I am curious about the origin of the expression of a "riding" a "hobby horse" (or "stick horse", as it is in Danish — we have the exact same expression) as an idiom for a 'pet topic' or 'fixed idea'.

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I've only found traceback of the word "hobby" to a horse breed widespread in the 15th century, but have not been able to find anything about the origin of the idiomatic expression as such.

A mere guess on my part, possibly far-fetched, is that it might have derived from the hear-say of witches supposedly riding broomsticks (broomsticks have all times undoubtedly served as stick-horses). Possibly during 1700s - J.Swift's Meditation Upon a Broomstick (1701) parodying R.Boyle's contemporary arguments of any given thing reflecting God's relation to man or his soul - which were very popular (one might say a hobby horse) in the household where he presented it.

Also during the 1700s emerged depictions of witches riding their brooms "the wrong way" (ie. like a stick-horse). Similarly F.Goya's "Linda Maestra!" (#68) from his collection Los caprichos (1799) of which many of the pictures may be seen as quite satirical, drawing on metaphoric or idiomatic symbolism. In the same collection broomsticks also appear in (#20) "Ya van desplumados", in which one woman use her broomstick (her "stick-horse"?) to sweep out little men appearing as chickens while another woman, by the way she is holding hers, rather appear to be using it to beat them up.

Is it possible that during the 1700s - possibly facilitated by Swift's 'broomstick meditation' - the "broomstick" might have emerged as an idiomatic expression and a forerunner to the present-day "stick-horse" or "hobby-horse"?

Or does anyone know more specifically documented about the actual origin of this expression?

  • 3
    I always thought "hobby horse" meant the same thing as "rocking horse" (as in the toys pictured here: toysrus.com/products/rocking-horses.jsp), and there wasn't much more to the metaphor than that the literal and metaphorical meanings both involve doing something enjoyable for oneself, but repetitive and useless for others. Apr 4, 2017 at 15:34
  • Dictionary.com has the following: "hobby \ Idioms \ 4. \ ride a hobby, to concern oneself excessively with a favorite notion or activity. \ Also, ride a hobbyhorse." (dictionary.com/browse/ride-a-hobby-horse) - Phrasefinder: "Hobby-horse \ A favourite topic that one frequently refers to or dwells on; a fixation." (phrases.org.uk/meanings/hobby-horse.html) - The latter one is more in style with the expression as I know it - though I get the impression the expression possibly might not be as widespread in english?
    – RP Nielsen
    Apr 4, 2017 at 16:03
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    I think a hobby-horse in the literal sense was not a rocking-horse but a stick with a carved horse's head at one end and small wheels at the other. The child ran with it between their legs, pretending to ride. I've only seen them in old pictures and I think the expression is also old-fashioned. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hobby gives the derivation. I'm not aware of any association with witches' broomsticks. Apr 4, 2017 at 16:20
  • Oh, I see from the link provided by Connor Harris that they are still available. Apr 4, 2017 at 16:27
  • For context of the actual toy this might be helpful: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_horse_(toy) - Essentially it's just a stick with some kind of horse's head attached to it (tho a broom stick could as well be used) - Some might have wheels, or a mane, or reins or handles to hold.. or they might not.. Most essentially it's just a stick.. - The wikipedia article also mention the expression further down in the "Other meanings" section.
    – RP Nielsen
    Apr 4, 2017 at 16:35

2 Answers 2


From the Oxford Dictionary of Words Origins :

Hobby (LME) in medieval times men and boys given the name Robin were sometimes known as Hobin or Hobby, in much the same way that today they might be called Bob or Bobby.

This became a pet name for a pony, just as Dobbin, also from Robin, was used a carthorse.

This gave us the Hobby horse [M16th], a figure of a horse made of wickerwork and worn over the head in a Morris dance of pantomime.

Later it became a stick with a horse's head for a child to ride when playing. The connection with pleasure or play led to the use of hobby horse for what we now call a hobby.

Since the early 19th century hobby has taken over this sense and hobby horse now usually means "a preoccupation or favourite topic".

Idiomatic expressions with hobby-horse:


A subject, topic, or issue about which one frequently or incessantly talks, expounds, or complains. Ah, here we go again. Once grandpa gets on his hobby-horse about the government, there's no stopping him!

get on (one's) hobby-horse:

To frequently or incessantly talk or complain about a subject, topic, or issue in which one is excessively interested. Ah, here we go again. Once grandpa gets on his hobby-horse about the government, there's no stopping him!

ride (one's) hobby-horse:

To frequently or incessantly talk or complain about a subject, topic, or issue in which one is excessively interested. Ah, here we go again. Once grandpa starts riding his hobby-horse about the government, there's no stopping him!

on your hobbyhorse:

if someone is on their hobbyhorse, they are talking about a subject which they think is interesting and important, and which they talk about at any time that they can, even if other people are not interested. Don't mention tax, or Bernard'll get on his hobbyhorse again.

(The Free Dictionary)

From History of Rocking Horses:

The history of rocking horses can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when a popular children’s toy was the hobby horse – a fake horse’s head attached to a long stick. Children would place the stick between their legs and “ride” the horse around. These toys can still be found today.

The hobby horse was replaced in the 16th century by the barrel horse, which consisted of a circular log supported by four legs and adorned with a fake horse head. Crude in nature, this toy mimicked the back of a horse better than a hobby horse.

The rocking horse in its current form is widely believed to have first appeared in the early 17th century. It was around this time that bow rockers were invented, introducing rocking to the world of toy horses. There were, however, improvements to be made to the first rocking horses. Being made from solid wood, they were heavy and their centre of gravity was high, so they could easily topple over.

  • Thank you Josh. I believe that already the first paragraph of your post answer my question as far as a definitive 'official' consensus goes. My only quarrel would be that I believe that in spite of what Oxford says it's fair to assume that kids have propably been riding on long sticks, pretending they were horses, for as long as humans have practiced horseback riding.
    – RP Nielsen
    Apr 4, 2017 at 19:45
  • @RPNielsen - I agree, only that that the stick was called hobby horse only from the Middle Ages in Ireland/England. I added a set of different usages of hobby horse for the sake of completeness.
    – user66974
    Apr 4, 2017 at 19:49

My guess is...

Come down off your hobby horse!
...was originally simply a quaint/jocular variation on...
Get off your high horse!

...where as dictionary.com says, on one's high horse means behaving arrogantly and pompously. They also say the high version dates from the late 1700s, whereas the first relevant written instance of the hobby version I could find was after 1900.

By switching the metaphoric allusion from majestic steeds (such as might be ridden by people of high social rank) to toy horses (children's playthings), the speaker simultaneously belittles both the person they're dismissing and the position that person is promoting.

Of course, as time goes by the two expressions have diverged significantly. You'd never come across, for example, That's a favourite high horse of his, but there are many hundreds of written instances of metaphoric favourite hobby horse.

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    Well your guess is as good as mine. And it certainly sound like a plausible explanation. One that I hadn't considered, so thanks for sharing it.
    – RP Nielsen
    Apr 4, 2017 at 17:29
  • The literal sense (a child's toy, and as used by Morris dancers & such) for hobby horse goes back at least to Shakespeare, and it was quickly taken up with the metaphorical favourite pursuit or pastime sense. But everything I could find suggests that the fixation, obsessively-promoted idea sense is much more recent. You might find this reference interesting though. Apr 4, 2017 at 17:47
  • Interesting indeed, though I notice that with particular respect to "Its current sense of an obsessional interest" Morris don't give any reference to any sources, so when he say it "would appear to be a development from the other Standard English meaning of hobby" I have to assume that he's merely expressing an assumption. - I don't know what else you found, indicating anything about when the other sense, of a fixation or obsessively promoted idea, emerged. - But just to make the note of it: I believe more in your guess than in the one I came up with initially.
    – RP Nielsen
    Apr 4, 2017 at 19:42
  • Just to muddy the waters, I wish to point out that if you're headed to Banbury Cross, you are supposed to ride a cockhorse, which is either a rocking horse or a hobby horse, though I don't know which.
    – Airymouse
    Apr 4, 2017 at 21:03

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