An antique rocking horse is a beautiful thing. They bring images of a time when children were happy with innocent play, before the days of bleeping and exploding toys and video games. A true antique horse can cost thousands of dollars, but how old are they, and how can you tell the real from the fake?
In the US, toy horses were made as early as the 17th Century, by fathers in their workshops as gifts for their children. These were generally simple toys and the rocking mechanisms came later. In Europe, bow horses were made from around 1750 and rocking horses on a swing stand were made from around 1880. The dates are similar for the US.
An antique rocking horse from Europe is very different than one from America. The American ones are often called ‘folk art’ antique horses. The designs are simple and the manes and tails are usually made of horsehair. If there are saddles and reins left they will be leather. Some were painted and some were polished or left natural.
European horses, especially British ones, mostly date from approximately 1870-1920. Again, the manes and tails were made of hair, and the tack was leather, often fixed by brass fastenings. They were usually painted. They do not often have a manufacturers name on but some do, and the three biggest manufacturers were Collinsons (1836-1993), F H Ayres (19th Century and early 20th Century) and Tri-Ang Lines, who also made hide covered rocking horses.
So how do you know the horse you are looking at is an antique rocking horse? First, it’ll look old! But be careful! Old can be faked. You need to know where to look. First, look at the delicate parts of the horse – ears, bottom of the face, around the eyes and the legs. Most importantly, look at the seat. An antique rocking horse should have signs of wear, not only in the paintwork, but also worn wood in the places the saddle has rubbed. Also, the reins may have rubbed around the neck.
Secondly, the tack. On an antique rocking horse this is almost always leather. A carved and painted saddle is unusual on a true rocking horse. Make sure the leather is worn. Again, especially look at the saddle seat. A European one will probably have brass studding on it to fix it, but this is not always the case. Nails and other metal fixings can be artificially rusted so be careful.
Thirdly, the mane and tail on an antique rocking horse will almost always have been real horse or cow hair. If you find one with a carved mane, it is probably newer than you thought.
There are some very excellent companies who make reproduction horses and these should not be confused with a fake antique horse. If you do your research, check some pictures on the internet, and buy from a known dealer you should not have any problem and will enjoy your antique horse.