Handmade rocking horses.
Olivia O’Connor’s life has always revolved around horses. As a child she enjoyed riding on the family farm, where her father trained steeplechase thoroughbreds. Olivia studied furniture design at RMIT, then prop-making at NIDA in Sydney. In 2011 she landed a coveted prop-making job at London’s Royal National Theatre which included a stint as saddle-maker for a production of War Horse, featuring life-size horse puppets! Olivia relished the opportunity to develop her traditional making skills and techniques but soon yearned to move back to the farm. Her lightbulb career moment came when she dreamed up a unique self-employment idea combining her two loves – horses and working with natural materials.
Olivia signed up for the NEIS program, and with the financial assistance she received was able to devote her time and energy to producing the beautiful joinery and detail in the rocking horses her business is now known for. With management training and mentoring also provided by NEIS, Olivia developed the administrative skills she needed and her niche business is now established and continuing to grow.
From her studio in picturesque South Gippsland, each rocking horse is made to order from sustainably sourced timber; often taking a full month to hand-carve, paint and hand-stitch the leather tack. Each piece is finished with ethically-sourced horsehair and hardwearing lacquers. Saddles and bridles are of quality Australian leather and hand-sewn. Olivia welds the swinging arms and makes proper girths and buckles.
People love the artistry Olivia brings to her horses. They are painted to natural colourings and markings, often to resemble a customer’s real horse, past or present. Some clients also choose to customise the shape of the head, neck and ears. The stand, saddle and bridle colour are all custom. Olivia passes on her skills in her own rocking horse classes during which attendees learn to hand carve their own rocking horse. Restorations are another string to Olivia’s bow with great attention and care given to traditional paint finishes.
In November 2017, Olivia was honoured to receive a George Alexander Fellowship from the International Specialised Skills Institute. In February 2018 she traveled to America to learn traditional techniques from master carver Mary May and master carousel restorer Rosa Patton. Olivia was thrilled to build on her carving, painting and restoration skills during the fellowship and began to apply her new knowledge to her work immediately on her return to Australia.
Making opportunities for promotion is a key area of training in the NEIS program. Olivia’s beautiful work has been celebrated in feature articles in Frankie magazine and Country Style. She documents work-in-progress photos on her Instagram and Facebook accounts, and is generous in her engagement with her followers, taking time to discuss her techniques and the artistry involved. Olivia enjoys giving carving demonstrations, most recently at the Royal Canberra Show, Seymour Alternative Farming Expo and her all-time favourite, the Lost Trades Fair. The more customers can appreciate the work and skill, the more easily each of Olivia’s rocking horses can go on to become a treasured family heirloom.
Do you have a great business idea? Take the first step to becoming self-employed. Use the postcode search tool to find your nearest NEIS provider and discover if you’re eligible for FREE NEIS training.