You may have seen images of the little red tailless horse on signs, clothing, or in IKEA. What’s the origin of this equestrian symbol of Sweden?
Confession: I’m Swedish only by association, working for a farm stand/Swedish specialty shop surrounded by people with names like Peterson and Anderson and Erikson and Nelson. I can only say “tack så mycket!” with a smile and a prayer that no one replies to me in Swedish. But after working at the western New York Scandinavian Folk Festival all weekend surrounded by images (as well as scale life-size models) of the Dalahäst, or Dala horse, I decided I had to get to the bottom of this Swedish tradition and figure out where the little oddly-shaped red horses were coming from.
The original Dala horses have been around for centuries, first as wooden toys for children, carved out of leftover lumber by woodcutters during Sweden’s long, cold winters. Some sources claim that the carvings were supposed to represent the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipner, but since no Dala horse has ever been found with eight legs this claim seems tenuous at best. Horses, however, were sacred to Viking religion and viewed as being symbolic of the gods. In more sundry forms, the use of horses revolutionized industry and daily life (as in many cultures.) Horses were of great use to woodcutters to haul logs from the forest, as well as plow the earth for farms and pull carts to town. Children in particular reveled in the strength and power of the horse, so it was natural for their likeness to be captured in a wooden toy. While the oddly thick neck and lack of tail might look disproportionate, the North Swedish draft also bears a thick neck, “dumpy” head and often a docked tail for farm use–it’s easy to see the likeness.
These early carvings were likely unpainted, remaining simply the natural woodgrain. In the early 1700s, however, wars raged across Europe and many Swedish soldiers were quartered for the winter in homes across the countryside. Legend states that a soldier carved a wooden horse with intentions of trading it for a meal–but before trading the toy away, he painted it bright red. Word of the soldier’s red wooden horses began to spread and soon nearly every Dala horse was red (and occasionally blue or black, depending on the region.) In the 1830s Swedish artist Stikå Erik Hansson rose to fame for his two-color painted harness he was adding to red wooden horses. Called the kurbits style, this particular decoration became standard, though one might notice subtle differences from artist to artist. The painted and harnessed horse began to be viewed as a national symbol, and thanks to a mid-19th-century World Fair in Paris, the wooden horse gained international symbol status as well.
True Dala horses are always produced and painted by hand, which is why tourists in Sweden (and in many Scandinavian communities in the United States) may find them to be very expensive. Cheaper knock-offs are available (as with many handmade crafts) but a true handmade Dalahäst will usually carry a stamp or seal from its maker. Dala horses are now a traditional gift from the Swedish prime minister to other heads of state, and the image of the Dala horse is reproduced on everything from dishcloths to T-shirts to enormous outdoor sculptures and more. Nothing else is so instantly evocative of a long history of craftsmanship and an entire Scandinavian culture.
MORE PLEASE! If you liked this post, check out…