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The Real Story Behind the Merry-Go-Round

mil_cuervos, Flickr

One of the first rides parents usually let kids enjoy by themselves is the gentle horse carousel, or merry-go-round. Carousels, which seem very safe and wholesome, have drawn families in for years. For many of us, they bring back fond childhood memories.

But how did they first come into our lives?

A carousel by a different name

Carousels have been around for ages, and they have gone by several different names. At one time or another, they have been called ‘flying horses,’ ‘merry-go-rounds’ (which, of course, still populate our parks to this day) and ‘little wars.’ It’s important to note that a carousel doesn’t have to have a horse attached to it to qualify as a carousel. It just has to spin around. Some of them have different animals (elephants and giraffes, for example), wooden carts, or nothing at all for the adults and children to sit on.

Practice for war

The first horse carousels date back to medieval times and the Arabian Peninsula. The most adept horseman of the day would ride around in circles, on real horses, and toss scented clay balls to one another, while trying to maintain their balance. This game was actually practice for the battles that would eventually come, when a man’s skill on a horse meant life or death.

Little wars

The Europeans, many of them Crusaders, who happened to see this horse game being played, were so impressed by it that they brought the idea of the ‘carosella’ (little war) back home with them. The carosella soon became a fashionable way for a knight, or member of the mounted cavalry, to demonstrate his horsemanship while preparing for war.

Ring around the carousel

In medieval jousting tournaments, one event in particular pitted a man and his horse against a small, dangling ring. The participant would ride with his lance at full tilt and try to spear the ring, which usually hung from a tree or a long poll. This was a form of marksmanship, and the precursor to reaching for rings on the modern-day carousel.

The French and their wooden horses

The French came up with the idea of building a training device with wooden horses attached to it, and a ring to ‘spear.’ This contraption was the first mechanical carousel, designed to give an aspiring knight a leg up on the competition. The device evolved over the years, and eventually become an amusement ride for children.

The American carousel

From the middle of the 19th century until early on in the 20th century carousels were a staple at every American amusement park and carnival and they’re still popular today. The craftsmanship and the engineering behind these carousels became more and more sophisticated, until they were considered the best in the world.

[Carousel Museum]

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