Building a Rocking Horse called "Big Red"

Marty Altman, July 2, 2011

The images below were snapped at various points during the creation of a rocking horse for a very special little person, who is rapidly approaching a second birthday. We wanted to make something special, and this is what we came up with.

The general idea was to create an original design for that venerable source of much enjoyment--the rocking horse. The design needed to balance several factors, including: sufficient mechanical aspects incorporated into the design so as to reduce the chances for an active child to get hurt, enough structural integrity so as to be (for all practical purposes) unbreakable for an active and growing child to enjoy for years to come, and ultimately a design that is pleasing from an aesthetic perspective.

Solid oak was chosen for it's beauty, strength, and availability. The design stylized the proportions of the horse, in particular: shortening the legs so the overall height better fit a small child, thickening the legs so the overall strength remained high, and pushing some of the curves. The exaggeration stopped short of full caricature, though, since the desire was for the horse to portray some sense of strength and confidence (even slightly majestic), while maintaining a relatively neutral pose that helped make the mechanical and structural issues a bit more manageable.

To reduce the chances of tipping over front-to-back, the bottom curve of the rockers isn't circular. It's actually closer to hyperbolic, that is, close to circular in the middle (near the resting point of contact with the floor), and close to linear near the ends. This makes it relatively easy to get the rocking motion started and keep small to moderate rocking motions going, while making it increasingly difficult to rock out near the ends. It's a given that a small child won't think about, let alone actually be able to rock the horse wildly at the extremes. However, small children have a knack for growing into bigger kids and can play quite rough at times, especially if they turn out to be a "sacrifice-the-body" sort of kid...

The legs were posed outward front-to-back (front legs forward, and rear legs backward) to help the neutral pose feel more active, and for increased strength and stability. In addition, the legs were posed outward roughly 15 degrees side-to-side (left legs toward the left, and right legs toward the right) to widen the base, and help prevent tipping over side-to-side. I did use power tools for the cuts, but I don't have a sophisticated, professional setup. In essence these angles were pretty much cut by hand, and that made the task quite challenging. Luckily, the cuts were close enough that they pulled together pretty well when it was all glued up. Only small amounts of wood filler were needed to smooth out the joints.

There are no visible fasteners. Oak dowels were used in holes predrilled from the joint side, so they can't be seen. There is one screw in the piece, which was used on the main handle for additional strength as described with the photos. Otherwise, the piece is solid oak. A dark reddish color stain was chosen, in honor of "Big Red" from the film Secretariat, which was shot largely in and around Lafayette last year (a good bunch of folks, and a film definitely worth seeing).

We certainly enjoyed making "Big Red", and hope little folks enjoy riding and exercising their imaginations for years to come.

© 2011 Marty Altman

Last updated: August 8, 2011