No (Real) Horse, No Problem

(This originally appeared in the physical copy of the Chronicle of the Horse. Still shocked they had me write something for them like a real reporter.)

“Hi, I’m here with the Chronicle of the Horse covering the Hobby Horse Championships” is not a phrase I ever expected to be saying two and a half years ago, when I had never even set foot at a hunter/jumper show. Yet, after attending many shows and writing a book called Horse Show Boyfriend about them, I found myself earnestly asking hobby horse riders about their competition strategy on a summer day at Tryon. 

You may be familiar with the hobby horse, a vintage toy comprised of a stick with a horse head at the end of it that you can put between your legs and ride in lieu of the actual creature. More recently in Finland, competitions have sprung up where riders use hobby horses in real horse disciplines like show jumping and dressage. I had previously seen kids jumping miniature versions of verticals, but only in horseless horse shows that did not include the added element of the hobby horse. Tryon took the lead in North America, implementing a four-week hobby horse jumping series this summer featuring ages ranging from eight and younger up to 8th grade and jump heights from cross-rails to a death-defying 3’. I attended the final show of the series on July 22, which was held in the same George Morris arena that the actual jumping Grand Prix would be later in the evening. 

As I arrived, I was immediately drawn to the intricate stylings of each hobby horse. They are as much toys as they are pieces of art, with much more creativity in their presentation than a hunter conformation class. Sure, some attempted braids, but there were also homemade bridles, unicorn horns and even “tails” at the end of the sticks. I especially enjoyed the fully hand-crafted ones, including a mop with a pillow attached for the face and a stuffed sock with a rainbow-colored mane. Some were modeled after the rider’s real horses, others were the dream horse they hoped to have one day, but not one lacked a high level of detail and care.

Most riders participating had a familiarity with jumping over the smaller sized human jumps before the series, but few had done so with the added element of a hobby horse. One rider that had experience with real horses said the main difference was “hobby horses don’t really make decisions; you just have to keep them between your legs.” I was surprised to learn that for some of these experienced real-horse riders, hobby horse jumps were slightly scarier, because they knew and trusted their horse could get them over a jump, but they were not always certain when it was solely up to them. Their advice to aspiring hobby horse riders encapsulated this: “you have to believe in yourself when you’re doing it.”

The competition itself was both brisk and exciting. The younger kids were unquestionably adorable with a mix of fierce galloping and uncertain walking around the course, always finishing to loud applause. One of the few boys participating, Korben, was fully dressed in cowboy outfit, complete with hat, boots and holstered toy gun. His efforts would win him the best turned-out rider award, but during the award ceremony he hilariously seemed more interested in whacking a standard with his certificate than having his picture taken. I’m sure a few Grand Prix horses can relate. 

The older kids were zooming around, making tight cuts and even the occasional inside turn before soaring over huge 2’6 and 3’ jumps that looked even too high for me (an adult division would be extremely entertaining). The winner of the 3’ division, Morgan, had even gone so far as to apply the principles of the jumper ring, walking the course and counting strides to determine the best possible path. The event was also parent-friendly too. There were no entry fees or stall fees, just the requirement that you had to complete the course with a hobby horse. Each round averaged about 20 seconds, so classes went by quickly, were easy to follow and fun to watch—essentially the polar opposite of Pony Finals. Though, like when I watched Pony Jumpers there, I had a few moments during the taller hobby horse classes where I blurted “Holy crap!” under my breath watching. 

While the competition is based more around athletic ability than horses, it was clear that all the participants had a real love of all things equine. At the day’s end, they could say they had competed in a horse-related event in the same ring that our Olympic riders had. Tryon is planning a fall turf Hobby Horse series, but I think we should also add it to next year’s World Equestrian Games. We just have to start training now if we want to beat Finland at their own game.