Living the life of Riley: Treatment of a wooden display horse

Alison Fleming


Founded in 1901, Riley and McCormick Saddlery sold horse tack and western wear in downtown Calgary, Alberta until their brick and mortar store closed in 2016.  The shop’s nearly-life sized wooden horse, nicknamed “Riley”, stood on the busy pedestrian avenue outside and was considered a city landmark.  However, both the weather and the attentions of passersby took a toll on the horse.  It also underwent several amateur restorations after having been vandalized and was repainted a number of times.  When the business shut down, local media noted the loss of “the weary wooden horse out front”.

When the Royal Alberta Museum acquired the horse in 2017, it was in poor condition.  It tilted precariously to one side due to a broken ankle and a damaged rolling platform beneath it.  Other issues included a large uneven fill around the neck where the head had been reattached after a decapitation, numerous smaller fills crudely covered with iridescent spray paint, and a mane and tail that had been reduced to wispy clumps due to repeated petting.  Still, underneath the damage and glaring band-aid repairs was a relatively intact, dignified-looking animal made by a skilled and observant craftsperson. 

The museum, which was in the process of moving to a new location, decided to put the horse on display when it re-opened in 2018.  Prior to devising a treatment proposal, there were a number of questions to consider.  How intensive should the treatment be?  Was there a specific period from the 115-year-old “life” of Riley that should be represented? What were the aesthetic goals?  Once those points had been determined, more questions arose concerning the physical object itself.  How structurally stable were the existing repairs? How could the solid wooden horse be lifted off its platform to repair the ankle? What materials would make the treatment as reversible as possible? 

Given the range of possible options, it could be argued that the treatment was relatively conservative: no paint layers were removed, and the neck repair was not completely redone.  That being said, given the poor condition of the carving and the treatment goal of having it look presentable for display, it could be also be argued that the treatment was quite extensive:  the neck fill was pared down and inpainted, and losses on the rest of the horse were filled and inpainted using reversible media.  A replica mane and tail were made using horsehair, a process that involved some basic taxidermy. 

This presentation will discuss how we approached the treatment of an object that, because it was considered an advertising feature rather than a rare example of historic folk art, had been kept in decidedly un-museum-like conditions, and was altered considerably, although not fundamentally, over the course of its long working life.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28