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85/2060 Rocking horse, on bow rockers, dappled grey, painted timber, [English], late 19th century. Click to enlarge.

Bow rocking horse

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 …


Object No.


Object Statement

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

Physical Description

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.



The fully-carved rocking horse on bow rockers was a product of the elegant 18th century. Developed in England, it epitomised the hunting and racing English thoroughbred horses, and dominated the English child's nursery until at least the 1880s. It proved to be so long lasting because it taught children the basic rudiments of riding, which was thought a very important skill to acquire for those aspiring to fashionable society, and was seen as 'wholesome and pleasing exercise'. This occurred at a time when horse sports such as horse racing became very popular, the thoroughbred breed became established and horses were seen as a status symbol as cars are today.

The design of the rocking horse in the flying horse gallop position came from the depiction of horses in art appearing in hunting and racing scenes around 1780. By the 1820s it was accepted that horses 'flew' across fields of canvas with fully extended strides. The feeling of greater movement was achieved by the bend in the hind fetlocks with the hooves turned back. Gradually the flying gallop posture was adopted by rocking horse manufacturers. This had the benefit of being symmetrical in its stance with the hooves bolted onto the bow rockers, thereby achieving perfect weight distribution. The obsession with life like realism is seen especially in Victorian rocking horses which were finely modelled with anatomically correct carved muscles, shapely legs and expressive heads.

As with the design of the rocking horse itself, the saddles and bridles fitted mirrored changes in the adult world. High fronted saddles on rocking horses gave way to the small flat, lightweight saddles and single reign bridles used on race horses and hunters to economise on weight and maintain speed. The bow rockers on English rocking horses were more deeply curved than the German and other European ones. English rocking horse bows were up to eight feet long, making them the largest toys made. The traditional dappled grey finish was also an English creation of rocking horse manufactures in the 19th century and was popular from around the 1850s to the First World War. It was the preference of royalty and class conscience Victorian society.

Rocking horses were originally seen mainly used as a boy's toys especially when boys were preparing for military life and the battlefield though some early rocking horses were fitted with an extra removable pommel for side saddle riding by girls. It was considered socially unacceptable for females to ride astride until the 1920s.


Credit Line

Purchased 1985

Acquisition Date

16 October 1985

Cite this Object


Bow rocking horse 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 19 August 2022, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Bow rocking horse |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=19 August 2022 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}