The Hobby Horse Festival in Banbury is a relatively recent creation, having started a decade ago in the year 2000. It is based around the English nursery rhyme: ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse; rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and she shall have music wherever she goes.

In attendance were a number of performers using a variety of model horses, some were brightly coloured and cheerfully engaging with the spectators – others were more frightful with an evil air about them. There were also a set of plain black horses who were very mischievous – nibbling at anything that they could get hold of.

The earliest recorded version of the rhyme arises from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book printed c. 1744 with the lyrics: ‘Ride a cock-horse To Banbury Cross, to see what Tommy can buy; a penny white loaf, a penny white cake and a two-penny apple-pie.’ A copy of this book is held in the British Library.

Another edition printed 40 years later in The Nursery Parnassus, a copy of which exists at The University of California, refers to an old woman in the rhyme. Around 1790, as listed in The Tom Tit’s Song Book, the rhyme then evolved to: ‘A ring on her finger, a bonnet of straw, the strangest old woman that ever you saw.

From the 17th century a hobby or cock horse has been the name for a child’s toy – namely a stick with a small wooden or stuffed fabric head on one end. These toys are still manufactured today. It has been suggested that children play with them in order to imitate adults riding their horses – something which would have course been more prevalent 400 years ago.

There is also evidence to suggest that the custom of these horses dates back much further than this. In the 14th century they may have been used in Mummers plays at the court of Edward III. Manuscripts from these plays can be found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

These older models are made from a circular framework suspended over the shoulders of the dancer. Both the framework and dancer are decorated with colourful cuts and streams of fabric, much like the costumes of Morris Men. The dancers of the horses are disguised by masks. An example of this type of horse can be seen in the footage above as the Traditional Sailor’s Horse – this particular one travelled 140 miles, all the way from Minehead in Somerset.

There are three rival hobby horses in Minehead, the Original Sailor’s Horse, Traditional Sailor’s Horse and the Town Horse. They appear on May Eve (called “Show Night”), on May Day morning (when they salute the sunrise at a crossroads on the outskirts of town) and on the 2nd and 3rd May (when a ceremony called “The Bootie” takes place in the evening at part of town called Cher). Each horse is accompanied by a small group of musicians and attendants. The horses’ visits have been to be believed to bring good luck, hoping for fertility and a good produce of crops throughout the following year.

Even earlier evidence of Hobby Horses can be found in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This is a custom dating from 1226 and performed in September each year to bring on a good hunting season. This costume is a mixture of the stick model and the suspended framework model.

As hobby horses were connected with the passing of the seasons and the timely supply of food, they have also been associated with the timely supply of information. As listed in any good dictionary, Hoblers or Hovellers were men who kept a horse so that they could give instant information of threatened invasion. From the 17th century their duties were to reconnoitre, to carry intelligence, to harass stragglers, to act as spies, to intercept convoys, and to pursue fugitives. So rather than a child’s simple imitation of an adult with their horse, children may have been imitating & mocking characters of considerable power in the local community.