By Ryan Davis
The hobby horse is a peculiar breed. With their menacing eyes, and crooked hobnail teeth, the mummer’s hobby horse has been terrifying the bejesus out of people for centuries. It harkens back to the days when our not-so-distant ancestors would save the skins of animals, dry them, drape them over their bodies, and chase people around at festive times of the year. Pretty creepy, I’d say.
Also referred to as “Horsey Hops”, “Flop Jaws,” “Horse Chops,” “Hobby Hoss,” and “Lop Jaws,” the hobby horse has been known to follow people into churches, pull tablecloths off tables, turn off ceiling lights by pulling the string with its mouth, and to swallow oranges, apples, and caplin when tossed its way. They also tend to dance around in a rather awkward and grotesque manner.
But most of all, they tend to chase people.
In some extreme cases, hobby horses have peed on floors (with the help of a water bottle), ripped the sleeves off of shirts, and they almost always get dogs howling. They often lurk in dark places, and hide behind doors, or around the corners of houses. There haven’t been too many accounts of serious harm inflicted by the hobby horse, but they have been known to push boundaries and the expression, “you’re as bold as a hobby horse,” speaks to their mischievous side.
The hobby horse has always been a do-it-yourself project. Pieced together with whatever was around, and often in secrecy, the hobby horse often came to life in sheds, barns, and basements around the province. Because the hobby horse accompanied mummers, the builders would take precautions to keep it a secret so as not to reveal the mummers’ identities by association. Hobby horses have been made out of junks of wood, giant blocks of styrofoam, leftover plywood, stitched-together cardboard, and the skulls of horses, moose, cows, and pigs. It’s rumoured that an albino hobby-moose is lurking somewhere in St. John’s.
What they all tend to have in common, besides their creepiness, is a snapping lower jaw, usually attached with a hinge, a piece of leather, or rubber. The sound of the hobby horse’s jaws knocking together are known to bring a chill up the spines of people who grew up with the tradition. A string gets knotted on the lower side of the jaw, goes up through the tongue and the roof of the mouth, and along to the back of the head where the carrier can pull the mouth open and closed. A blanket or sheet ties onto the back of the head to cover the body and a stick or broom handle acts as a third leg and supports the head. With a bit of ingenuity, anyone can piece together a hobby horse.
The head can be covered with fake fur, moose hide, fabric, or paint. Eyes have been made with ping pong balls, tennis balls, jar lids, and bottle caps. And when the crooked hobnail teeth are lined up just right they’ve been known to make sparks.
The Mummers Festival’s last Hobby Horse Workshop is Saturday, December 19th from 1-5pm. That’s just enough time to piece one together for the Mummers Parade on Sunday, December 20th. See www.mummersfestival.com for hobby horse photos and more workshop information.