A participant competes in the dressage category of the Finnish Hobbyhorse Championships 2024 at the local sport arena in Seinäjoki, Finland. Image Credit: AFP

Seindjoki: A buzz of excitement crackled through the hushed arena as the rider gripped the reins of her stuffed steed.

Welcome to the strangely exacting world of hobby horsing, the Finnish sport guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Immaculately-coiffed equestrians leap athletically over fences just like in horse jumping, going as fast as they can against the clock straddling their stick steeds.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

Things are more stately in the dressage, with riders trotting their stick horses with intricately decorated stuffed heads before the discerning eyes of the judges.

Some 260 riders from 22 countries - most women and girls aged between 10 and 20 - turned up to compete at the 11th annual Finnish championship held in the town of Seinajoki.

But despite its vast international reach, from the Arctic to Argentina, hobby horsing is a sport that dares not speak its name.

'Insane' athleticism

Despite its soaring popularity, it is not officially recognised as a proper sport in its birthplace.

"We have faced so much bullying and judgement," rider Nara Arlin, 24, told AFP.

"We know what everyone in the hobby horsing has been through... I think that is the main thing that pulls us together."

First invented in Finland more than a decade ago, hobby horsing has taken off at a gallop across the globe.

"It is growing every year," said Julia Mikkonen, the chair of the Finnish hobby horse association.

A participant competes in the show jumping category of the Finnish Hobbyhorse Championships 2024 at the local sport arena in Seinäjoki, Finland. Image Credit: AFP

This year's championship was "the biggest we have had so far", she added.

Beyond the whimsy, great strength and skill is required to jump the obstacles while holding the hobby horse. Some top competitors could give elite hurdlers or gymnasts a run for their money.

"If you jump over obstacles your hip mobility has to be absolutely insane," said Mikkonen, 20, with some fences up to 110 centimetres (3.6 feet) tall.

10,000 enthusiasts

"Of course we are all dreaming of having a world championship one day," said Mikkonen, who estimates there are around 10,000 hobby horsers globally.

"I am still a bit breathless but I am happy with my performance", said 19-year-old Jojo Hanninen as she sat down after her dressage event.

read more

To succeed in the sport you have to channel your inner centaur, she said.

"In hobby horsing, my legs are the horse... I am both horse and human," she said.

Hanninen's hobby horse is a grey called Toope, with glittery reins and pink ribbons adorning its white mane.

Welcoming community

Competitors go to great lengths with their horses - which are also exhibited and judged - modelling and sewing the heads and adorning them with decorations.

Hobby horses have been placed on chairs during the Finnish Hobbyhorse Championships 2024 at the local sport arena in Seinäjoki, Finland . Image Credit: AFP

"Hobby horses are art," said Arlin, who makes her own.

With the cheers of the crowd still ringing in her ears after an impressive show jumping round, she hailed the sport as "the best hobby ever".

"You are doing so many things with your hands, brain and the whole body."

Like many of her peers, Arlin found hobby horsing through play as a child.

"But the older I became, it became more serious," said the rider, who trains by riding real horses, working out in the gym and doing pole dancing.

Every enthusiast AFP spoke to praised the welcoming community that kept them devoted to hobby horsing despite the scornful attitudes all encountered at some point.

"We have each other's backs," said Arlin.