Rocking Horse Maker.
On a quiet farm in Victoria’s South Gippsland region, Olivia O’Connor works with horses – the wooden, rocking kind. Hand crafted traditional designs, it’s a trade of patience and love. When Olivia receives an order, she starts by talking her customers through sizes and colours. ‘The most popular is dapple grey’ she says. ‘Though occasionally I’ll have someone call up and say, ‘At home I’ve got a chestnut pony with white socks, can I get that?’’ From there, Olivia gets to work carving the animal from a block of timber, sanding it down and carefully airbrushing the finish. Then she builds the wooden stand and fits the horse out with one of her handmade leather saddles. From start to finish, the process takes an entire month.
Though she didn’t start her career intending to build rocking horses, it was always in the back of her mind. After a course in furniture design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Olivia moved to Sydney to study prop-making at NIDA. ‘I’ve always loved wood-working.’ She says, ‘and I really enjoyed the furniture design, but I felt like I wanted something else.’
At NIDA, Olivia tried her hand at making everything from dead bodies to creating exploding cakes. ‘It was heaps of fun and also great because I learned how to airbrush, paint, and how to do leatherwork.’ In the final year of her course, she was given the time and budget to make an item of her choosing: ‘I decided to make a rocking horse. I’d always wanted one – I’d fantasised about making them – and suddenly I had the money and time to do it.’
The ponies Olivia makes are similar to British rocking horses from the 1860’s, she says. ‘Back then they were carving a much more realistic rocking horse, whereas if you fast forward to the 1940s you start to get ones with crazy nostrils and skinny necks.’ She also comes form an equine-loving family, since her dad was a horse trainer and she grew up on a farm full of animals. ‘I think I was drawn to the realistic horses because of that,’ she says. ‘But something I also liked about the old British ones, and that I kept with my horses, is that their heads are turned slightly towards the right. It shows that they haven’t been carved by a machine.’
Mostly Olivia enjoys her work, but it can sometimes be a hard job to explain. ‘Often people assume that I import rocking horses, which really irritates me. But once they comprehend that, actually, a young woman can do this type of work, then they find it quite exciting. So far her main customers have been grandparents and families looking for a special gift. ‘It’s really sweet when you drop off a horse at someone’s house, or they come and collect it and the little kids are there,’ she says. ‘They just think it’s the most magical thing in the world, and that is special, because I love knowing that something I’ve made is going to be looked after and cherished.’