Rocking horse

Made in England, 1875-1900.

At the turn of the twentieth century, horses were a vital part of life. In the country they provided muscle for many farm operations, and in the town they powered transport. It was no wonder that children enjoyed toy horses. None was more attractive and desirable than the sit-on rocking horse. In wealthy households, where children spent hours separated from their parents in the nursery, the rocking horse was the most favoured toy. More than any other toy of the period, it came to symbolise the s...


Rocking horse, on bow rockers, dappled grey, painted timber, [English], late 19th century

The rocking horse is made of timber and is realistically carved and painted in dappled grey. The horse is depicted with outstretched legs at a full gallop complete with turned back hooves. These are attached to curving struts or bows that form the rockers and give the rocking horse its name, a bow rocker. The action and movement of the horse is further intensified by the expression on its face; its flared nostrils, staring eyes and bared teeth make the horse appear quite ferocious.

This rocking horse was made in the late 19th century and is probably of English origin. Both the mane and tail, and probably the rockers, have been replaced.


1060 mm
1840 mm
435 mm


Rocking horses in the 19th century were made of timber in block sections. The body and head were of softwood, usually yellow pine which was easy to carve, while the legs were made from hardwood, commonly beech, with ash favoured for the rockers. This was a lighter construction method than the earlier way of carving from a solid block, which tended to split. About 18 separate wooden pieces went into making the horse, six for the body, one for the head, two side pieces for the neck, and the four legs each had a small pieced glued to the top for additional muscle.

A typical feature of English wooden toy horses was the use of gesso (or whitening) which prepared the surface of the wood for painting. This is sometimes mistaken for plaster, but unlike plaster it does not shrink on drying. Gesso provided a fine, smooth surface prior to painting and hid any join marks or small pits in the uneven surface of the timber. It was made of chalk and animal glue and was applied hot in several coats.

Many early rocking horses were painted white with black spots but the familiar dapple-grey appeared in the 19th century. One story is that King George IV in England favoured grey horses because the colour blended with his grey riding breeches, making him appear slimmer while mounted on his steed. However, the founder of the British firm G & J Lines created its famous dapple design from an early 1850s painting called the Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur. The rockers tended to be painted dark green, possibly to represent the grass over which the horses galloped.

The Industrial Revolution brought mass production and mechanised manufacturing processes which in turn brought social and economic change. Rocking horses were no longer the preserve of wealthy children but could be enjoyed by other cildren as well. Mass production saw the design of the rocking horses change from painted-on saddles and bridles to ornately finished leather saddles and the horses adorned with rosettes in the centre of the head and at the top of the ridge on both sides of the chest.


Purchased 1985
1 January, 1970

Cite this Object

Rocking horse 2016, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 22 November 2017, <>
{{cite web |url= |title=Rocking horse |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=22 November 2017 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
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