If you’re familiar with Sweden at all, you’ve likely seen the Dalecarlian or Dala horse before. It’s one of the most popular images of Swedish folk art, often carved from wood or appearing in prints and patterns. Unfortunately, however, no one can say for sure what the original meaning or story behind the horses is.
Swedish woodcarvers have produced wooden horses for centuries, typically as toys for children. References to wooden horses for sale date back to the 17th century. These early horses typically weren’t painted like the more modern Dala horses. Painting the horses a solid color became common in the 19th century, with further painted decorations coming later.
There is one popular tale about the origin of the Swedish Dala horse, although it cannot be verified. The story goes that in the winter of 1716, while King Charles XII waged war, soldiers were quartered in many private homes. However, food was scarce for all. One soldier carved a horse, painted it, and presented it to the child in the home he was staying. In return for the toy, the child’s mother gave the soldier a bowl of soup. They repeated this exchange, and soon, other soldiers began craving horses to barter for food. Thus, the Dala horse is said to have helped the Swedish army survive the long winter.