat with a carved head and neck. A tail, long since gone may have been attached and two foot rests were placed near the shoulders.
Initially, toy horses were heavy in structure but they gradually evolved to become more elegant and light especially when Arabian stallions were imported to England and hunting became popular. These Georgian horses evolved into spirited racehorses with outstretched legs, flowing manes and tails and lowered head and many a young child learned the rudiments of staying on as they galloped across imaginary meadows and fields!
In the 19th century, as the wealthy began to keep horses for pleasure, the rocking horse too changed and various breeds were created to appeal to all. Manufacturers were always looking for new ideas and by 1877, there were eleven different rocking horses makers and these whimsical equines had become a staple of the nursery in countless shapes and forms. As time went on the horses were given glass eyes, real manes and tails and painted saddles and bridles gave way to the real thing made of scraps of leather and metal.
New designs took shapes in the form of baskets or wooden seats that attacked to each end of the rockers or these same rockers could be detached and mounted on a wheeled platform to create a pull toy. In the 1880s W.A Marqua of Cincinnati made a horse that glided back and forth using sliding bars thus making a safer toy that didn’t slowly creep across the floors when rocked and wouldn’t tip forward or backwards if the imaginary horse race got too frenetic.
Today, the art of making rocking horses is enjoying a resurgence and these projects, not for the faint of heart, are true art forms requiring the hand carving of hard woods, painting, and even the creation of saddles and bridles. One manufacturer of handmade rocking horses in a huge variety of sizes shapes and colours has their tack made by a master saddler and offers saddle pads, hunting breast plates and knee rolls for the truly discerning buyer.
Did You Know?
• From the 16th century, “barrel horses” were created because of their shape and, with wheels attached, could be pulled with a small child atop. These barrel horses became incredibly popular when a pole was attached to the end of the horse so that it could be pushed along or used to support a child learning to walk.
• The aristocracy often had the estate carpenters create rocking horses for the owner’s children. For the young ladies of the house, an extra pummel was often placed into a hole near the saddle so that they could ride side saddle.
• King George IV was given an Appaloosa horse by a foreign nobleman but the horse did not understand when he spoke so threw him off. The angry king vowed never to ride a spotted horse again so the popularity of spotted horses went out of fashion even within the rocking horse world.
• Georgian horses and dogs suffered the indignity of having their tails and ears clipped so many Georgian rocking horses were made to mimic this passing fad.
• Rocking horses during the Georgian period were called “racers” and were created with necks stretched out as in a full gallop. By 1850, the horses were made with a more collected neck position and these horses called “jibbers” were universally accepted by toy makers.
Thanks to the Kensington Rocking Horse Company in England for their superb photos.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses a collection of rocking horses: Read about them at
If you are interested in seeing some superb examples of handmade and/or restored rocking horses in a wide variety of sizes, styles and colours check out http://www.kensington-rocking-horses.co.uk/