Realistic Ride-On Horse Puppet
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
For Sleepy Hollow, we needed a scary steed for the Headless Horseman to ride, for the grand finale scene of the children’s play. The script suggests putting a child on a dressed up ladder, stationary in the corner of the stage, revealed in a flash of light. Obviously, that was just not good enough for me.
I wanted to build a horse from a rolling platform, to be operated by one adult inside and a child on the horse’s back. I wanted the head to be articulated to some degree to create some realism, but was willing to forgo realistic legs in favor of ghostly gliding for this show.
I watched some videos of the Handspring Puppet Company’s warhorse puppet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7u6N-cSWtY, which I found incredibly inspiring, but also much too complicated for me to build in a month and much too difficult to be operated by me and one child. I really liked the way that the ears were articulated, and the way that the Warhorse combined real horse movements with artistic abstraction. I found my own simpler compromise between the two for this piece.
I started with some simple mock-ups using Popsicle sticks and rivets to get the basic movements right, I wanted to have a natural bobbing movement for the walking/galloping, an up-and-down nodding movement for whinnying, and a side-to-side motion to turn the head to look at Ichabod Crane during the chase.
I built a skeleton from lauan, and one pipe inside another pipe for the steering / nodding mechanism. The initial design used a wooden dowel, but the wood split during tests, so I replaced it with an aluminum pipe. In the final version of the mechanism, I used chicago screws as axles for the pivot points in the lauan.
In addition to the head movements, I built an articulated ear mechanism, which was to be operated by the rider. The ears, constructed from cardstock sandwiched between sheets of black craft felt, cut and folded into ear shape, were mounted on small carboard tubes normally used for housing mason bees, which pivot inside of PVC pipe sleeves. the mechanism is operated from the base of the neck by a lever that spans the neck lauan. A little wool applied to the inside and outside in correct proportions finished the effect.
The eyes were sculpted by heating transparent Christmas ornament halves and squeezing them into eye shapes, lightly spraypainted black inside, and bordered with a halved corrugated plastic tube. The deep red LEDs are mounted on large heatsinks mounted behind those shells, and wired to a very simple knob-operated dimmer circuit.
I used paper mache techniques to construct a foundation for the nose, which I later coated with a layer of water-based spray foam, followed by black latex paint. A couple spurts of lacquer added wetness to the nostrils and mouth. The hair on the whole head was made from roving wool, which I applied directly to the wire and paper mache foundation in layers, using a spray adhesive, pressing and hair-pulling technique to build layers. Following is a progression of the skinning of the horse…
We plan to re-use the foundation of this horse for our summer production of Pippi Longstocking, of course it will be re-skinned with a white wool, happier, blunter teeth, and no glowing red demon eyes. I might add some legs for fun, although that depends on how busy I am, as the summer shows have a very short timeline and the horse is not a main character.