The History of the Dala Horse

by Joyce Englund

The original Dala Horse (Dalahäst) has been around for many centuries, and probably was created by Swedish woodcutters in the province of Dalarna near Mora. During the long winters, these lonely men would spend their evenings away from their families, and passed their time by carving little toys for their children. While these carved wooden toys, made from the scraps of the men's occupation, were mostly horses, some were also roosters or pigs. However, the most enduring of these little creatures remains the Dala Horse.

The bright, happy little animal as we now know the Dala Horse probably originated in the 1700's. The carving of the stocky little tailless horses had become a well-established tradition, but up until this time they had been unpainted and had just the natural grain of the wood for ornamentation.

In the winter of 1716, while King Charles XII of Sweden waged war throughout most of Europe, many soldiers were quartered in private homes in the Mora area of Sweden. Because of the severe winter and the war, all suffered from lack of food and warmth. Tradition has it that one such soldier, in his spare time, carved a Dala Horse from some scrap wood in the home where he was staying. Before presenting it to the child of the home as a gift, he painted it a bright red. This was a readily available color in this area, being produced from the copper mine at the nearby community of Falun.

He decorated the horse with kurbit painting for the harness and saddle. The use of kurbits as decorative motifs on the horse came from the soldier's deep religious background. It is the kurbit, or gourd, plant which grew up around Jonah as he sat outside the city of Ninevah, and protected him from the sun's devastating rays.

In return for this bright toy, the woman of the house gave the soldier a bowl of soup. He made another horse and received another bowl of soup. When word o his success in bartering for food reached the other soldiers, they too began carving and painting horses in exchange for food. Thus the Dala Horse is credited in part with the army's surviving the cruel winter.

Dala Horses traditionally were made during the long fall and winter evening hours when the weather prevented any outdoor work from being done. Although they are a natural outgrowth of the clock and furniture making industries common in the Dalarna Province, the Dala Horse has evolved into a symbol of all Swedish handicrafts. The traditional color of Dala Horses is a bright orange-red, but they are also to be found in natural wood, or painted white, blue, or black, all with brightly colored painted kurbit-type trim.

The village of Nusnäs, in Dalarna, is considered by some to be the home of the only authentic Swedish Dala Horses. Over 250,000 Dala Horses are produced there every year.

There is quite a bit of work required in the production of these decorative little toys. Most are made of pine, which is dried for three to four weeks after the initial carving. This prevents the horses from splitting after they are painted. The design is first drawn on the wood and sawed by machine. Then they are given to the carvers, who finish them using their own individual techniques. Each carver will normally choose horses of the size that is most comfortable to him to decorate, which means that the horses are available in many varying sizes. No two horses are ever truly identical.

Dala Horse SignIn Lindsborg, the Dala Horse is to be seen in many different places - the City's letterhead, on City trucks, on storefronts, as decorative additions to many homes, and probably most commonly as bright welcoming emblems on local residences. Often the name of those living in the house is painted on the side of the horse, sometimes the street number of the house, and often a Swedish greeting (either "Välkommen" or "Kom Igen") as well.

Visitors to our community will be welcomed at the outskirts of town, and along nearby highways, by signs featuring the Dala Horse insignia.

Over the years increasing numbers of local craftsmen have learned to make these gaily colored horses. Thousands of Dala Horses are now produced annually in Lindsborg.

To visitors and old-timers alike, please look on our friendly, snub-nosed little horse as a token of our goodwill and a symbol of Swedish frugality and dexterity. It seems that the little scraps of wood left over from furniture and clock making have truly gained a rightful place in the annals of ethnic handicrafts.