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🐴 The weird, tiny history of Portland’s horse rings

It’s Wednesday.

And that means we are getting weird with you today.

Every week, we celebrate elements of Portland’s wonderful weirdness in collaboration with Weird Portland United.

If you haven’t read them yet, you can find our February Weird Wednesdays here, where we interviewed The Unipiper, local artist Cedar Lee, and The Portland Sleestak. And if you missed our interview with magician Spencer Sprocket, peep at that here. Check out our chat with designer Sundari Franklin, read our skating adventures with Carlos the Rollerblader, and get caught up in technicolor fun with artist Strawberry Pickle at Rainbow City.

Today, though, we’re taking you back in time. First, we’re heading to the 18th and 19th centuries when Portland was a bustling logging town littered with stumps and tough lumberjacks and when travel was almost 100% horse-powered — literally. Then, we are visiting the 1970s, when a young Portlander was inspired by remnants of those bygone days and felt inspired to revive those memories in the most weird (and wonderful) way possible.

Folks, we are talking about Portland’s horse rings, and how they are still in use to this day — but on a much smaller scale.

A tradition dating back to the 1800s

Imagine this: It’s the late 1800s in Portland. 

Just a few decades before, the streets were scattered with stumps that were far too stubborn to remove, and residents could be seen hopping from stump to stump to get around. The first Morrison Bridge has just opened, and Stumptown has started to become a major port to ship goods inland from the Coast and help sailors avoid the treacherous waters of the mouth of the Columbia.

Portland, Oregon in 1888. (📸: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

And, if you could afford one, riding a horse was a key way to get around, although the first automobiles were being created and different variations workshopped. To help horse riders and those using horse-drawn carts and carriages, the City of Portland installed several horse rings throughout the city, attached to sidewalks and in front of businesses.

A horse ring is a simple iron or brass ring fixed to the ground where a horse might be tethered while their rider was preoccupied with getting a meal, conducting business, or resting, so that the animal wouldn’t run away.

As automobiles became more affordable and the preferred form of transportation into the 1900s, these horse rings started to see less use.

Preserving a piece of Portland history

Zipping ahead nearly 100 years to the 1970s, the unused horse rings were still attached to Portland’s sidewalks, sans horses of course. In fact, the city started to remove several of these sidewalks and the attached rings — but Portlanders objected to this loss of history.

The city struck a deal: If a sidewalk needs repairs and a ring needs to be removed, the homeowner can have the horse ring replaced for a small fee. Nowadays, the city helps preserve the rings.

And in the 1970s, young Portlander Scott Wayne Indiana, saw these history-saving moves from the community and got inspired. In 2005, he tethered a tiny plastic horse toy to one of the remaining rings and created The Portland Horse Project. The practice stampeded across the city (pun intended, your editor is not sorry).

To this day, you can find little equines tethered to the old horse rings throughout Portland. (📸: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Suddenly, tiny horses tethered to the historic rings popped up all over Portland, a small reminder of its past roots and its growth. People begin leaving little gifts for the horses as well, forming personal connections, and Bridgeport Brewing even creates a “Tiny Horse Pilsner” in honor of the project. A documentary called “It’s a Ring Thing” was filmed in 2011, celebrating Indiana’s art project.

“More than a decade since Indiana’s first toy horses descended upon the streets, people still have yet to rein in their enthusiasm for the project. People leave treats, tack, hay, and riders for the little equines (and their occasional dinosaur friends). One Portland couple even got engaged after meeting because of one of the horses,” Atlas Obscura wrote.

Although originally intended to tether horses, you can sometimes find tigers and other wonderful creatures tied to Portland’s horse rings. (📸: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

To this day, you can still find tiny horses (and dinosaurs and tigers) tethered to horse rings throughout the city, as recently as March of this year. This small, delightful, quirky community art project is one of the many wonderful aspects of Portland’s weirdness.

Have you got any recent pictures of Portland’s tiny horses and horse rings you’d like to share? Memories of when the art project took off? A favorite horse ring and its current resident in your neighborhood? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll share it in a future newsletter.

(P.S. If your mind went to this recent-ish Saturday Night Live sketch while you were reading this, 1) We don’t blame you, and 2) Give it a watch if you haven’t already, it feels in the spirit of this project.)

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members; your support helps make Bridgeliner, and original features like this, possible.