Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
A large crowd of people stand in a carpark in Sidmouth watching the Sidmouth Horse Trials, a parade of hobby horses and home-made beasts that congregate at Sidmouth Folk Festival once a year.

Customs Uncovered: The Sidmouth Horse Trials

A highlight of Sidmouth Folk Festival, the Sidmouth Horse Trials take place on the first Sunday of the festival. Tradfolk Rach investigates.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, I left my hobby horse there, I wonder if it’s dry… 

Sorry, I came over all poetic for a moment there. In reality, no soggy hooves are necessary on the (hopefully) sunny Sunday in August when the Sidmouth Folk Festival’s key event takes place. Others might argue that it’s not really the key event of the festival, but if you asked any of the competitors, I’m sure they’d concur with my assessment of the situation. It’s a real shame that none of them can talk. 

The Sidmouth Horse Trials is a relatively new event in the calendar of Hobby Horse meets but seems to have quickly become a firm favourite with ponies and punters alike. In dark corners of the internet, they talk of this unofficial ‘Hobby Horse of the Year show’ in hushed italics, and preparations are underway for this year’s trials as I type. But what is it, and why? And most importantly, how can I win? 

What’s the deal? 

Run under the auspices of the Hong Kong Jokey Club, the Horse Trials were in fact founded at the home of Ian A. Anderson (of fRoots and The Village Thing fame) sometime shortly after the demise of Bristol’s Weirdlore Festival in 2012. Clearly dissatisfied with the quantity of ‘weird’ available, Ian gathered the International Rescue of the folk/beast worlds – Alex Merry (morris beast creator), Steve Rowley (Hobby Horse expert), Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch (owners of Knobbin, Harry Hill’s equine visitor), and Steve and Carmen Hunt (Cornish-folk nurturers). The group “chucked ’round lots of ideas” and contrived this annual gathering and judging of the kingdom’s beasts.

With Steve acting as Ringmaster and a panel of distinguished judges headed up by former Morris Federation Chair Janet Dowling, there’s no better place to find out if your creature has what it takes to be a champion, or if it should be put out to pasture. 

Huge thanks to both Ian and Steve, who have kindly offered their combined knowledge and wisdom to my investigation. It means I can offer you some of this information… 

…straight from the horse’s mouth… 

A meeting to inaugurate the Sidmouth Horse Trials.
The inaugural meeting of the Jokey Club (photo: Ian Anderson)

The Mane Event 

You’ve heard of the Badminton Horse Trials? And the Burghley Horse Trials? The Sidmouth Horse Trials is no different, except in the myriad ways in which it is far superior. 

Competitors of all beastly natures are welcome to enter the trials, and enter they do, from all over the country. Past beasts have included a host of standard four-legged farm animals, as well as a giraffe, a salmon, a crow, and even a dinosaur, most of whom are attached to a Morris side and used to entertaining the crowds at a dance-out. 

“Hobby horses have been connected with morris dance for a very long time. Historically, processional beasts existed well before morris dancing and were common elements of the religious feast day processions”

Steve Rowley 

So now we know that in the classic puzzle, ‘What came first – the Morris dancer or the horse?’, the hobby horse is a remarkable survivor of traditions that outdate even the beginnings of Morris. If you’re really keen on the ‘istory of ‘obby ‘osses, we published a weighty article on the matter last year. 

How do I enter? 

The club can’t just have any donkey, mule or begging burrow turning up in the ring unannounced, so a form must be procured and adequately completed – quite a challenge for hooves and beaks, one imagines?

Wannabe competitors are asked to divulge a good number of details about themselves, tracing their lineage, where they’re stabled, and any particularly notable moments of past form. 

“I must say that some of these details seem quite fanciful, but we must take them at face value. I have lost count of the number of horses that turn up saying they won the Epsom Derby or the Grand National.”

Steve Rowley

Then it’s just a case of arriving in good time at the Hub, Port Royal (it’s at the Ham end of the Sidmouth Esplanade). Registration is at 12:30pm and the Trials begin an hour later. All the information about entering – should you fancy that this is a field in which you could shine – can be be found on the Sidmouth Horse Trials website.

By the way, it is definitely important to arrive on time. Ian recounts the occasion at the very first year of the Trials when Laurel Swift arrived atop the Morris Offspring unicorn just moments too late for the judging. There’s no squeezing in late, even if you are a unicorn.

How do I win?

You’ll have to compete in the Trials’ events, including the ‘Jump’ (broomstick provided) and the ‘Dressage’, as well as taking on the challenge of Audience Interaction. Most beasts spend their season entertaining a crowd, but each will meet their own challenges when faced with the other tasks. How does a Hooden Horse leap? Is fancy footwork possible if you’re a fish? How does one create a lovable Mari Lwyd?

“They have very distinct characters. The best operators know how to make that character come alive for the audience…[and]… the character of the animal really has to shine through in everything it does”

Steve Rowley

Those outside the judges’ inner sanctum weren’t able to disclose exactly how the events are scored and points distributed. For now, that will have to remain a closely guarded secret.

What do I win?

How does a trophy presented by the founder of Aardman Animations, creator of Morph, morris dancer and long-time Sidmouth Folk Festival visitor, Peter Lord, sound? OK? Great, because that’s what’s on offer.

The Aardman Trophy, designed by Peter Lord of Aardman Animations.
The Aardman Trophy, designed by Peter Lord of Aardman Animations.

That, and the fame and glory of being crowned champion, of course. At the end of the competition, the Aardman Trophy is presented to the beast considered by the judges to have really shone across all of the tests, and probably appealed to their softer sides too. 

“Some winners have been very funny, whilst others have been adorable and connected directly with the audience”

Steve Rowley

Famous Winners

Previous winners prove that there’s no secret formula to the competition. It’s about on-the-day form, charm, and charisma. Could Michael Caine instruct Sandra Bullock in the art of winning Hobby Horse of the Year? Probably. Could you or I have a go and come out victorious in our maiden year? Probably! Maybe the best thing about The Sidmouth Horse Trials is that either of the above scenarios would be most welcome. It truly is an all-comers event. From a clog-dancing pantomime horse to an eight-foot dinosaur, to a traditional skull horse, everyone is welcome to come and have a go.

“There’s something very wonderful about turning into a beast that appeals to small children and old ladies. You become a persona you never knew you had.”

Ian Anderson

Thanks again to Ian and Steve, and if you want to catch the 2023 Horse Trials, head to the bus turning circle at the end of the esplanade in Sidmouth ready for the action to kick of at 1.30pm, Sunday 6th August.