Hobbyhorsing sees participants riding stick horses and performing equestrian moves
5,000 people were reported to have taken part in a recent event in Helsinki, Finland
On an uncharacteristically warm and clear weekend in May, more than 5,000 people descended on Helsinki’s Kaivopuisto Park – one of the Finnish capital’s largest – to take part in the latest craze beginning to sweep the nation.
For those without the time or financial means to take up horse riding, “hobbyhorsing” is providing a fun and quirky alternative.
First introduced to the mainstream by 2017 documentary “Hobbyhorse Revolution” – directed by Finnish filmmaker Selma Vilhunen – the pastime’s popularity is increasing rapidly, in particular with young girls.
Ada Filppa, a PR manager for the Finnish Hobbyhorse Federation, estimates that around 10,000 people are regular participants in Finland, though that number is thought to be much higher.
It sees participants riding “stick horses,” as the Finns call them, often intricately made at home, and completing circuits similar to those used in equestrian – with some fences as high as 1.2 meters.
While the obstacles and jumps no doubt offer an interesting alternative to conventional exercise, it’s the sense of community that hobbyhorsing provides which really hooks the “hobbyists.”
“My favorite thing is the community,” Elsa Salo, star of Hobbyhorse Revolution, says.
“I also like making horses and creating the personalities of the horses, sharing the horses with others and telling other hobbyists about them.
“The community is so tolerating and we accept everyone the way they are.”
As Elsa speaks, she fiddles with the reigns of what she says is her favorite hobbyhorse. His name is Trivoli.
He’s a German half-blood, she explains, is rarely flustered by anything and, importantly, jumps very well.
“I started riding (real) horses when I was six years old and I absolutely loved animals and I loved horses,” she says.
“I rode horses for 10 years and I had this really dear horse to me, she was called Fiona. She passed away a few years ago and since then I haven’t gone back to actual stables but my hobbyhorses have still been in my life and I love them.
“Trivoli is my favorite horse because he reminds of the horse Fiona.”
Start of the revolution
Elsa believes she first got into hobbyhorsing in 2002 and recalls the story of her and a friend – fellow Hobbyhorse Revolution star Roosa – finding an old hobbyhorse her mum had made.
Their initial instinct was to ride the horse – and they’ve never looked back.
“The first feeling we got when we rode it was just amazing,” she says excitedly. “We felt so free and we just loved it. We wanted to continue doing it and then we found the community.”
Elsa thinks the first real turning point in the revolution came 10 years after the pair stumbled across her mum’s old hobbyhorse.
The size of the competitions began to grow and with them, so did the community – it also helps that Finland is “just horse crazy,” as Elsa describes it.
Though not strictly limited to preteen and adolescent girls, the movement is dominated by that demographic.
While for girls hobbyhorsing provides an escape from the awkwardness of teenage life – or from the boys who try to take charge of sports, as Hobbyhorse Revolution star Alisa Aarniomaki explains to AP – for the younger, budding hobbyists it’s just a fun, new way to play.
“It can be done either alone or with friends. You can imagine different ‘roles’ to your horses,” 10-year-old Janni Salo (unrelated to Elsa) tells CNN.
“They have names, are different ages and races, one is for jumping and the other is for trail riding.
“Some people can’t deal with real horses because of allergies or expensive riding lessons and this is a way to keep in touch with horses and riding.”
Janni’s mother, Niina, says her daughter has owned a hobbyhorse all her life but only started developing a real passion about three years ago.
Around the same time, Janni started riding real horses – a black Shetland pony called Peppi – though this did nothing to diminish her interest in hobbyhorsing, but rather increased it.
Such is her enthusiasm, Janni now takes one or two hobbyhorses to school each day so she can exercise with her friends.
Niina has even had an impressive stable built for her daughter’s hobbyhorses and other wooden horses in a field near their house.
“It’s just like being with (real) horses,” Janni says. “You can do whatever you like, learn also ‘real riding’ skills and improve your condition. Jumping is the best!”
At the CityHorse event, she even had a hobbyhorse riding lesson from Elsa, something Niina described as a “dream to these little girls.”
The hobbyhorse arena in Kaivopuisto Park, the biggest ever built in Finland, was just one part of the larger CityHorse event which attracted more than 40,000 people over the weekend of May 20 and 21.
It marked a joint celebration of the country’s independence and the 110th anniversary of the Finnhorse – the only breed fully developed in Finland – after an official studbook was founded in 1907.
The Finnhorse has played a huge role in Finnish history, with the earliest documented record of it coming in the 13th century.
Finns believe the Finnhorse to be capable of carrying out all their needs, from agriculture and forestry to sport and horse riding.
Organizing and constructing an event of this size is no easy feat. The main arena, constructed from scratch, required 1,200 tonnes of sand to be laid and protect the grass, while 100 horses – some from Iceland – were brought in for the event.
Fred Sundwall, general secretary for the Equestrian Federation of Finland, says the entire operation took a week to finish and the park returned to normal – without a trace of a hobbyhorse – the following Tuesday.
“The Equestrian Federation of Finland welcomes the increased hobbyhorse activities,” he says. “It is an excellent way to become acquainted with the horse world.
“Jumping up to 120 cm fences is also a tough sport by itself and a good complement to riding or any other sport.”
Former Finnish prime minister, Alexander Stubb, agrees. “It’s a great new sport,” he tells CNN. “Anything to get kids moving. One hour of exercise gives you two hours of energy.”
For Fred Sundwall and the organizers of CityHorse their brief adventure into hobbyhorsing may be over, but for the thousands who participated – many for the first time – the sport may have left an indelible mark.
“People can be whatever they want to be – and do so many things,” Ada says of the sport’s appeal.
As the hobbyhorse revolution shows no signs of slowing down, don’t bet against it arriving at a park near you.