Dala horse or Dalecarlian horse as it’s also known as might be the most typical Swedish thing. When we found out that we were going to Dalarna – this was one thing that we asked to be able to do – visit a place where they make the Dala horses. And it was a real treat. Join us as we visit two places where the horses are made, all according to old traditions.
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What is a Dala horse?
The Dalahäst, Dala horse or Dalecarlian horse (many names for the same thing) is a traditional carved and painted wooden statue of a horse. It all started in Dalarna, Sweden, and today, the horse might be one of the most typical “Swedish things”. During all times through history, horses have always been painted. You can even see them on super old cave paintings.
In the 1700s the forest workers around Mora carve horses in the evenings. The horses were used as toys for the children and they quickly became popular. No one can say exactly when it all started but one thing’s for sure – they are really old and a treasure for the country. When in Dalarna, you are guaranteed to see the Dala horse. The original is from Mora (Nusnäs) but there are several different horses around the region today.
Did you know that the oldest Dala horse is from the year 1560.
The history of the Dala horse
The reason why they carved horses was that the horse symbolized something valuable. Horses were kept to help out with the work in the forests and they helped families to survive. They were used, not only in the forest but also as a means of transportation. When carving horses, the workers relaxed after a hard day at work and, as we mentioned before, it was a perfect toy for children.
During the 1800s, the horses got famous Kurbits paintings on them. The painting with this pattern (that is famous to this day) was inspired by the paintings that used to be on chests. The horses became more pretty and they also became somewhat like money. Instead of paying with money for food, they traded services for the wooden horses. Suddenly the popular Dala Horse was born.
The world exhibition in 1939
In 1939, there was a world exhibition held in New York and for the occasion, the artist Anders Beckman wanted to bring a Dala Horse with him. He got one made that was 2,80 meters long that was painted. The Dala Horse was placed outside the entrance of the Swedish pavilion at the exhibition. And they were also selling small painted horses at the exhibition. And the rest is history.
After the exhibition in 1939, the Dala Horse quickly became a symbol for Sweden. To this day, the Dala Horse is a popular souvenir to buy while visiting Sweden. The “original” one is painted in red but today, you have a lot of different colors to choose from. We ended up getting a pink one and we love it! He travels with us in our motorhome at all times.
The making process of the Dala horse
Sure, the making process of the Dala Horses has become more modernized compared to the older days. But overall, a lot of the process is still made by hand and even if the horses are cut out of the wood with machines, they are still hand-carved with the famous “Mora knives”. Inside Nils Olsson Dalahästar, they are selling the famous knives too. The process of making a Dala horse is as follows:
- Forest – It all starts in the forest where they take pinewood. The woos is taken to a sawmill where they pick the pine that will become the famous horses. For the smallest once, they use Alderwood instead.
- The wood is processed – The chosen parts are carved and a pattern is stamped on the wood. After that, the shape of the horse is sawed out. The Mora knife is used to carve the horse and give it soft corners and shapes.
- The painting – The horses are dipped into the paint (often a red one) and then they are puttied and honed into their final and perfect shape. After that, they get their last coating of paint.
- The horses get their final painting and details – “Krusmålning” is a sort of Kurbits painting that makes each horse unique. Each horse is painted by hand and most often it’s signed by the painter. After that, the horse is sealed and sold to a happy customer.
The first known Dala horse was “kruspainted” in the 1830s.
Nils Olsson Dalahastar
At Nils Olsson Dalahästar you get to see the whole process. If you want, you can order a guided tour of the factory but that’s not necessary because you can walk by yourself and see it all. It’s super impressive to see how the professionals work with the process of making the Dala horse. There are 18 different sizes and the bigger once are glued together and do not come in one piece. However, that’s nothing that you can see when you buy it.
Walking around in the factory, you’ll get to see it all. And our favorite part is by far the painting of the horses. Kerstin Reuterborg has been painting for 50 years now and it’s incredible how fast and accurate she is. We can honestly say that she was the one that made our visit to Nils Olsson Dalahästar a memory of a lifetime.
At Nils Olsson Dalahästar they make about 100 000 horses each year and they have about 300 000 visitors.
Kerstin Reuterborg is painting the horses
You are allowed to get up close and see the painting. When we visited, Kerstin was painting white horses. We had both decided that we would get a horse as a souvenir. Mini wanted a red one and I wanted a pink one. After talking, we decided that we would get a white one but with pink details. However, when it was time to choose a horse in the gift shop, the white once was painted by another painter and we wanted one that Kerstin had painted.
So in the end, we ended up getting a pink one, and when Mini saw the result, he was just as happy as I was. We got one that says Finally Lost (on both sides). At Nils Olsson Dalahästar, you can get your horse painted with a name. If you have a “Kulturpass”, this is explained more here and free of charge. Otherwise, you have to pay about 5 euros for the name painted on the horse.
Make sure to check if Kerstin is working during your visit because you want to meet her and see her incredible skills.
Grannas A. Olsson Hemslojd AB
Next door to Nils Olsson Dalahästar there’s another company that makes the same Dala horse, Grannas A. Olsson Hemslöjd. The owners of this company are within the same family as Nils Olsson Dalahästar. We asked several questions about the situation within the family but we didn’t get any “real” answers. All we know is that something happened that made the brothers that started the Dala horse company split up and today there are two companies. We recommend that you visit them both.
Sure, a lot of it becomes “same same” after a while but even if they are making the same kinds of horses – there are several differences. For example, at Grannas the painting of the horses is made inside the gift shop. During our visit, there wasn’t any painting going on. We believe that the best way to learn more about the Dala horse and the whole process is to visit both places. Granna is housed in two buildings. One is the factory and the other one is the gift shop.
Which Dala horse factory should you visit?
If you aren’t interested or don’t have time to visit them both. Here’s a guide to help you which one to choose… Keep in mind that we do recommend you to visit them both.
- You want to see how the horses are made.
Choose Nils Olsson Dalahästar. Their factory is bigger and more open to the public.
- You want to buy a more modern version of the Dala horse.
At Grannas, they have a bit more modern variations of horses. For example, here you can buy a Dala horse that has Swarovski crystals sprinkled on it.
- You want to learn more about the history of the Dala horse.
At Grannas, they have folders with a lot of information about the horses and their history. They have signs up at Nils Olsson too but there’s more at Grannas.
- You want to get a personalized Dala horse.
At Nils Olsson, you can get a name on your horse if you want. We got a super nice one that says Finally Lost on it. Worth every penny.
- You want to see old Dala horses.
Both places have a collection of old and different horses. However, at Grannas they have a bigger collection. If you want to see more of the old horses, you can visit the Dalarnas Museum in Falun where they have a big collection of old horses.
- You have enough time.
Visit them both because they both bring different things to the table. We enjoyed both places and we recommend you to take your time and visit them both.
Worlds largest Dala horse
Seeing the making of the Dala horse is a big thing in Sweden. Another literally big horse is the one in Avesta (southern parts of Dalarna). Here they have the world’s largest Dala horse. It’s placed where highway 7o and 68 crosses. The horse is 13 meters high, 12,8 meters long and it weighs 66,7 tons. It’s super impressive and we had a great time photographing this huge horse.
I wish that it was made out of wood instead of concrete but you can’t get it all. And if you are lucky, you might see one of the smallest Dala horses ever made. Kerstin at Nils Olsson Dalahästar has a tiny one that is so small, it’s easy to miss. Ask her to show it to you if she’s working – we are sure that you will be just as impressed by the huge horse as you will be by the small one.
Dalarnas museum has a large Dala horse collection
If the Dala horse factories in Nusnäs are not enough for you, you need to go to the Dalarnas Museum in Falun. Here, they have a large collection of old horses and you get more information about different kinds of horses. Because even if the once in Nusnäs are the “real” one, there are several different variations around Dalarna. For example, the one in Rättvik is grey and looks a bit different.
At the Dalarnas Museum, you can stroll around a huge collection with both old and different Dala horses. We spent quite some time in this part of the museum because it was so interesting. And since there are more than just Dala horses made today, you can also learn more about the Dala rooster and other fun things. To combine a visit to the factory and the museum is a great way to learn more about the world-famous Swedish horse!
Information about the factories in Nusnas
Address: Edåkersvägen 17 and Edåkersvägen 24.
Opening hours summertime: Monday – Friday: 09.00 – 18.00 Saturday and Sunday: 09.00 – 16.00. During wintertime, its open until 16.00 and closed on Sundays.
Website: Nils Olsson Dalahästar and website for Grannas.
Disclaimer: Our visit to Nils Olsson Dalahästar was part of a press trip that was arranged by Visit Dalarna. All the thoughts and opinions are our own!