Technically it’s not a traditional livestock industry, yet it is unmistakably equine and been treasured for countless generations.
Olivia O’Connor is not a farmer, she is an artist.
Her tools of trade just happen to be a little different to most — a draw knife, carving gouges and a saw-rasp.
Specialising in handmade, hand-carved rocking horses, Olivia has launched a one-woman renaissance of this all-but-lost art.
Her horses now roam through every state of Australia and she is booked six months ahead with consignments and restorations.
She laughed as she admitted she had five rocking horses in her hallway and one in her bedroom — as well as the nine in various stages of development in the workshop.
She is busy and life is crazy but she is loving the ride and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Olivia grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, surrounded by horses (of the living variety) from her horse trainer father which explains her lifelong love of horses.
Growing up in the country was the ideal environment for Olivia to develop and nurture her other love, of natural materials, including wood and leather, and instil in her a deep connection with life on the land.
“I have always loved working with wood. This led me to study furniture design and construction at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology before I was accepted into a prop making course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney,” Olivia said.
During her final year at NIDA Olivia made a rocking horse for one of her assignments.
When she graduated work and life got in the way and she began working creatively in the theatre industry, both here and overseas.
“The theatre is a very wasteful industry to be involved in. Props are only kept for six weeks before they are thrown away and I kept thinking back to the beautiful rocking horse I made,” she said.
“I wanted to make something that was sustainable, that people would hold onto for generations.
“And I really missed the country, so I decided to move home and do something I really loved.
“Home is now a workshop on her parents’ farm in South Gippsland and Olivia spends her days engrossed in her craft.
It didn’t take her long to realise there was a huge demand — and very short supply — in the rocking horse market.
“There was no one here in Australia making high end horses; everything was imported from America and the UK.
“As far as I know, I am the only person in Australia who hand carves rocking horses fulltime.
“There are some people who power carve, but I do everything by hand — each horse is made to order and completely customisable, no two horses are ever the same,” she said.
Olivia uses a combination of kiln-dried, clear wood radiata and Australian araucaria and kiln-dried, clear wood radiata.
Saddles are made using premium quality Australian leather and finished with real, ethically-sourced horsehair and tough, hardwearing lacquers.
“I love making something that can be passed down through the generations. It is very rewarding to make something special for someone and see them so happy when they get it — a rocking horse can bring so many great memories and quite often there are tears involved,” she smiled.
She said she quite often gets calls from grandparents looking to purchase a lasting gift for their grandchildren.”In this era of cheap plastic toys there are still people out there looking for something that can be handed down through families, which is lovely to know.”
Olivia said she always fully intended to turn her passion for creativity and sustainability into a career.
“Rocking horses keep me working fulltime seven days a week. There is so much more demand than people think, especially when it comes to restoration work, which has been one of the more unexpected and surprising aspects.”
Olivia’s carving skills are also in demand from a teaching perspective and she said there was no danger of the skill being lost.
Last year she started a course to teach people how to make their own rocking horse.
“It’s a big four days but over that time people can completely carve their own horse.
“This is a more simple design than my own, but still totally achievable
“The tradition of carving is certainly not dead and there are a lot of people out there who do want to learn the skill.”
She also has plans to start an introduction to carving class later this year.
“It never occurred to me that people would want to learn the skill of carving but it seems there is a passion out there and I am happy to pass on my love and skill to others.”