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December 15, 2010

From A Lamp To A Legacy: Breyer Horses

Breyer horses have appealed to horse lovers of all ages since the first model was created in 1950. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

I was one of those kids who’d snoop for Christmas presents every year. By the time I was 10, I knew every single hiding place in our house—from my parent’s closet, to the craft room, to the downstairs coat closet way back behind the moving boxes that had been there since before I was born—it was pretty hard to keep a secret from me!

I also became quite adept at peeking at presents under the tree. Cleverly sliding my finger under the taped ends and lifting the corners just enough to see if I could discover what was hidden beneath the bows. Of course, sometimes I couldn’t tell, but I was always happy to find that distinctive yellow box with the blue Breyer logo on it.

In 1950, the F.W. Woolworth Company requested a special order western style horse from the Breyer Molding Company for a mantelpiece clock. The Breyer Molding Company was a plastics manufacturing company based in Chicago, Ill.

However, when the #57 Western Horse made its appearance, the company was flooded with calls from people who wanted the horse, not the clock!

That single horse changed everything for the Breyer Molding Company. When the clock company was unable to pay for the molding expenses, Breyer decided to keep the mold and sell the horses as requested by so many people. The horses sold incredibly well, so the company began to create other molds.

In the 1960s, Breyer transitioned into making toys and affordable art. Some of the older molds, like the clock or lamp molds, were leased to other companies as the demand for animal molds continued to grow. Breyer continued to add more and more models to their line, increasing their popularity and their collector base.

In 1984, Reeves International, a forerunner in the toy industry during the time and today, purchased Breyer Animal Creations. Swiss entrepreneur Werner J. Fleischmann founded Reeves International in 1946. The company entered the toy industry in the United States as a distributor of European toys and collectibles from brands such as Stieff, Corgi and Britains.

In the 1970s, Reeves began to shift from sales and distribution to manufacturing proprietary brands. Reeves acquired Breyer Animal Creations with that goal in mind and has now completed the transition from distributor to a manufacturing and marketing company. The company is still privately owned by Anthony Fleischmann, son of Werner.

Artists At Work

But Breyer models aren’t just generic toys. An artist designs each mold, and Christian Hess was one of the most influential artists for Breyer.

Hess wasn’t necessarily a horse person, but he was a phenomenal artist. He did visit some of the horses he molded in person, but for the most part he sculpted from a picture or drawing.

The very last Breyer mold Hess designed was Secretariat. He was 71 at the time, and he died a year later in 1988.

Today, Breyer’s main sculptor is Kathleen Moody, though Susan Sifton (Smart Chic Olena, Cigar, Flash, Idocus, Newsworthy) also contributes to the line.

So how does a Breyer model come to life, anyway? First, artists design the horses in clay, which is then used to create a steel mold. Cellulose acetate pellets (hard plastic) are melted and injected into the steel molds. After the molds cool, they are assembled and passed on for painting.

The horses go next to the painters, where they are each airbrushed. Some of the finer touches, like the eyes and nostrils, are hand painted. Approximately 20 different artisans work on each individual Breyer model from start to finish. Even 60 years later, Breyer models are still made by hand, not machine. This means that no two Breyer models are exactly alike and greatly increases the value and significance of the product.

Devoted Fans

Today, Breyer horses dominate the model horse market, and the company releases 300 unique animal molds per year. They are created in five sizes and seven different lines, which vary between porcelains and resin figures to stuffed animals. Approximately 5 million model horses are produced each year, and that doesn’t include the special editions or the tack and accessories!

A special aspect of Breyer is its fan base. Collecting Breyer horses has been a popular hobby since the company’s first model, the #57 Western Horse, and I’m willing to bet a majority of us horse-crazy people have Breyer models in our history. Every year, thousands of fans flock to the Kentucky Horse Park to attend BreyerFest, and there are many websites, like Andrea Gurdon’s “Breyer History Diva” site that are totally dedicated to Breyer and model horse collecting.

Now, I’m not telling you all to run out and buy an armload of Breyer horses for the horse-crazy person in your life for Christmas, but I do reflect fondly on the Breyer horses I received throughout my youth. Of course, if you do purchase one, I recommend a stellar gift-hiding job. I’m sure I’m not the only girl in the world who likes a pre-Christmas gift preview.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!

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