Why you should care

Because sometimes a fake animal can create real community.

Back straight. Shoulders square. Ankles long. Heels up. People who watch athletes on horseback and scoff, “That’s nothing, the horse does all the work,” have never tried to ride one. It’s tough and taxing and requires years of practice. Especially when the equine is a stick with a plush horse head atop it.

Welcome to competitive hobbyhorsing. We’ll let that sink in for a moment. Imagine dozens of girls in formation, or individually in formal competitions, show jumping and performing dressage while holding on to that venerable stick-and-stuffed-toy combination known as a hobbyhorse. For as many as 10,000 girls — most of them teenagers in Finland, as well as in pockets across Sweden, Germany and France — hobbyhorsing is everything. The riders gather for fairs and competitions and make, buy and sell horses.

There’s a lot of prejudice from people who think … it’s the stupidest thing in the world — but [hobbyhorse enthusiasts] don’t care, because they know how cool it is.…

Selma Vilhunen, filmmaker, Hobbyhorse Revolution

Hobbyhorsing enthusiasts post on Instagram — hashtag #kepparitkunniaan, which translates to “respect the horses” — where the growing popularity of hobbyhorsing is most dramatically revealed. There are photos of friends horsing around together, loving close-ups of the stick horses, stunning action shots of girls jumping over improbably high hurdles, horses in hand with yarn manes flying. You might think the trend is a bizarre response to a typical but thwarted preteen horse phase, but in Finland, stables with real horses are common, and their owners even extend financial aid to those who can’t otherwise afford to ride. Finland’s Venla-Maria Uutela, considered a senior hobbyhorse enthusiast at age 19, says many of her friends got into hobbyhorsing through an interest in actual horses. Young enthusiasts might treat it like play — “feeding” the horses daily and grooming them — but even older girls, for whom a horse may be like a beloved hockey stick, give their steeds names, personalities and backstories.

When Oscar-nominated filmmaker Selma Vilhunen came across this galloping, jumping, preening subculture, which first began taking off about a decade ago, it was love at first sight. “I was immediately smitten,” she tells OZY. Googling led her to the Finnish Hobbyhorse Forum — still active, but secondary these days to Instagram as a community paddock — and to young women melding fantasy with friendship and athleticism. “They can practice for hours and hours every day,” Vilhunen says. “Some of them get really good at jumping; their capacity is enormous. The hobbyists themselves say, ‘You see these kids who can jump as high as the sky.’ ” In regular show jumping, the horse makes the leap. Hobbyhorse enthusiasts rely on their own legs to vault themselves and their toy mounts over obstacles that can be well over 3 feet high. Vilhunen wound up making a documentary, Hobbyhorse Revolution, about the world.

Oh, I understand why you’re making that face. But remember when you made fun of Taylor Swift, because only teenage girls liked her, and then it turned out Taylor Swift is amazing, and you’re just a jerk who disrespects anything teenage girls like because they’re an easy target? Open your mind. Respect the horses.

As girls age or get injured, they sometimes stop competing. They may lose interest in riding and become more consumed by the crafting aspect of the hobby, making horses of their own. But the sense of community endures. Alisa Aarniomäki won the Finnish Hobbyhorse Championships in dressage and show jumping in 2012 — Finland is the heart of the hobbyhorsing world, and there are stories of girls from other countries pretending to be Finnish on Instagram to gain some of the nation’s cachet — but the 19-year-old is now sidelined with an ankle injury. She says bullying of enthusiasts is common, and many riders choose to keep their hobby a secret. “I faced loads of bullying from ages 12 to 15,” Aarniomäki says. Outsiders, she explains, often think of hobbyhorsing as childish galloping and neighing: “It can be hard to get people to think outside the box.”

Näin arvontapäivänä voisi pyöräyttää käyntiin myös viikon, jonka aikana paneudutaan keppihevosiin ja sen monipuolisuuteen harrastuksena vähän tarkemmin. Harrastus on inspiroinut ihmisiä niin kuvaamaan, tekemään videoita, urheilemaan, tekemään käsitöitä, koodaamaan, piirtämään.. Ja kaikkien alla on vielä monia erilaisia osa-aloja, kuten kouluratsastus, joka tässäkin harrastuksessa on parhaimmillaan kuin tanssia. HUOM! Arvontaan voi osallistua klo 17:00 asti. Klo 17-17:30 tilien on oltava viimeistään julkisia. -- 🇬🇧 Hobbyhorses are very versatile as a hobby. It has inspired people to do sports, handcraft, take pics, make videos, draw and code, for example. And in those I mentioned, there are multiple different fields, such as dressage which is like dancing. #hobbyhorserevolution #kepparitkunniaan

A photo posted by Hobbyhorse Revolution (@hobbyhorserevolution) on

While making Hobbyhorse Revolution, Vilhunen had a ringside seat to the community’s conflicted feelings about being outed. “Some people actually prefer to be in a secret society,” she says, “but some people want to be respected for what they do and talk about it and do it openly. They think that’s how to stop the bullying. There’s a lot of prejudice from people who think that they’re crazy and childish, and [that] it’s the stupidest thing in the world — but [hobbyhorse enthusiasts] don’t care, because they know how cool it is, how fun it is and they’re not going to give up.” Some girls keep quiet about their obsession at school and go crazy online, living a double life with a closet full of hobbyhorses.

As a concept, hobbyhorsing is not that different from other fantasy sports — some people play Quidditch, others swim while wearing mermaid tails and still others manage football teams in an imaginary NFL. But hobbyhorsing is also a real sport and a community characterized by defiance, gentleness and unabashedly positive weirdness. Hobbyhorse girls try to provide a safe space while speaking out against bullying, protecting those who still like to play make-believe and supporting those facing the athletic challenge of simultaneously pretending to be both horse and rider. Watching their flash mobs, competition and fierce defense of one another, it’s impossible not to root for them to mount wooden stick horses and ride off happily into the sunset.

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