Sporting a leather jacket, dyed red hair, and tattoos, Alisa Aarniomaki looks like she's on her way to band rehearsal. But instead of a guitar, the 20-year-old Finn gently holds on to something else: a puffy stuffed horse head on a wooden stick complete with glued-on eyes, mane, and reins. She's been riding real horses from the age of 10 but became instantly smitten by hobby-horsing—a sport with gymnastic elements that has spawned a social media subculture among Finnish teen girls—when she first heard about it several years ago, reports the AP. "Hobby-horsing has a strong therapeutic side to it," says Aarniomaki, adding that it has helped her deal with her parents' divorce and bullying. "It has helped me a great deal that I can occasionally just go galloping into the woods with my friends. It somehow balances my mind."
The sport simulates traditional equestrian events like dressage and show jumping, and is physically demanding. The vast majority of hobbyhorses are homemade—colorful creatures with names like Chattanooga Choo Choo—and exchanged by owners. About 10,000 people, nearly all between ages 10 and 18, are involved in hobby-horsing in Finland. Regional events are organized by volunteers throughout Finland, culminating in national championships every year. "It's very bizarre for other people to see," said Taija Turkki, 18. "Because they think we think the horse is alive, which we do not. We understand that it's dead, made of fabric and all that." Lack of strict rules and pompous ceremonies, strong social media presence, and female bonding are part of the attraction. "I think hobby-horsing has a feministic agenda," Aarniomaki says. "No boys are coming and saying what we need to do, or bossing around." (Read more Finland stories.)