History of the Carousel

By Erik Brown

How many times have you passed by one of these simple child’s rides? They’re almost universally present wherever you find a collection place of kids. The colorful horses, the simple carnival music, and the sounds of laughing are something I’m sure you’ve been exposed to. No matter how old you are, I’m sure you’ve ridden one of these amusement rides at some point in your life.

There’s something so innocent about the carousel.

I’m sure even looking at the picture in the beginning of this story has brought back some memories. For the vast majority of you, the memories will be pleasant. What could be dangerous about a carousel? Everything about the machine screams that it’s harmless and kind. From the slow moving horses, to the bright childlike colors, it brings you to a simple sort of calm. A calm of a peaceful world where all is good and well.

However, the carousel isn’t completely innocent in its nature. It comes from a bit of a dark past. It’s based off of a training tool for a hybrid man-horse killing machine called cavalry.

Early History Of The Carousel

The first recorded mention of a carousel came in the 1100’s during the times of the Crusades. Christian knights witnessed Arabic horseman playing a type of game. The horseman would ride in a circle and toss a clay ball filled with a pungent perfume back in forth between riders. The game required skill, being able to use a free hand to catch and using the other to maintain the horse. The Italians and Spanish knights who saw this game called it Carosella or “little war.”

Despite taking the form of the game, the Christian knights noted how seriously the Arab riders took the contest. As a form of training it would be excellent, being able to use a free hand nimbly while riding. A cavalry soldier would need this free hand to swing a sword or hold some type of lance.

A modern reader could also see that over the centuries men don’t change much. Not only would these men train, they would find a way to torture one of their friends at the same time. The poor guy who misses the ball and gets doused with perfume probably got was teased all day long. This is probably another reason the men took this game so seriously. The Western Crusaders noted the utility of this game and brought it back home with them.

The French called it Carousel and it became an equestrian competition and a training tool for mounted soldiers. In one of the competitions, the riders would attempt to spear rings that hung from trees with a lance. The French also developed a training mechanism for this competition. Wooden legless horses were hung by chain from posts, which originated from a central rotating pole. Horsemen would ride on this rotating training device to practice their lancing skills.

The popularity of this device spread beyond just cavalry, normal folk thought it looked entertaining. By the late 1700’s this device began to appear at festivals throughout Europe. There was a bit of an issue with the device though, it was either human or animal powered. As a result, the size of the device was limited.

“We have almost forgotten how strange a thing it is that so huge and powerful and intelligent an animal as a horse should allow another, and far more feeble animal, to ride upon its back.”
— Peter Gray

Mankind was permanently changed by the adoption of the horse in war. Its devastating ability is recorded over and over in history — even ancient history. The ancient Egyptians are often depicted with chariots in their armies, but they learned this equine warfare from being conquered themselves. An invading force named the Hyksos used horse driven chariots to dethrone the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt in the 17th century BC.

Cavalry caused unique problems for traditional armies. Armies generally moved at the speed of their slowest link. A complete army of horse bound warriors moved at blazing speeds compared to a traditional army made of infantry. Perhaps the greatest examples of this was the cavalry armies of the Steppe.

Dan Carlin in his Hardcore History podcast refers to the Steppe like an ocean with the water drained out. Its long miles of flat land seem to stretch endlessly into the horizon. These lands almost stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Europe and were a highway for a number of horse riding nomadic tribesmen. The long flat land provided perfect grazing area and space for horses. The people in this area also became riders of unmatched ability. The horse wasn’t only their transportation, it was their way of life. It also made them a match for the ‘civilized’ societies of the day.

The Scythians may have been the first horse people coming from this region. These early horse warriors, hailing from the area of Siberia, at one point spread to the borders of Egypt. They also took part in dethroning the original ancient superpower in the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire. The Persian Empire under the great King Darius also tangled with the Scythians and was unable to vanquish them. These horsemen just avoided the Persians, always able to keep ahead of them.

The Huns also came from the Steppe as well. They brought horses with them like most Steppe peoples and wreaked havoc on the Romans. At a point in the 5th Century A.D. the Romans were paying the Huns a tribute of 2100 lbs of gold a year.

The Mongols came from this area, conquering most of China and Russia. They also managed to take a good portion of the Middle East and came very close to conquering Europe as well. The mixture of Mongol and horse were often an unstoppable combo. There were very few armies that could even slow them down. They traveled with no supply train and were able to live off the land and their horses. Seemingly, the only thing that may have finally put an end to the power of the Mongols and their descendants might have been the modern firearm. Some have estimated that the Mongols and their cavalry may have killed 40 million people.

Horses may be looked upon with a kind manner in modern times. But, horses and the men who rode them were also instruments of war that brought devastation where their hooves trampled.

Modern Carousel
A major problem with the carousel was solved in the 1800’s — power. The power of muscle was a limiting factor in the size of the original carousels. A new invention was going to change this, however. In 1861 Thomas Bradshaw presented a steam powered carousel on New Year’s Day in England. The ability of a steam powered engine to drive the rig resulted in much larger carousels being built. The type of carousel the modern person would be more familiar with.

Some earlier carousels also kept the tradition of the cavalry training game of lancing rings (ring tilt). Early American carousels gave an additional challenge to certain riders. The riders on the outside horses were able to lean over and reach for a brass ring. This wasn’t an easy task and took a bit of nerve and skill. This is most likely where the phrase “reaching for the brass ring” derives from.

The carousel has been supplanted by quicker and more thrilling rides of the day. However, it is always present at festivals and carnivals. Strangely enough, it’s more of a children’s ride than anything in the modern age. Despite its history as a training tool for one of the most brutal instruments of war, it is now a playground for children.

Cavalry has also been made antiquated by the internal combustion engine. Horses have been replaced by trucks, tanks, and planes in modern armed forces. Man may have lost his understanding of the partnership between human and horse and how important it was. However, there are still examples of this partnership that can be seen. Rodeos and renaissance fairs are excellent places to see the traditional partnership of man and horse on display in modern times.

Hopefully after reading this, you’ll see the odd duality of this simple ride you once thought was innocent. The next time you pass by one of these spinning contraptions, I’m sure you’ll hear the laughter of children. But, you’ll know the original purpose of this device was a training tool for cavalry. You’ll also know the devastation this military unit could unleash.

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