Duplicated from an original feature article in the Yorkshire Post Magazine on Saturday 5th December 2020. Interview by Catherine Scott & photos by Simon Hulme.
Steven Bulcock is hard at work surrounded by rocking horses in his Hebden Bridge workshop getting orders ready for Christmas delivery.
Steve has been making rocking horses for more than 35 years, first on a narrowboat he also made himself, then at a workshop in Gloucestershire before settling in Yorkshire.
He started out as a mechanical engineer but then decided to build narrowboats which he did for 22 years. “I had no idea how to make a boat, but I used to go and watch one of the surviving narrowboat builders in Birmingham. I learnt by observation.
“Then a friend said they were going to buy their first child a rocking horse and I said I’d make him one. And that was it. We would travel around on a narrowboat that I had built and which we turned into a workshop and travelled around the country.”
It was Steve’s grandfather that instilled in him a love of wood.
“I can’t remember how old I was when I first walked inside my grandfather’s workshop, but I can remember being captivated by the sights, smells and the skills passed down to his only workman.
“He looked older still than my grandad and seemed to possess a world of knowledge about what could be done with a piece of wood.”
Steve says he became fascinated by carving horses heads. “It takes me about two hours now to carve a rocking horse’s head.”
He started out selling his rocking horses at trade and gift shows and then began advertising in glossy magazines.
“We used to sell all over the world, but then the cheap Chinese mass-produced reproductions came in and the international market dried up. We do still ship all over the country but what I really like to do is deliver it myself. We also encourage people to come and see their rocking horse being made. It’s all part of the experience and you don’t get that shopping on the internet.
“Every single one of our rocking horses is different because they are hand-carved. Some people who ask for a repeat order complain it’s not the same as the one they previously ordered, well it wouldn’t be. They aren’t made in a mould or by a machine, they are all carved by me.”
But there is still a demand for handcrafted rocking horses which are a real investment, with prices starting from around £2,000 and going up to £8,000.
“I think the fascination with rocking horses comes from our interest in living horses,” he says. “The Victorians made rocking horses as toys for their children because when they grew up their mode of transport would be riding real horses. Now we give children toy cars as they are going to end up driving a car.”
As well as a range of prices, the rocking horses come in four different sizes, designs and colours.
A swing rocker stand is standard on most models, but a bow rocker stand is also available at an extra cost.
The mane and tail are made from real horsehair and available in four colours – black, mixed brown, mixed grey, or blonde.
The saddle and bridle are authentically styled and hand-stitched in high-quality leather and available in three colour choices – black, brown, or tan.
With a ‘fixed’ saddle being standard on most models, a removable non-slip saddle is often available, at an extra cost. Other customisations include the horse blanket. As well as a choice of colours there is also an option to add an embroidered family crest or a motif.
They can come in unpainted natural wood, or painted – the most popular of which is the dappled grey rocking horse, although Steve is happy to paint them in pretty much any colour the customer would like.
As the times change so, it seems, does our taste in rocking horses with the more outlandish unicorn and zebra proving popular.
But Steve’s pièce de résistance is his amazing winged Pegasus which, with a price tag for the largest coming in at around £8,000, is a true investment and something that can be handed down to future generations.
“We don’t sell that many,” admits Steve. “They do take up a lot of space, but I love making unusual things and I make them because they are fun. The largest one is strong enough and big enough to take an adult.”
All horses can include a secret compartment at an extra £150 cost. Access is invisible and located in a hinged lockable trap door in the belly of the horse.
Not all the rocking horses in Steve’s workshop are new. Many are old rocking horses and some are antiques, valuable heirlooms from the past creating their own piece of history. Most with a story to tell.
“Not many people realise that rocking horses are hollow and so when, after about ten years of children pulling on them, the tails fall out you can see inside and they are often full of hidden treasures,” explains Steve.
“We had one that had a Victorian bone toothbrush, lead soldiers, old pegs and marbles. One had a letter dated from 1906 with a Liverpool address and from there I could work out who probably made it – there is really quite a bit of detective work.”
Among the antique rocking horses, Steve has on sale is a classic from the last century which has had something of a 21st-century makeover.
The rainbow zebra has been meticulously hand-painted with unstinting attention to facial details. Real horsehair was used and dyed to blend in with the stripes.
Steve also offers restoration and renovation services, as being toys, rocking horses are sometimes in need of a little repair after years of use.
Over the years he has restored all manner of rocking horses, some you would think were beyond repair. “I had one lady come into the workshop with her father and a fertiliser sack full of bits that had once been a rocking horse. But all the bits were there and so I was able to glue it back together – the lady couldn’t believe it when I gave her back a complete rocking horse.”
Another old horse had been left neglected on the back doorstep of a house for decades.
“The rain had washed every bit of glue away and yet the horse clung onto an inner life hoping one day someone would come along and mend all his broken parts so that he could be restored to his true spirit and ride again for a new generation of children. And yes, he got restored and looked fantastic.”
Sometimes a horse will have a loose-fitting or broken leg and so a new leg might be made or the original one re-glued.
In some cases, the remaining paintwork may be in such good condition that conserving the original dappling might be advised.
More commonly a rocking horse is in a pretty poor state, broken legs, a missing jaw, loose neck, no mane or tail and the saddle non-existent – but nothing is too difficult for Steve to fix.
And he does get fond of his creations, although not as fond as his daughter used to – when she was little she would get upset when they had to deliver one of her dad’s rocking horses.
Steve says there is never a horse that is too far gone that it can’t be saved. “They are all worthy of restoration and you might well be surprised how valuable old rocking horses are.”