The Brass Ring Arm at The Flying Horses

Reach out and grab the brass ring.

That’s what it’s all about, right?

Opportunity, success, fulfillment – if only it were that simple.

But don’t underestimate that simple piece of metal; it still has a mysterious and enchanting power, and if you have any doubt, just stop by The Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs.

The nation’s oldest continuously operating platform carousel, it was built by Charles W.F. Dare of Coney Island in 1876, and legend has it that it was transported to the Vineyard over the ice in the winter of 1884 in lieu of a debt.

Brass ring devices were introduced during the heyday of the carousel in the United States – about 1880 to 1920 – as a way of creating interest in the ride. Some rings were made of steel, some made of brass; if you grabbed the brass ring, you got a free ride.

Then the lawyers stepped in.

Today, reaching out and grabbing for the brass ring has been deemed an insurance risk, so very few carousels allow them anymore.

The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust acquired The Flying Horses Carousel in 1986, and in an effort to preserve the original experience, they’ve not only kept the ring arm, they’ve added another.

According to manager Robin Meader, people originally only wanted to ride on the outside of the carousel, because that was the only way they could grab the ring. So sixteen years ago, another ring arm was added to the inside.

Mike “Panhead” Fuss, the mechanic in charge of maintaining the carousel, explains that the way a ring arm works is actually very simple. A spacer is placed between two metal sidewalls to create a channel for the rings to slide down. A piece of sprung steel creates a lip at the bottom to keep the rings from falling out. The arm can hold twenty-four rings at a time and must be constantly fed by an attendant.

Panhead explains that there are various techniques for grabbing the ring. And while it may be fun to ride in the saddle of your favorite horse, the best way to get a ring is to stand on the platform and stretch forward as you approach the arm and continue grabbing as you go by. Some people grab with one finger; others use several fingers. If you’re really good, you might be able to get three or four rings at a time, but the Mark Spitz of ring grabbers is Robin’s son, Jared, who once managed to grab nine rings.

All this ring grabbing comes with a price. Each year, between 10,000 and 11,000 silver rings disappear; people take them as souvenirs. To complicate matters, the last known ring manufacturer has gone out of business. What’s more, there are only 14 brass rings left; however, since people have to turn them in to get a free ride, that number remains fairly constant. Suffice it to say, the attendants keep very close track of the brass rings.

So, in summary: By all means, go for it – go for the brass ring. Just make sure you have a good lawyer. And if you get it, be sure to give it back.