Medieval image (15th century) of chlidren riding stick horses in the margin of a document.

Make a (mostly) medieval stick horse – a youth activity

Hobby horse with yellow head, red ears, and leather bridle, held by a child.
Horse made period-plausible, entered at Ice Dragon (2018).

At Summer War Practice I tested a new make-and-take youth activity for our younger attendees: making a medieval stick (or hobby) horse.

I based the activity on a pattern I found online, and then proceeded to make it in as period a fashion as possible. This turned out to be fairly easy using period fabric (linen or wool), wool yarn for the mane, washed raw wool for stuffing, sewn leather bridle, a whole lot of hand sewing, and oil paint for the eyes.

For youth aged 12 and under, this project needed modification. It took an experienced adult about four hours total to create a horse from scratch; far too long a project for impatient and inexperienced kids. Experimentation with our group’s youth showed that sewing on the ears and the mane would be about the right amount of finger work for this age group.

It’s very tempting to dive into the modern print cotton fabric scraps, and no doubt the color splash and fancy patterns would have resonated with the children. However, I wanted our participants to gallop out of the youth tent with a medieval-looking toy they could proudly carry to Pennsic. A shout-out for scrap linen resulted in plenty of donations for period materials, with a fine variety of color, and no one complained about the variety.

I’ve documented the steps for an event-friendly version of the project here (PDF). The preparation time is fairly intensive, but well worth the effort. A few things are worth highlighting about the activity overall.

Prep time considerations (per head, roughly 1 hour):

  • Cutting fabric and sewing heads together (the kids loved the parti-colored options): approximately 30 minutes;
  • Cutting fabric, sewing and pressing the ears (use a wide variety of colors – our kids didn’t always match ear colors to the horse head colors): 20-30 minutes (less if you recruit your older child to help turn and press!);
  • Gluing the yarn manes to strips of felt, so that the kids could choose and sew manes: 10 minutes

Did I mention the prep time was intensive? On the up side, it’s very easy to recruit willing hands each step, or to do bits and pieces as time allows.

Prep time that I don’t have metrics for: the bridle and reins.

  • I wanted to offer bridles and reins for the kids. Two reasons that I didn’t: I ran out of time, and the reins were useless for the follow-on jousting activities. The period recreation above shows scrap leather sewn into easy reins; I was considering finger-loop braiding your reins as an add-on activity, or tablet/loom weaving them.

Event day considerations:

Adding some bling to the horse
Photo: Matteo Keary
  • Have sewing needles of varying sizes; some kids need longer needles;
  • I chose push-on eyes (10mm and larger) for the horses. To be more period, they should be embroidered or painted on with oil paints. I am not brave enough to offer oil paints to under-10s, and acrylic paints could have run with the follow-on jousting activities involving water.
  • Recruit at least two additional adults to help with logistics — not just sewing, but helping kids move from step to step, make decisions, and organize their work flow. Without my older kid and adult helpers, it could have easily descended into chaos;
  • I was able to coax teens into making their own horses, and they seemed to enjoy it once they got started;
  • Some kids are determined to sew themselves, others bail after a stitch or two, leaving the finish to their parents. But every child selected the flavor of their horses.
  • We completed 13 horses, which required just under 2 pillows worth of stuffing.
  • I offered jingle bells, which kids could tie into the manes. This went over very well, and at an outdoor event weren’t irritatingly noisy.
  • It’s tempting for kids to turn the horses into stick fighting; nip that in the bud.
  • If the kids are too aggressive with their horses, the heads will come off. They go back on easily, with admonishments to be careful. (We thought about stapling the head to the stick, but felt that it would only end up with ripped fabric and de-headed horses.)
  • In the future, I want to offer something to occupy the adults who end up only there to satisfy SCA rules, while their kids sew. A spinning circle congregated at the periphery of the youth tent this time around, and it was great for all. It kept adults engaged, exposed the kids to a fiber art, and made the youth tent adults feel like they were integrated into the event.

Approximate materials cost per horse: $5

While this activity could be an end of itself, I took it a step further, and the kids jousted with their stick horses. Read on for the jousting activities!

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