If you’ve ever travelled to Sweden, there’s a great chance you have encountered the symbol of the Dala horse- (sometimes known as a Dalecarlian horse or Dalarna horse). Many of us have seen this painted red wooden horse, unaware that it is one of the most famous examples of Scandinavian, and specifically Swedish folk art.
The name “Dala horse” (Dalahäst) is partly an abbreviation or nickname derived from the word “Dalecarlian,” referring to the language spoken in the Swedish province of Dalarna, the place where these red carved horses originated back as early as the sixteenth century.
Dalecarlian horses began as unpainted wooden toys whittled and carved cheaply with a knife for children to play with, red Dala horses painted with the now distinctive decorative white and green ornamentation were presented as examples of traditional Swedish folk art at the World’s Expo in Paris (1937) and World’s Fair in New York (1939).
Traditionally Dala horses were generally left unpainted or painted solid red, but in the 1830s Swedish artist Stikå Erik Hansson became known for painting his own unique Dala horses with a two-color simplified form of kurbits decoration. Hansson’s Dala horse pattern has since become the tradition for Dala horse making in Sweden.
Tourists may be surprised at the expensive price of these little red wooden horses, but these handmade souvenirs are hand carved from pine wood and painted in the traditional kurbits style by at least nine trained craftsman in Dalarna workshops. Real Dalecarlian horses are stamped with a certification of authenticity, so don’t be fooled and buy the cheap knock-offs sold in some souvenir shops.
Dala horses now come in a variety of sizes and colors–not just red–and also animals, with roosters and pigs also popular versions and alternatives to the traditional Dalarna horse.
The original meaning behind the carved Swedish Dala horses may be unknown, but today the red painted wooden Dalecarlian horse is essentially a symbol of the country of Sweden itself.
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