“...the most frightening among them was the so called ‘Hobby Horse.’ The actors wore the wooden and canvas replica of a horse’s head over their own heads and shoulders, and fastened under the arm-pits. By means of a string they could make the horse’s jaws open and shut, an action that struck delightful terror into the captivated youngsters who trailed behind them.”
- “Michael Harrington Describes An Old Time Christmas In Newfoundland.” The Daily News, Wednesday, 5 Jan, 1955. Page 2.
I'm working on my next book, a collection of stories, memories and photos about mummering and related Christmas traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador. And right now, I'm working on a chapter about the hobby horse.
When most people today think of a hobby horse, they think of the child's toy - a horse's head on a stick. But in Newfoundland, the hobby horse was, and is, part of the holiday season house-visiting tradition. Indeed, hobby horses (along with their colourful cousins hobby cows, hobby goats, hobby sheep, and hobby bulls) have been here on the island of Newfoundland for a long time.
The Dictionary of Newfoundland English has this great little description of a hobby horse, from circa 1971:
The jannies make what they call a 'hobby horse.' They have the head of a horse, cow, or moose with a piece of canvas attached to it. About six men get under the canvas. They put nails or something like that in the mouth to make a clacking noise. They put sticks or something in the head so that they can turn it and open and close the mouth. Then this fierce looking thing goes around to the different houses.
If you have a memory of a hobby horse or hobby bull, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you have a photo of one you've made, send it along!