Firstly, I can't stress enough that antique horses with original paint should be left as they are if possible.
Original means just that, the rocking horse is exactly as it was when it was made, it has no additions at all, not even a touch up of paint or extra varnish. Once the original surface has gone, it can never be put back. Horses in good original condition are always the most valuable, the most sought after and have the best long term and investment value.
Obviously there is a point at which an original surface is so damaged that it really is not worth keeping. Where this
point is can not be defined precisely because it depends on the rarity of the horse.
At one end of the scale, original paint on an extra carved Ayres spring stand horse should be preserved in almost any condition as so few survive.
At the other end, there are thousands of 1950s onwards Collinson horses
in heights ranging between 30 to 50 inches with damaged and flaky original
gesso and paint.
These chaps are not yet antique, not very interesting to collectors and unless they are tidied up they will end up in a damp shed or worse.
They are usually quite strong enough for more work but have to be made attractive for them to find another home. Removal of the damaged surface prior to restoration is the best thing for most of these rocking horses.
With horses that have been overpainted it's much easier to know what to do. If the original paint can be revealed it may be in a good enough state to keep or be touched up in which case the paintwork would be considered to have been restored, it would no longer be original. Descriptions such as ' 80% original paint ' are valid if accurate but always ask to see the pre - restoration pictures of the horse so that you can make up your own mind about it.
Where the surface is not worth saving it can be removed, taking great care not to damage the fine carving detail of the horse. Their heads are easily damaged or blunted by clumsy removal of old gesso . There are some advantages to getting an old horse back to bare wood as all the damage can be clearly seen and the horse can be thoroughly repaired. In particular, loose joints, muscle blocks separating from the body and cracks along joints and along the grain of wood blocks can all be dealt with. Also previously botched repairs can be corrected - eg removal of car body filler, staples, extra nails and screws, metal struts and plates.
Another advantage is that old repairs like new ears, jaws, legs become obvious. Lastly, the shape of the horse becomes very clear and can help in identification or grouping of unknown makes.
These pictures show rocking horses stripped back to the wood.
The first picture is Easter with his new jaw.
The second pictrue shows the deep cracks in Oliver's body
The third pictures shows Rabbit's new muscle blocks
The last picture is Crockett, a Converse glider and he also had some deep body cracks needing attention.