Tuesday, December 30, 2014


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

[Pictured: Painting Charles Lavallen Jessop (Boy on a Rocking Horse) by Sarah Miriam Peale 1840]

Christmas is over, but if you are like me the tree is still up, and the warmth of the Holiday Season still surrounds hearth and home. It is that time of year when our thoughts turn to memories of the past, of childhood days, loved ones near and far, and the history we shared with them.

And it is that desire to not forget the past that inspires me to write historical fiction; to delve into the time period of my book’s setting and bring forth historic details that may be forgotten or unknown to us in the 21st century. For me, that is part of the fun writing and reading historical fiction. To be transported, entertained, moved, and perhaps learn something new.

So, whilst researching childhood artifacts of the Victorian era that might also have been commonplace amongst children living in the American West, I found recurrences of one particular item with a fascinating history. Something I thought nothing more than a popular toy had far greater significance.

By definition, a rocking horse is a child-sized miniature of a horse (complete with saddle and reins) that is attached to a base of two rocker bars (similar to that of a rocking chair). It dates back to the 17th century; however, during the Age of Chivalry (1300s) wheeled horses with tilted seats were created for children to play (and practice) jousting games. Wooden horses were also mounted on swings to begin teaching jousting skills. Presumably, the pupils for these jousting lessons were not toddlers.

The earliest existing rocking horse in existence today belonged to King Charles I. The simplistically designed, rare item was acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the V&A Museum of Childhood. Dating back to the 17th century (circa 1610), the piece is made of elm and softwood. Rather than the two separate rocking bars identified with rocking horses today, the base is crescent-shaped and more resembles (at least to me), Noah’s Ark. Yet more than intended as a toy for a prince, historians believe the rocking horse was designed to help exercise and strengthen the future king’s legs that had been weakened from rickets.

As a rule, rocking horses were commonplace primarily amongst nobility and the gentry. They were considered a necessary training tool in the nursery to help a young child learn how to sit upon a horse properly, maintain balance, etc., until they were of an age to actually begin riding lessons.

Here is another example – much more detailed and embellished – of a rocking horse with a crescent-shaped base. This beautiful white rocking horse was made in 1750 for King Gustav III of Sweden.

The bow-shaped rockers that we associate with traditional rocking horses today were created in the 18th century. In addition, the coloring of a dappled or spotted horse appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This dappled gray horse (pictured) once belonged to Crown Prince Karl XV of Sweden and was made in 1830.

One must remember that these horses were hand-made by master craftsmen and because of their royal or wealthy clientele, cost was not a factor. They were embellished with detailed carving. Note the leather and gold bridle and reins, as well as the gilding on the base. Hours were spent sanding and rubbing the wood to a smooth, satiny finish. They were painted, repeatedly until the perfected finish was achieved. Horsehair was used for the mane and tail. In some instances, the horse was completely covered with animal hide. And a leather saddle, bridle, and riding crop were also provided the pre-school rider.

As more and more people migrated to America, they brought with them their customs and traditions, including the rocking horse – many of which were custom made in Europe and shipped to America. Others were hand-crafted in the states, usually for wealthy clientele.

During the 19th century in America, prosperity amongst the Middle Class grew by leaps and bounds. Children of these now more comfortable (financially-speaking) families were no longer required to work in factories or family farms. Education, including private tutors, and instruction in Music and the Arts was encouraged. And there was certainly more time for these youngsters to play with toys, especially those that helped develop equestrian skills.

As illustrated in this 1840 painting entitled The Hobby Horse by Robert Peckham, children were also being immortalized (without their parents), on canvas. And so were their toys – in this instance a cherished rocking horse with the traditional rocking bar base. NOTE: Although the painting is titled, The Hobby Horse, a Hobby Horse was traditionally a stick toy with a horse's head.

In 1880, a ‘safety stand' (or base) was created in America, and patented in England. For whatever reason, the patent was never renewed. However, the smooth, glider-type rocking horse became more popular than the rocker bar base. Apart from the fact the gliding motion was believed to create a safer base than the bow rockers, it required more limited space for the horse’s movement back and forth. This type horse also provided a more ‘controlled’ experience for the child.

Seriously, how many of us remember riding our rocking horses until they crossed the room and dented the walls. Okay, well, maybe that was just me.

Then again, pictured is a rocking horse on a safety stand circa 1900-1910. Judging by the expression of this little boy, he might have preferred a more exciting, bronco-type ride on the original bow rockers. He also looks ready for a real pony to me. But I digress….

When rocking horses were first made in the United States, they were simple in design. Depending on the family’s finances, they likely did not have any embellishment. And they probably were not painted but rubbed by hand to a smooth finish. For families of European descent living in the American West, perhaps they built their own version of a rocking horse to help accustom their child to sitting on a horse and finding a center of balance. Perhaps they brought a treasured item with them in their covered wagon -- a reminder of home and tradition. Remember, these items were not considered toys per se. They were hand-made and only wealthy and comfortable middle class families were able to pay for a more elaborate product.

Rocking horses remain popular today. You can find them made of pine and simplistic in design at a local craft fair. There are companies that mass-produced them with a variety of materials (wood, plastic, animal hide, faux fur, or fabric). There are artisans that repair and restore antique rocking horses, as well as specialty companies that remain true to the hand-craftsmanship and build replicas that will continue to make the rocking horse an heirloom piece to pass down to the next generation.

For example, here is a beautiful, hand-crafted mahogany replica of a Victorian period rocking horse made by ‘A Simpler Time’ in Morrisville, North Carolina. Complete with a supple leather saddle and bridle, it features the safety-stand glider motion. Due to the workmanship involved, it has a more expensive cost, but this is the type of rocking horse that will endure as a treasured item in any family.

Note: A portion of sales from these hand-made rocking horses is donated to the Smile Train Foundation, a charity that performs reconstructive facial surgery on children throughout the world. For more information, visit their website at: www.asimplertime.com

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the history of the rocking horse, and its use as a training tool to teach and accustom small children to riding horses. Now, rather than have the child in my book play on his rocking horse, I can address its real purpose and continue a family tradition for the English born and bred wife (from a titled family) whose idea of teaching a child to sit on a horse differs greatly from her husband -- who was captured and raised by the Comanche as a child. Should make for some interesting dialogue, eh?

Thank you for stopping by. Stay warm and safe, and have a Happy New Year! ~ AKB


  1. Fantastic post! I had no idea about the real history of the rocking horse. I just know I LOVED mine as a young child and it moved across the room too. Then, I graduated to the bigger bouncy one, and rode him until I was just too big.

  2. Thank you, Savanna. So glad you enjoyed the post. Oh, I love horses and (like you) my rocking horse as a child took me on many an imaginary adventure. Appreciate the comment. Have a wonderful New Year! :)

  3. What fun to read your post. The Swedish people certainly had some fantastic rocking horses. They were works of art!
    I didn't have a rocking horse as a child, I had a horse on wheels. It was my favorite thing. The wheels made a sound like little bells. My parents were probably grateful for that sound so they could keep track of me.
    I can tell you really put some time and effort into your research about rocking horses, Ashley. It was a very interesting post and a joy to read. I wish you all the best in the New Year!

  4. Sara, thank you for your comment. Your rocking horse sounds lovely with the little bells. And yes, the Royal rocking horses from Sweden are works of art. I am actually so impressed with everything I have seen from Sweden, and their traditions, I really want to visit there one day to do more research. Iceland and Norway, too. Have a safe, beautiful New Year's Eve, and a very Happy 2015! :))

  5. Ashley, I love learning about rocking horses. They remind me of the carousel horse I've always wanted.

    1. Thanks, Caroline. Carousel horses are aways magical, but not plastic ones. Would love to own an antique hand-carved one someday. Just so pretty. :)

  6. I did not know this much, by any means, but I do know the rocking horse is at least 200 years old. Now from your research we see just how old the concept is.
    A woman I know here in town has, not a rocking horse, but one that came from a carousel. It has a prominent place in the very upscale living room.
    Another friend--who has since moved on--did have an old rocking horse in the living room of her
    "ranch style" house. So, they are appealing to many.
    We gave one to our little four year old daughter--plastic, of course, with springs, and goodness she loved that. I'd put on a record--a 45, of course. But she would rock in time with the beat of the music. I often wondered which she loved more. Thanks.

    1. Hi Celia - It is interesting to learn the origins of things we take for granted. Carousel horses always make me think of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins and how it captured so well the make-believe feeling we had as children of them coming to life.. Love them. How neat to wonder how many lives have been touched by the beauty anf magic of Rocking and Carousel Horses, from childhood to adulthood. Enough that we would put one in our homes as a focal point.


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