by Andrea O'Brien
A few years ago I asked my Girl Guide unit to bring in an object that had special meaning for their family. One girl brought a hobby horse that her uncle had used while mummering. It was a huge likeness of a horse's head, made from a piece of heavy Styrofoam covered with black fake fur, complete with ping-pong eyeballs and a mouth that snapped open and shut on a hinge. The girl described how her uncle would prop the head on an axe handle and cover himself with a blanket to form the horse's body. She furthered explained that her uncle was continuing a tradition handed down from his father, who had also had a hobby horse. The other girls in the unit looked on bewildered, unsure of how this object fit into the contemporary mummering tradition they were familiar with.
During my early years as a folklore student I had written a paper about this family—the keepers of the hobby horse in my home community of Cape Broyle on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula. The hobby horse had been kept by this family for many decades and was a well-known part of the community's mummering tradition. While the people I spoke with did not know the origins of the practice, they suggested that it was introduced to Cape Broyle from the neighbouring communities of Brigus South and Admiral's Cove, and that it may have been related to the older custom of mummers carrying a replica of a bull's head. At that time, mummers from Brigus South and Admiral's Cove came to Cape Broyle during Christmas, and one man recalled,
"There’d be as high as fifteen, twenty people sometimes. And they had what we call the hobby-horse and they had the old bull, or imitations of them. And they'd be dressed in all different costumes and they'd go from house to house, have a drink, have a dance. And then they'd have one particular house in the settlement that they'd stay at to the end of their round-up. And there they'd have a party and after a while they'd get too warm and have a few drinks under their belts and they'd undress, to a certain extent anyway, and they'd stay there for the rest of the night."
By the mid 1900s, a man in Cape Broyle was known as the keeper of the hobby horse. One of the mummers from the group that travelled with him described the hobby horse as having the
"shape of a horse's head. It was held up by the person carrying it on a stick. It was covered with fur and hair, or a mane anyway. Had eyes and nostrils. And a piece of line protruded through the top of the head and attached to the lower part of the jaw, and by pulling on the string the mouth would open. And the same thing applied to the bull that the old people used to have. It had a head the shape of a bull, had horns and the same way they could manipulate the mouth by pulling
In Cape Broyle the hobby horse was never intended to be a violent figure. Even so, the hobby horse got up to its share of mischief. The hobby horse would often enter a house, look for the string which hung from the light in the ceiling and pull the string with its mouth to turn the lights off. When the hobby horse entered a house, small children would often hide from it, but a mummer recalled that "The bigger ones, after a little while they'd get nerve enough to go over close to it and the old horse would keep snapping at them so that they wouldn't get too close to find out really who was underneath the costume. Ah, it created a stir in a house. A lot of people were afraid of it."
On one occasion, the keeper of the hobby horse loaned it to one of the other mummers in his group, who recalled,
"I got a loan of the hobby-horse and I was going up to a fellow's one night. He hadn't seen the hobby-horse before that and I was going to bring it into the house. Anyway, on the way up I was passing by the church and a fellow was standing up by the church. It was dark. There was no lights around at that time only the light over the church door. He was standing by the church door and when I passed by I started to go up to the church. And when I did, this fellow left and went into the church. And I was bold enough. I followed him into the church. And when I got inside he was going over the alter rails. So I decided I was gone far enough with it and I turned and I came back. But the next day I was speaking to the old fellow and he was after finding out who carried a horse and he said, `I have a heart condition and when I saw you coming I didn't know who it was and I really didn't know what it was. If you had come any further I would possibly have died'. He was quite concerned you know. And I thought it was only a joke. I didn't realize that I frightened him that much."
People in communities outside Cape Broyle were wary of the hobby horse and whenever the group went to another community they would often knock at the door, tell the person who answered that they had the hobby horse, that they were from Cape Broyle and that they would like permission to come in. Despite the polite introduction, households were still subject to the mischief of the hobby horse. On one occasion when the Cape Broyle mummers group went to the community of Tors Cove the hobby horse chased a hysterical women up the stairs where she hid under the bed. The other mummers had to come upstairs and bring the hobby horse back down.
The hobby horse hasn't roamed the streets of Cape Broyle in a few years. Perhaps this Christmas I may finally get up the nerve and ask to borrow it—to see what trouble the group of mummers I go out with can get into.