Rocking horses, one of the oldest and most easily-recognized toys ever created, have provided hours of entertainment for children for centuries.
While there is no solid proof, it is thought that rocking horses originated in Germany. Mentioned in several manuscripts from the Renaissance, rocking horses date back to the 17th century where they were first used in training knights in tilting and jousting; also, they were educational playthings for the children of nobles, used to teach them from a very young age the correct posture for riding a horse, how to hold the reigns, etc. Very few of these early rocking horses survive today.
Originally made of simple, flat, wooden boards, early rocking horses were not very beautiful and bore very little actual resemblance towards real horses. As time wore on, though, rocking horses became more and more detailed; by the 1800s, they had attained their traditional look: dappled grey, flowing mane and tail, and large bow rockers.
Rocking horses, for several centuries, were owned only by the wealthy for the simple fact that they were hand-carved and put together; however, the rise of the Industrial Revolution changed all that. Manufacturers started producing rocking horses in mass quantities for the growing wealthy middle class.
For over 150 years, the traditional color for a rocking horse has been dapple grey. This is due to the fact that in 1851 Queen Victoria was invited to the workshop of J. Collinson & Sons and asked to choose a rocking horse; she selected the dapple grey, and from then on, J. Collinson & Sons manufactured only dapple grey rocking horses and it soon caught on with other manufacturers.
While bow rockers were the most traditional look for rocking horses, they had a tendency to slip and slide on hardwood floors; also, when rocked too hard (as energetic children were wont to do), they could flip and deliver serious injuries to the rider and surrounding persons. To address this problem, many different types of rockers were introduced in the late 1800s. The most popular from these options was the 'Safety Stand', invented by Phillip Marqua of Cincinnati. It consisted of a long board running underneath the belly of the horse, with one board on either side attached to provide a sliding motion as the child moved back and forth. Also, in the 1950s, another model of rocking horse became popular. It consisted of a metal frame, with the horse being suspended in air and attached to the corners of the frame with springs. Of course, there was no actual 'rocking', just bouncing up and down.
All in all, rocking horses are many things to many people. They are collectors items; they are the keys to a fantasy land of long ago for small children; says Dean Failey, of Christie's in New York, "They remind people of a pleasant time, if not in their own lives, of an age that was gentler, slower and kinder."