Rocking horses are the kind of toys that work directly on a child’s imagination. Though a rocking horse is not a strictly accurate simulation of a horseback ride, children still use their minds to imagine they are riding like the wind on the back of a magnificent muscled animal, galloping over moors and deserts and beaches on a never-ending adventure.
Rocking horses, on the other hand, are not intended to go anywhere. Some people say that the rocking horse today is based on medieval tilting seats used as substitutes for actual horses in jousting practice. Or perhaps a carpenter looking at a rocking cradle may have come up with the bright idea of combining the rockers of a rocking chair with the head and body of a horse. Whichever is the source of the rocking horse, it is today a staple for children worldwide, giving the illusion of movement while staying safely in one place.
The very first rocking horses intended for children appeared in the 17th century in Europe, but did not become a mainstay until the early 19th century. Up until the late 19th century, production of rocking horse was an individual effort by a woodcarver; assembly lines and mass production for rocking horses began late in the Industrial Age, around 1880-1890. The 20th century saw the use of fiberglass and plastic molding. Today, custom woodcarving of a horse by a individual is starting a comeback.
The traditional rocking horse is, of course, patterned after a horse. But, just about every animal, both real and imaginary, has been put on rockers for children: dragons, lions, unicorns, zebras, snails, pigs and caterpillars — you name the animal and you can be sure there’s a rocking version of it. Patterned after the rocking cradle, with some types acting as a transition between cradle and toy, the rocking horse has become a traditional piece of furniture in any nursery or child’s bedroom.
Wood is still the traditional material, although leather saddles, reins, plush fabric and accessories of all types appropriate for a riding mount can also be added. Rocking horses can be presented to infants as christening gifts or intended as heirloom presents. Variations on the rocking horse include swinging cradles, scooters and push-along toys.
But the best aspect of rocking horses and hobby horses is not the material of which they are made — it’s their magic in setting free a child’s imagination to jump over the moon, win the race and travel anywhere in the universe.