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A Bit of History on Antique Hobby Horses

Throughout history, children's play has charmingly imitated adult behavior. Rocking horses and hobby horses have provided hours of joyful romping for young boys and girls too small to ride on real horses.

They are perhaps the most popular of all carved wooden toys -- the horse that is. Hobby and rocking horses were commonly made in the United States and Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The earliest type of toy horse, dating back to antiquity, is the hobby horse, also called a stick horse, which consists of a horse's head mounted on a long stick, sometimes with a seat attached. 

A rocking horse, on the other hand, has a carved head and shoulders, mounted on a pair of broad plank rockers or, later, suspended by springs from a frame. The entire object is usually painted to depict a horse and has a seat mounted between the rockers or across the frame. Engravings show that rocking and hobby horses were made as far back as the 17th century, but none have survived from that time. By the 19th century fully carved wooden horses, often covered in pony hide and embellished with horsehair tails, were mounted on long slim rockers. 

During the 1880s American firms produced dozens of kinds of these horses. Jesse Crandall and Converse mounted horses on spring-base frames, which produced an up-and-down bouncing motion. In the 1860s Jesse Crandall was also responsible for producing the first shoofly -- a miniature rocker meant for a child too small to ride a rocking horse. Variations on this model, including miniatures, were produced by other companies in the following decades. 

Rocking horses (and hobby horses) are in great demand among collectors of folk art. Those carved well and proportioned gracefully are especially desirable. Horses in good condition with paint intact are quite expensive. The ears, tail, and nostrils of such pieces should be examined carefully, since these areas are often damaged, and are frequently restored, devaluing the toy.