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What is the Hobby Horse?

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What is the Hobby Horse?

This 1956 photo shows a hobby horse chasing a woman in Padstow, Cornwall.

Image © Three Lions/Getty Images
Beltane is a time of lust and sex and fertility, and few symbols are as representative of this as the hobby horse. In England, the hobby horse tradition goes back to the island’s early Pagan roots, as the hobby horse welcomes in the fertility season.
Although the specific origins of the hobby horse rituals aren’t known for sure, imagine, if you will, early farmers going out to do their spring planting in the fields. Now, picture the phallic symbolism of the Maypole, around which all the villagers will be dancing on Beltane. Sticks and poles are about as phallic as it gets, so it’s not a stretch to visualize people riding about with a pole between their legs as the fields are sown. Today, the hobby horse has lost much of its fertility symbolism, and is best known as a child’s toy – a pole with a horse’s head on one end, which is used for galloping around the house.

Even to this day there are hobby horse celebrations all over England, and one of the best known is in Padstow, Cornwall. In Padstow, it’s actually called the ‘Obby ‘Oss (try saying it with a Cornish accent, and it makes sense). Residents escort either a red or a blue hobby horse around the town, singing songs and generally having a good time to welcome in the spring. These two rival horses are made over a large open framework and include a fairly scary mask.

In A Day in the Life: One Family, the Beautiful People, and the End of the Sixties, author Robert Greenfield describes a scene from the Padstow festival, which hearkens back to the lustier, earthier origins of the celebration. He says, “The man playing the hobby horse is led through the streets of Padstow ... On its route, the hobby horse often stops to drag women under its dark costume in a graphic attempt to portray a fertility rite. It used to be said that if you were caught beneath the veil you would be pregnant within the year.”

England, interestingly enough, doesn’t have a monopoly on the hobby horse tradition, although we often think of it as a specifically British Pagan custom. Julie Scott Meisami describes in her Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature a similar tradition in Persia. The kurraj, or hobby horse, appears during celebrations of No Ruz, and goes about splashing water at people and pounding on doors. She says, “In ancient Persia and Central Asia, the hobby horse was used in ... Shamanic rites as well as in seasonal fertility rites, to help establish contact with spirits. In Islam, hobby horse performances, accompanied by music and dancing, were either for the sake of inducing a delirious and ecstatic state, or for celebrating feasts, combats, and military exercise.”

Planning a Beltane celebration? Why not incorporate hobby horses into your ritual? Put together a hobby horse costume – and this can be as simple as a mask, a mane, and a pair of ears – and let the horse chase a designated lady around the Maypole. Depending on who's attending your event, you could take it a step further, and add phallic symbols to the costume. Let your imagination run wild, and welcome in the fertility season of Beltane with a hobby horse of your own.

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