Imagine a sport much like equestrian show jumping, but where the horse is replaced by a wooden stick with a plush toy at one and the rider actually does all the jumping over increasingly difficult hurdles. That’s the popular sport of Competitive Hobbyhorsing in a nutshell.
The hobby horse is one of the oldest children’s toys still used today. Many of us remember prancing around in the yard on a stick imagining that it was a noble steed, but for the tens of thousands of members of the hobbyhorsing community in Finland, riding a toy horse is more than just a game. Many of them train for hours and hours on a daily basis and regularly take part in large-scale show jumping competitions where they try to impress judges with their posture, footwork and jumping.
According to my Google research, hobbyhorsing has been pretty big in Finland for at least a decade, but it only started getting international coverage this month, thanks to a new documentary by Oscar nominated director Selma Vilhunen, who discovered this unusual sport through Instagram. She was immediately fascinated by the community and how it manages to combine sport, fantasy and arts&crafts. Her film, Hobbyhorsing Revolution, is a window into the world of competitive hobbyhorsing, showcasing young members of the community, their training, and the prejudice they face from people who consider their passion “the stupidest thing in the world”.
The first articles on the hobbyhorsing phenomenon in Finland started showing up on English-written websites around April 1st, 2017, which led a lot of people to believe that it was just a well thought-out April fool. But the tens of thousands of hobbyhorsing enthusiasts in Finland, and the pockets of fans in neighboring Sweden and Norway, as well as countries like Germany and France would tell you otherwise.
Competitive hobbyhorsing starts with the “horses”. There are dozens of websites that sell elaborate toy horses, and some enthusiasts even knit their own horse heads to mount on a stick. The horses often have names and are being groomed and cared for like real animals. In a trailer for Hobbyhorsing Revolution, some fans admit placing covers on their hobby horses at night as they “sleep”.
It’s not clear how exactly hobbyhorsing became so popular among Finnish teenage girls, but since stables with real horses are common in the Scandinavian country, it makes sense to assume that the wooden toys were an accessible alternative to the majestic horse of their dreams. Owning a horse is difficult for someone living in the city, not to mention expensive, but a stick and lots of imagination are available to pretty much everyone.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about hobbyhorsing in Finland is its competitive aspect. In equestrian show jumping contests, you see the rider guiding the horse to vault over obstacles, but here, competitors rely on their own legs to take themselves and the wooden horse over obstacles as high as 3 feet. Footwork and posture also have to be mastered to stand a chance in a competition, all of which require lot of training, but hobbyhorsing enthusiasts are more than willing to put in the work.
“They can practice for hours and hours every day,” Selma Vilhunen told Ozy Magazine. “Some of them get really good at jumping; their capacity is enormous. You see these kids who can jump as high as the sky.”
Seeing young girls, most of them aged 12-18, vaulting over obstacles as tall as them is indeed pretty darn impressive, as are the group dressage routines they often display in public places like city squares. You can check out both in the YouTube videos embedded at bottom of this article.
Competitive hobbyhorsing is all about respecting the “horse”, enjoying yourself and a strong sense of community, but the sport also has a dark side. It’s estimated that there are over 10,000 hobbyhorsing enthusiasts in Finland alone, but most of them keep their passion a secret for fear of prejudice.
Many in the Scandinavian country see competitive hobbyhorsing as a childish game, or as simply stupid, and many girls admit to becoming targets of bullying because of it.
“I faced loads of bullying from ages 12 to 15,” says Alisa Aarniomäki, who won the Finnish Hobbyhorse Championships in dressage and show jumping in 2012. “It can be hard to get people to think outside the box.”
“There’s a lot of prejudice from people who think that they’re crazy and childish, and [that] it’s the stupidest thing in the world,” film director Selma Vilhunen also reports. “But [hobbyhorse enthusiasts] don’t care, because they know how cool it is, how fun it is and they’re not going to give up.”
Despite the prejudice, many enthusiasts proudly post photos and videos of themselves and their friends horsing around. A simple Instagram search for tags like #kepparitkunniaan or #KHT reveals dozens of hobbyhorsing-related accounts.