Hobbyhorsing: what girls everywhere can learn from the Finnish craze

Perhaps one of the more surprising articles to be widely circulated this month has been a New York Times feature on the girls of Finland and their fondness for hobbyhorsing.

Hobbyhorsing is not a metaphor, nor indeed the repurposing of some veterinarian-standard tranquiliser by the nightclubbing youth of today. It is, in fact, the act and art of riding a rudimentary toy horse – a toy that is, to put it bluntly, a stuffed fabric horse’s head attached to a stick.

Dressage at the hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland, 2017.
Dressage at the hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland, 2017.

Dressage at the hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland, 2017.Photograph: Heikki Saukkoma/Rex/Shutterstock

The existence of hobby horses can be traced back many centuries and across many cultures. They appear in German woodcuts and Spanish oil paintings of the 16th century and are referenced in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy two centuries later. A type of hobby horse has played an integral part in Mummers’ Plays and Morris Dancing traditions. Variations exist across Europe, Asia and North America.

In Finland, the beginnings of its modern popularity among young girls stands as something of a mystery, though it is known that for some while the community flourished secretly online. Today, there are not just practitioners but coaches, competitions, judges. Enthusiasts assign their horses names, breeds and genders, and along the usual displays of cantering, trotting and galloping, meetings will cover everything from in-depth discussions of grooming, bloodlines, temperament, and, on at least one occasion, a two-part dressage routine choreographed to a song by the rapper Nelly.

Hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland, 2017.
Hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland, 2017.

“Little girls are allowed to be strong and wild”: Hobbyhorsing championships, Vantaa, Finland.Photograph: Heikki Saukkoma/Rex/Shutterstock

If this seems an unlikely pursuit for pubescent girls in an age of Snapchat, Fortnite and BTS, it’s worth considering that hobbyhorsing is on the rise, having already spread to Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands.

In 2017, Finnish hobbyhorsing was the subject of a film by the director Selma Vilhunen, who recorded various practitioners over the course of five years. Vilhunen is certain of its appeal: “Little girls are allowed to be strong and wild,” she told the NYT. “I think the society starts to shape them into a certain kind of quietness once they reach puberty.”

As antiquated as it might initially appear, there is indeed something powerful and pleasing about this hobbyhorsing community. It is not some cutesy affectation. Rather, it is a physically uninhibited, imaginatively rousing activity – qualities of play to be encouraged, particularly for young women and girls. Long may they gallop.