In Medieval Europe fully caparisoned warhorses were equipped with skirts. The skirted hobby horse is to be found in many carnival traditions. Hobby-horse dances exist from India to Poland to England and beyond. In Iran there is the bazi-e asb-e čubi dance of men “riding” on a wooden (or papier-mâché) horse which hangs from ties over the shoulders. The horse’s blanket forms a skirt that conceals the legs of the rider. A tradition, possibly of Mogul origin, can be found in the Punjab area of Pakistan where dancing drummers (with bells around their ankles) also wear a skirted horse’s body. A surprisingly similar figure can be found in the English painter William Hogarth’s picture of Southwark Fair (1730), where, on the parade space of what is probably a puppet theatre we see a live Harlequin and a Punch, the latter wearing a skirted horse (see Fairs and Fairground Performers). A hundred years later George Cruikshank depicted Piccini’s puppet Punch inserted into a similar skirted hobby horse.
Often the “horse” consists of a robe-like garment (the underskirt) hung from the shoulders of the performer by straps and tightened around the waist. It hides his legs. The head of the horse is placed in front, and its tail at the back of the underskirt. Fake legs are sometimes placed on the body of the horse. The skirted hobby horse gives the curious and amusing impression of a double character, both a mount and a rider. It is close to the children’s toy hobby horse which consists simply of a stick that ends in a horse’s head that is straddled by children for make-believe tournaments and races.
The zamalzaïn, the traditional skirted hobby horse of the Basque country, dances and cuts capers during fairs. A statuette made of baked mud, about 12 centimetres long, is proof of the presence of the skirted hobby horse during festivals in the north-east of Brazil, where the burrinha is its incarnation in puppet form (animated by rods-and-glove). A variation, seen during one of the carnivals of Rio de Janeiro, consists of “skirted geese”. Around twenty dancers improvise to the “sambadrome” on a choreography based on group movement. Each dancer holds around their waist the body of the goose, to which the neck and head is attached and protrudes at least a metre in front of the dancer and is level with the eyes of the manipulator. The latter carries wings that he beats. He is dressed in a cape attached to his neck that falls down his back. He wears tights and high-heeled shoes. The costumes of the geese and their manipulators are made with white feathers that create a mobile, aerial ensemble. The dancer’s make-up is white and, just like a goose’s head, is underlined by a black triangle.
A ballet of skirted hobby horses also makes up the apotheosis of the large tribal festival of Bumba meu boi (humped cow) that takes place on June 27, 28 and 29, each year, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, in Parintins. At least a score of skirted hobby horses in shimmering costumes execute dances to frenzied rhythms in perfect synchronization with very elaborate choreography.
Another variation is offered by the English cabaret performer Vince Bruce, a virtuoso with the lasso, with his comic number on a “horse-monocycle”. He disguises the monocycle by putting the head and tail of a horse on it, and he sits astride this mount swinging his lasso, which he uses as a skipping rope.
In various parts of Africa, most notably with the Bamana people of Mali, for initiation, fertility and other traditional ceremonies, masks are worn on top of the head and animated by a dancer whose face and body are covered by a long skirt. Animal masks, especially the antelope, are popular. Most spectacular, however, are the antelope stages of the Bamana people. These are held at head height, with an antelope’s head at one end, whilst puppeteers are concealed by a long skirt of grasses or fibre. Puppets appear above this skirt, but at the same time the Antelope stage, when it is not placed on a pirogue, can move freely around as a strange sort of animal.