The Flying Horse Carousel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island has been entertaining children since at least 1876, and maybe even earlier. For many of us equestrians, riding on a carousel gave us our first taste of the joy that can be experienced on horseback. Judging by how much my own two children enjoy the experience, it’s a thrill that has withstood the passage of time. The thrill of catching the brass ring (and winning a free ride) certainly has kept my kids riding until they achieved that goal.
Here is a great slide show of the carousel horses.
The Flying Horse Carousel may be the oldest surviving carousel in the U.S. It is also one of the few surviving carousels built by the Charles W.F. Dare Carousel Company (New York), one of the earliest American makers of carousels. When they were made, they cost $25-$35 each, according to illustrated catalogs issued by the Dare Company.
While some people believe the carousel horses should be in a museum, the residents of Watch Hill made the commitment to keep the ride as the centerpiece of downtown Watch Hill. Certainly, I remember visiting the carousel when I was a teen, although I always regretted that I missed the cut-off age of 12 and could only watch.
What is so unusual about this particular carousel is that the horses are not attached to the floor, or on poles. Instead, they are suspended on chains from overhead “sweeps.” As the carousel ride increases in speed, the horses swing farther and farther out, which is why it’s called a “Flying Horse Carousel.”
The horses are smaller than you see on most carousels, and they are slightly more primitive than the elaborate steeds of some more modern rides. Their tails and manes are made of real horsehair, the saddles are genuine leather, and the horses possess their original agate eyes. Each horse is hand-carved from a single piece of wood.
In 1993, the carousel was renovated by woodcarver Gary Anderson of nearby Pawcatuk, Conn., who stripped the horses of nearly 50 layers of paint before reaching bare wood. After filling divots, he repainted and varnished them and replaced cracked leather saddles and horsehair manes shortened by nest-building birds. The stripping revealed the horses were hollow, modeled after early “safety” rocking horses.
The carousel took up residence in Watch Hill in 1879, when a traveling carnival, was forced to abandon its merry-go-round in Watch Hill. The carousel was originally drawn from place to place by a horse, and legend has it that the horse was so faithful to the carousel that when he died his tail was cured and inset into the rump of one of the carousel horses as a permanent memorial. The carousel survived the great hurricane of 1938 that killed more than 50 people and destroyed the homes on Napatree Point. After the storm, the horses had to be dug out of the sand!
Over the years, salt and wind-driven sand took their toll on the carousel. The late Harriet Moore, through the Watch Hill Improvement Society, launched a maintenance program that’s continued to this day.
The word Carousel derives from “carosello”, an old Italian word that means “little war.” This term described an Arabian game that Spanish crusaders witnessed and brought to Italy: skilled horsemen tossed and caught clay balls that were loaded with scented oils. The game found its way to the court of the French king Charles VII and was transformed into an event of pageantry called “Carrousel” that included several additional games, including the medieval sport of ring piercing, played by the Moors. To practice for these events, models of horses were placed on beams that encircled a central pole. The horses were turned by either horse — or servant — power while the riders tried to spear the ring hanging outside the perimeter, starting the tradition of catching the brass ring. These practice machines soon became popular with other members of the court, including ladies and children and the carousel was born.