You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in Newfoundland and Labrador today with memories of hobby horses the way they do mummers or janneys from Christmases past. And they would have been memorable.
“It’s this weird, creepy and fascinating part of our history,” says Ryan Davis, executive director of the Mummers Festival in St. John’s, NL. Hobby horses (a.k.a. Horsey Hops, Horse Chops, Hobby Hoss, Flop Jaws and Lop Jaws) were terrifying creatures, frighteningly ugly marionettes with crazy eyes and snapping jaws. They threatened to nip at women and children, pulled down curtains, yanked away tablecloths and generally caused a commotion wherever they went.
Their existence came to light through an outport traditions thesis built upon research from the 1960s, found in the Folklore archives at Memorial University. “There’s a lot of actual description about hobby horse behaviour, how they moved, what they did, what they looked like, people’s reactions - but it’s really hard to find people who have actual memories of this. From what I can tell, after maybe the 1920s it didn’t really happen much anymore.”
Hobby horses are part of the English and Irish tradition of hoodening, believed to be the origin of Newfoundland and Labrador mummering. These creatures were characters in the UK mummers’ plays. When the custom crossed the Atlantic, mummering became a travelling troupe that went door-to-door every night from Boxing Day to Old Christmas Day (Jan. 6), and the hobby horse was among them.
“The classic hobby horses, from most accounts, were made out of a junk of wood,” Ryan says. “So they would cut a piece [of wood], it would be covered in fur, a part of the piece of wood would be cut off and reattached with a piece of leather…and then a string would go through it, and it would become a snapping jaw. And that became, from what I can tell, the most popular way of making them. But then there are all these accounts of people using real animal heads. Not even just the skull - the actual whole head of the animal. And not even just the fur - they literally decapitated the animal and put the head on a stick.” And they didn’t just use horses; they also used goats, cows, sheep, pigs etc. Of course, back then most people kept livestock, and when they died this was one of the ways their carcass might be put to use. It’s doubtful any animal was killed for the sole purpose of making a hobby horse. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are much too practical for that!
Like mummering, hobby horses are linked to some violent incidents back when the practice was common, around the end of the 19th century. On the Avalon Peninsula there was a sort of hazing ritual that involved “shaving gangs,” Ryan has discovered. A group of males, and their hobby horse, would chase other males and catch them, pin them down and shave them. “Then they were welcomed into the group, and they used to parade a horse from Whitbourne to Markland or vice versa, and you could only go with the group if you had been attacked by the horse and shaved.”
Fortunately, there is no shaving required to join the hobby horse workshops put off by the Mummers Festival. This year, the ninth annual event, kicks off on November 25 and ends on December 13 with a lecture on hobby horses and, hopefully, a live chat with someone in the UK about their tradition of hoodening. The main event, the mummers parade, is scheduled for December 9, when organizers hope to see “the largest group of hobby horses in Newfoundland that’s ever existed,” Ryan says.
Join the fun wherever you are. If you’re in the St. John’s area, check out the schedule of events, including workshops, at MummersFestival.ca
. Or click here
for a printable template and instructions on how to make a hobby horse at home, then recruit your family and friends, raid their closets for the best rigouts, and make a mummering memory this year! - By Janice Stuckless