Amassing the world’s largest collection of stick horses was the furthest thing from Dan Cavanah’s mind when he and his wife, Lynn Ferraro, moved to Bell, Fla. (pop. 349), from Miami in the mid-1990s.
Newly retired as a director of operations for a sports optics company, Cavanah, 61, decided to take a local horse-riding course as a way to make friends as he and Ferraro, 55, settled into their new community. “There was only one flaw in my plan,” Cavanah says with a laugh. “Even though I grew up around horses in Independence, Missouri, I didn’t have a horse when Lynn and I moved here to Bell.
“As a joke, a friend gave me a stick horse,” he says. “I took it to the next meeting of the riding club and proudly showed off my ‘new horse.’ All the children loved it and took turns riding it. So did some of the adults. I didn’t have a stick horse when I was a child, but it was easy to see how much fun everyone was having with it.”
That sense of fun clicked with Cavanah and his wife, and they decided to start collecting the lovable toy. As they traveled about the country, they stopped at antique stores, picking up stick horses along the way. With antique dealers spreading the word about their collection via the Internet and word of mouth, the couple soon found themselves receiving stick horses from all over the world.
Most of the collection—460 and growing—dates back to the 1940s and 1950s. One rare member is Samson, Prince Phillip’s horse from Walt Disney’s 1950 release of Sleeping Beauty. Hard-to-find antique toys, like the Samson stick horse, are valued in the hundreds of dollars. The collection also includes some prized “celebrity” stick horses: Roy Rogers’ Trigger, The Lone Ranger’s Silver, Gumby’s horse Pokey and a Davy Crockett stick horse.
While restrictions by the insurance company prevent children from playing with their antique herd, the couple always has on hand some modern stick horses that kids who visit their home can ride.
In 2000, when their stick horses numbered 390, Cavanah contacted Guinness Book of Records officials and began the process of documenting that they had the world’s largest stick horse collection. The collection was recognized in November 2002, and Guinness entered a stick horse category in its 2004 edition.
Stick horses are not a unique American creation. “There are surviving drawings from the Roman Empire more than a thousand years ago of children riding what appear to be stick horses,” Cavanah says. “Modern-day stick horses can trace their roots back to 16th-century America and Europe. There is no one region in the world you can point to and say, ‘Here’s where stick horses sprang up and why.’”
To remind the world of the fun that stick horses bring, the couple founded Woodin-Stick Horses of America Inc. (WHOA) in 1995 and launched a website, www.stickhorses.com, to promote the toy’s history and preservation.
In their spare time, they are developing an animated series called The Stick Horse World of Knotty Pine. They also created and teach others to hold stick horse “WHOADEOs,” in which children participate in a grand parade and compete in rodeo events such as arena and barrel racing and bucking broncos.
“Stick horses are a toy that enable children to use their imagination,” Ferraro says. “The riders, regardless of age, will always put on a show and do some unexpected things,” adds Cavanah, noting that a WHOADEO raised $5,000 for Bell Elementary School’s advanced reading program.
For now, Cavanah and Ferraro keep their record-setting collection in their home, although they hope one day to have a permanent site elsewhere to corral their herd for public viewing—and riding. For them, it’s not just about having the most stick horses, but rather helping others discover the joy of saddling up and letting their imaginations run free.
“The bottom line is this,” Cavanah says. “No breed of horse has been enjoyed and loved by as many kids as the beloved stick horse.”