The wooden Dala horse, Dalecarlian horse or Dalahäst is a common sight during the festive season. These beautiful wooden horses originated in the Swedish province of Dalarna, with the earliest written references to figures of wooden horses dating back to the around the 17th century. Today they can be spotted on candles, biscuit tins, hanging from the branches of Christmas trees and also seen on textiles produced by companies seeking to market a ‘Scandi’ aesthetic to consumers. What began as a form of folk art specific to one region has now become so famous that the Dala horse is widely regarded as an unofficial symbol of Sweden. During the World Exhibition in New York in 1939, a large Dala horse was displayed at the Swedish pavilion, which perhaps encouraged the use of this form of folk art as a symbol of not just the region it originated from but also the country as a whole more generally to the rest of the world.
Dala horses are traditionally made from pine wood, utilising the resources of the local landscape. Originally simple, unpainted toys they eventually became more colourful over time and a style of folk painting was used to decorate the horses.
But why carve a horse? The horses were once carved during long winter evenings by men who were involved in forestry work, with the horse being an especially important working animal to that industry. Horses are still used in forestry work in many countries today, with rare and heavy horse breeds such as the huge but docile Shire horse (one of my favourite breeds since I was a child!) being utilised as working horses in forestry closer to home in Britain. In the past they were also, of course, an important mode of transport and a means to move heavy goods via carts, in addition to the role of some breeds in agriculture.
The original Dala horses would have been given to children at first but eventually travelling pedlars began to carry the horses as part of their wares, thus spreading them throughout Sweden. The wooden horses also became another source of income for poorer families in Dalarna. Today authentic Dala horses are made year round by a select few companies, which still produce their horses using skilled workers who adhere to largely traditional methods. The rough shape of the horses is first cut from pine blocks using a band saw, after that everything is done by hand; craftsmen will finish carving the shape of the horse by hand, the horses are then dipped in the base colour of paint and lacquered before the decorative patterns are added by a kurbits painter, who uses two colours of paint on one brush to create the signature motifs on the saddle and bridle.
Falu or falun red is one of the traditional base colours for Dala horses. The colour originates from iron and copper mining in Falun, which also happens to lie within the county of Dalarna. This is yet another example of the materials used to make the Dala horse being provided by the local landscape. It’s also not uncommon to find vintage Dala horses in a dark blue colour but red is perhaps the most common. Today Dala horses can even be found in baby blues and pinks! Although they may have the same base colour, as the details on each figure are hand painted, no two Dala horses are exactly alike.
As the Dala horse was created in Dalarna, it is only fitting that the world’s largest Dala horse can be found there. The Dalaicon stands proud at 13 metres high and 12.8 metres long. This horse, however, is not wooden. It is made of concrete.
Closer to home, if you’re interested in large horses and are local to the Manchester area; I’d recommend hopping on a train to Knutsford and walking into Tatton Park (or driving straight to Tatton Park if you can drive). The farm at Tatton Park is home to some rare breeds of various animals, including one beautiful Clydesdale and three lovely Shires- why not see them for yourself? The farm is also home to two friendly reindeer- and yes; they do take part in festive events!
Now, after horsing around a little and in the spirit of festive fun, we’d like to present you with a free downloadable colouring sheet which you can use to colour in your very own Whitworth Dala horse. Can you spot any nods to Sir Joseph Whitworth’s inventions? Unfortunately we’re not quite as precise as he was, so please forgive the wonky text. Click the link below to download the colouring sheet.
Stay tuned for more festive treats and insights from #WhitworthAdvent!
Moneca Hanefors and Tom Selwyn, ‘Dalecarlian Masques: One Souvenir’s Many Voices’ in Michael Hitchcock and Ken Teague (eds.), Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism, (New York, 2019).
Peter Fredman, Stefan Gösling and Johan Hultman, ‘Sweden: Where Holidays Come Naturally,’, in Stefan Gösling and Johan Hultman (ed.s), Ecotourism in Scandinavia (Washington, 2006), pp. 23-37.
David Scott and Albina Pashkevich, ‘Dalarna, Sweden: Conflicted Touristic Representations of a Place Geographies: Case Studies from Developed Nations on the Exotic, the Fringe and the Boring Bits in Between (Washington, 2019), pp. 63-82.
Victoria Williams, Celebrating Life Customs: From Baby Showers to Funerals, Volume 1: Birth and Childhood (Washington, 2017).
Edwin M. Woods, Between Latitudes (New York, 2011).