Toy animals have been around for thousands of years. It is believed that children had wooden horses as toys as early as ancient Egypt and Greece. Ancient Greeks and Romans had terracotta toy horses. Later, in medieval times, children played with hobby horses which were made of a stick with a horse head at one end and sometimes a wheel on the other.
In the 16th century, so-called ‘barrel’ horses appeared, which consisted of a log on four wooden legs and a horse head at the end of the log.
The rocking horses as we know them today appeared in the early 17th century. The exact place of origin and the inventor of the rocking horse are unknown.
The oldest rocking horse that still exists today is believed to have belonged to King Charles I of England and dates from around 1610. In 2006, it was bought by Victoria & Albert Museum.
Rocking horses became increasingly popular during the 18th and 19th century, mostly among the children of wealthy European families. They were used to help and prepare children for riding real horses in the future. Early toy horses were heavy and unstable and could easily be overturned. By the 18th century, the crude, solid horses evolved into lighter, more elegant products. One of the most distinguished was the English Dapple Grey rocking horse.
A beautiful rocking horse was made around 1750, probably for King Gustav III of Sweden. It is a high-quality piece. The white and gray painted horse is placed on a highly-decorated gilded stand. It includes headgear and a saddle made of natural leather.
During the 1800s, rocking horses were in high demand and many craftsmen and salesmen profited from selling this popular toy. New designs appeared, more detailed, some with tails made of real horsehair, finely crafted leather saddles and eyes made of glass. Some of the most elegant wooden horses in England were manufactured by F.H. Ayres. Their horses were renowned for their beautifully modeled body shape and carved details.
In 1880, an American invention called the ‘safety stand’ was patented in London. This alternative rocking mechanism was designed by Philip Marqua from Cincinnati. This new glider-type base was safer than the classic bow rockers and required less space for the toy’s movement. Classic rocking chairs moved forward when used, while the new horse stayed in one place.
During the Industrial Revolution, rocking horses’ popularity and production skyrocketed. The main reasons were the cheaper costs of production and the growing and richer middle class. Manufacturing of rocking horses saw a decline during the World War I because of a shortage of materials and skilled craftsmen. By the middle of the 20th century, production of rocking horses was abandoned almost completely.
In recent years, the demand for rocking horses has grown. Some antique ones are sold at shops or auctions for remarkably high prices. Some manufacturers remain faithful to the old ways of production and produce handmade replicas of classic designs.