The term hobby horse is used, principally by folklorists, to refer to the costumed charactersthat feature in some traditional seasonal customs, processions and similar observances aroundthe world. They are particularly associated with May Day celebrations, Mummers Plays andthe Morris dance in England.May Day hobby horses PadstowThe Old Oss capturing a young woman during the May Day festival at Padstow, CornwallThe most famous traditional British hobby horses are probably those of the May Day ObbyOss festival in Padstow, Cornwall. They are made from a circular framework, tightly coveredwith shiny black material, carried on the shoulders of a dancer whose face is hidden by agrotesque mask attached to a tall, pointed hat. A skirt (made from the same material) hangsdown from the edge of the frame to around knee-height. There is a small, wooden, horseshead with snapping jaws, attached to a long, straight neck, with a long mane, which sticks outfrom the front of the frame. On the opposite side there is a small tail of horsehair.There are two rival horses and their fiercely loyal bands of supporters at Padstow: the OldOss is decorated with white and red, and its supporters wear red scarves to show theirallegiance; the Blue Ribbon Oss (or "Peace Oss") is decorated with white and blue and itssupporters follow suit . A "Teaser" waving a padded club dances in front of each Oss,
accompanied, as they dance through the narrow streets, by a lively band of melodeons,accordions and drums playing Padstows traditional May Song. The Osses sometimes captureyoung women beneath the skirt of the hobby horse; often they emerge smeared with black.Children sometimes make "Colt" Osses and hold their own May Day parades.http://www.nicolaslattery.com/1363/index.htmlMeaningA favourite topic that one frequently refers to or dwells on; a fixation.OriginThe first things that were referred to as hobbies were in fact horses, of abreed that was popular in Ireland in the Middle Ages and is now extinct.The Scottish poet John Barbour referred to them as hobynis, in thenarrative poem The Bruce, 1375. In Reliquiae Antiquae, a poetic work ofBarbours from around 1400 and republished in 1841, he referred to themagain, this time with a little more context:And one amang, an Iyrysch man,Uppone his hoby swyftly ran,
English mummers, morris dance teams andminstrel groups began performing with characters (often children) dressedin wickerwork and cloth costumes, made to look like stylised horses - notaltogether unlike the present-day pantomime horses. These hobby-horses, which took their name from the Irish breed, are still to be seen aspart of the English folk tradition, notably at the annual Obby Oss festival,celebrated each May Day in Padstow, Cornwall. This custom dates back toat least the 16th century, when a payment for a performance by a hobby-horse was recorded in the Churchwardens Accounts of St. Marys Church,Reading, 1557:Item, payed to the Mynstrels and the Hobby~horse on May Day, 3s.As time went by, the name hobby-horse was given to numerous otherthings; for example,A loose woman or strumpet:William Shakespeare, Loves Labours Lost, 1588 - "Calst thou my loveHobbi-horse?" A childs nursery toy:George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589 - "King Agesilaus,hauing a great sort of little children... tooke a little hobby horse of woodand bestrid it to keepe them in play."A dance, similar to the stage antics of the mummers horses:Richard Lassels, The Voyage of Italy, circa 1668 - "Women like those thatdanced anciently the Hobby-horse in Country Mummings."A favourite pursuit or pastime - later shortened of course just tohobby:
Sir Matthew Hale, Contemplations Moral and Divine, 1676 - "Almost everyperson hath some hobby horse or other wherein he prides himself." A wooden horse fixed on a ‘merry-go-round’:Grays Letters and Poems, 1741 - "A Fair here is not a place where oneeats gingerbread or rides upon hobby-horses." A velocipede, on which the rider proceeded by pushing theground with each foot alternately; also called a Dandy-horse:The Gentlemans Magazine, February 1819 - "A machine denominated thePedestrian Hobby-horse... has been introduced into this country by atradesman in Long Acre."It is the favourite pastime version of the name, what we now call simplya hobby, that was adopted as a figurative expression meaning a fixation;a thing one keeps coming back to, i.e. similar to having a bee in onesbonnet.So, a hobby is really a hobby-horse. If by any chance you occupy yourspare time studying 13th century Irish livestock, your hobby-horse mightjust be a Hobby horse. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hobby-horse.htmlA Brief History of Hobby HorsesDressing up in animal disguises is an activity which is widespread across manycultures worldwide and no doubt goes back to ancient times. However the ancestryof the English Hobby Horse can, at best be traced back to the sixteenth centurywhen we come across references to men and boys capering round dressed astourney horses ( a frame carrying a horses head at the front and a tale at the back,draped in fabric and worn about the waist).
The setting for these performances was at first the kind of tournaments, masquesand pageants that the Elizabethan court delighted in. As today Royal patronage wasa powerful trend setter and similar celebrations were taken up by civic authoritiesand trades guilds. In the latter half of the sixteenth century processions aroundtowns as large as Norwich and as small as Banbury could be seen, including in theline up hobby horses and morris dancers.As the popularity of these events began to wane the hobby horse operators and themorris dancers formed an unofficial alliance and perpetuated a practice which hadbecome a useful way of raising a little extra income. As the seventeenth centurywore on pressures from puritan communities and other economic and social factorslead to a further reduction in the number of performances seen and the dancers andhorses retreated in many cases to rural communities where they could beconsidered to be out of sight and out of mind!The heartland for morris dancers became the Cotswolds where by the midnineteenth century there was something like one hundred and fifty different teamsin operation, the nearest being Adderbury.The hobby horses had fled to even more remote parts such as the coastal villages ofMinehead and Padstow in the West Country. Other forms of horse and animaldisguise of doubtful origin such as the Hooden Horse in Kent and the Mari Llwydin South Wales also lingered in remote communities.Even these few remnants of traditional festivities were in danger of dying out at thestart of the twentieth century when academics of various persuasions started to takean interest and collect information about what they, erroneously, saw as relicts ofancient pagan customs.Their efforts lead to a revival of interest in ‘folk’ music and dance which hascontinued to this day. The revivalists also reunited the morris dancers and hobbyhorses to form a new spectacle. Interestingly enough there are probably morehobby horses and certainly more morris teams performing now that at any time inthe nation’s history!