Finland's next big craze could well be stick-horse riding if a new film out on Friday is anything to go by. Alisa Aarniomäki was one of the first to take it up ten years ago, and she says it all started when she saw an advert for a hobbyhorse on sale.
"A week or two later I said to my friend that hobbyhorses could be cool—should we try it?" remembers Aarniomäki.
Aarniomäki had already been riding real horses for a while, but found making and competing on hobbyhorses a wonderful way to express herself. She filmed her hobby, edited the videos and posted them on social media. She now estimates there were at that point around 100 people involved in making and riding hobbyhorses in Finland.
10,000 hobbyhorse enthusiasts in Finland
A decade on, there are roughly ten thousand, mostly girls and teens. That's thanks partly to Aarniomäki's bravery in posting the videos on social media.
Not all the feedback was positive, especially in the beginning. She got negative messages, asking why she did such idiotic things, schoolmates spread rumours about her. When riding in the forest, people threw stones and hit her. That didn't stop Aarniomäki.
"Even when I was young I had the kind of attitude that I don't care what other people think about me," says Aarniomäki. "I like to do this, and I will do this."
At the heart of hobbyhorse culture are the beautiful hobbyhorses themselves, the handiwork involved in creating and maintaining them, and social media updates—as well as the riding styles employed by imaginative riders.
Hobbyhorse enthusiasts play the role of both rider and horse, with their legs as the horse's forelegs and their upper body as the rider. The sport demands body strength and control.
"The horse should be doing the moving, so that your upper body stays still," notes Aarniomäki. "It should look realistic."
Finnish championships have been organised since 2012, when Aarniomäki won both the flat and jump disciplines. She's also won other competitions, and has taken on a degree of responsibility for the sport. That includes public relations for an often-mocked hobby, and last year she organised a demonstration.
Around 200 enthusiasts marched through central Helsinki with their hobbyhorses, shouting kepparit kunniaan!, or "respect hobbyhorses!".
"It still feels like a big thing and I had a kind of enthusiasm for myself, that I'd done something like that and it was a good feeling," says Aarniomäki. "I'd definitely do it again, and even bigger this time."
"Generally the hobby is treated more positively now than it was before," says Aarniomäki.
Hobbyhorse Revolution, which is directed by Selma Vilhunen, opens on 31 March in Finland. Vilhunen says there's much to admire in the hobbyhorse community.
"Everyone can go there exactly as they are. The community has powerful internal democracy, and they have a lot to teach the rest of us," says Vilhunen.
After winning the two main prizes at the Tampere Film Festival in March, the movie's international premiere will be at the Vision du Réel Festival in Nyon, Switzerland on April 23, followed by its North American premiere at HotDocs in Toronto, Canada on May 3.
April 5: Updated with festival info.