Carved wooden hobby horses

At a recent SCA event, called Battlemoor, I had an opportunity to create a unique gift for the Royal Princesses of the Outlands. I wanted to make something functional that any child would enjoy actively playing with, but appropriate for a child of royal status to be seen playing with in camp. Whatever it was going to be, it should be something that helps the player achieve a moment of stepping back in time to the Middle Ages. I took to the lists of Larsdatter, and I was inspired by a certain period illustration of a child playing on a hobby horse.

Children playing with a ball, a hobby horse and a scopperel, from a book of heraldry (c. 1484-1486) ÖNB 12820, fol. 182r

Children playing with a ball, a hobby horse and a scopperel, from a book of heraldry (c. 1484-1486) ÖNB 12820, fol. 182r

Given the golden monochrome and rigid shape of this hobby horse, I wondered if the actual item might have been carved out of wood. Stuffed cloth hobby horses were known in the period, and others appear to be either sculpted in plaster or carved from wood and painted. A carved solid wood hobby horse seems like it would be more durable to child’s play than sculpted plaster, which may be prone to chipping, cracking and shattering with any sort of abuse. I had some raw timber on hand, cut from an aspen tree a neighbor was removing in Colorado Springs when I lived there, which I had brought with me when I moved, so this was a perfect material, being a soft and eminently carveable hardwood and a specimen native to the recipients’ kingdom. So all I had to do now was to create a design and start carving.

Since I do not have a bandsaw, I used my radial arm saw to rip an aspen log into two thick planks for carving.

Since I do not have a bandsaw, I used my radial arm saw to rip an aspen log into two thick planks for carving.

I started by cutting a log of aspen into two thick planks, in order to establish the size of available stock, and then drew up a design to fill that space. Once I had my design worked out, I traced it with pencil on paper, flipped it over and used a ballpoint stylus to transfer the pencil line to the surface of the wood. Another option would have been to cut the design out of card stock or a manilla folder and trace the cutout, but that only allows a contour, so by using a transfer I can include more detail, such as an eye.

Carving the transferred design with an assortment of hand chisels

Carving the transferred design with an assortment of hand chisels

The rough planks were planed by hand using a simple block plane, and the design was transferred and then cut out with a coping saw. Then I drilled it through the mouth for a “bit” to hold the reigns, but for this delicate task I opted to use a modern electric drill press rather than trying to do it with a period hand drill. The base was also drilled at this point to accommodate the tapered end of a riding stick. Using an assortment of hand chisels and gouges and a carving knife, the horse head began to take shape, and I added a few more details, like an eye and a sweeping mane.

A carved hobby horse head with detailed mane

A carved hobby horse head with detailed mane

The mounting hole was drilled to be about half the thickness of the plank, and riding sticks a little thicker than this were selected. The sticks should be relatively straight, somewhat flexible to resist breaking, and of a diameter greater than the mounting hole but smaller than the horse head. I selected two straight crape myrtle branches from my brush pile, which were old enough to be dry and workable but young enough to be free of rot. The end of each stick was marked to the depth of the hole and tapered by hand, using a bastard file, and the other end was trimmed to an appropriate length for the age of the child and sanded smooth. Medieval riding sticks were probably more likely to be trimmed and then end left rough, but these are for royal princesses. Since crape myrtle has such smooth bark and the bark on these sticks was very well adhered to the wood, not peeling loose anywhere, I decided to include the bark and rub the whole thing with linseed oil, rather than stripping it. Linseed oil is a good period finish, as it was frequently used by medieval woodworkers to replace the wood’s natural oils and prevent rot. It quickly penetrates and leaves the wood with a raw or unfinished look. There are some naturally derived varnishes which might be used, but these are not modernly available and would have to be made, presenting further challenges in obtaining materials like pine resin, so for this project I decided modern boiled linseed oil would be an appropriate finish.

Fitting a stick is easier using a piece of drilled scrap. Here I have drilled two holes with a hand drill and used a bastard file to reduce the end of a riding stick to fit a sample hole the same size as the mounting holes in the horse heads.

Fitting a stick is easier using a piece of drilled scrap. Here I have drilled two different size holes with a hand drill and used a bastard file to reduce the end of a riding stick to fit a sample hole the same size as the mounting holes in the horse heads.

To put the final touch on this project, the horse heads should have reigns. For boys I probably would have used some leather, square cut like boot laces, but these were intended as gifts for girls, so I decided some nice ribbon would add a nice touch. I consulted my friend Lorena, who selected a ribbon with colorful tulip detailing and even figured out an easy way to pull the ribbon through the tiny hole using a small rubber band. A wire twist tie from a bread bag also would have worked. I rolled the ends of the ribbons and tacked them with a few simple stitches using some linen thread, and tied each ribbon into a simple knot to complete the appearance of reigns.

The finished hobby horses are fitted with ribbon for reigns.

The finished hobby horses are fitted with ribbon for reigns.

At Battlemoor V, the finished horses, properly outfitted with their ribbon reigns, were presented to a very appreciative Queen Cecilia, who reports the girls were so excited to receive them they scarcely put them down all day but to play with some of the other toys they received from the largesse baskets given at Battlemoor.

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