Back in the saddle

When poor health impacted Vicky O’Connor’s ability to work on farm, she picked up a camera and started her photography career again. Now she’s sharing her story to help others.  

Vicky O’Connor has worked in agriculture her whole life. She was born in South Canterbury and grew up on high country stations, studied farm management and worked in a wide range of roles, including at Federated Farmers and in a veterinary business. Vicky and her partner have been on their current farm in Pongaroa for four years.

Farmings been a journey 

“We came up from the South Island five years ago and worked on a sheep station in Taihape, while we looked around for farms, then we found our 530-acre sheep and beef farm.”

Life on the new property brought challenges. “After we took over, we really concentrated on increasing our lambing percentages.  Things were looking good at scanning – we’d increased our percentage by over 40% – then in the first week of lambing we got a storm and lost about 30% of our lambs. Then last year we had the drought. So, it’s been a journey.”

Despite that, Vicky says she loves rural life. “What do I like about farming? Everything. Being outside. Working with the animals. Even in the cold weather when you’re rugged up on the bike. I also love that emotional attachment you have to the land and the responsibility of that. Farming gives you a never-ending opportunity to change and grow.”

Focus on what you can control

Everyone has a back story and Vicky’s is more colourful than most. It also includes plenty of adversity down the years – horse riding and quad bike accidents, being attacked by wild dogs in Nepal and contracting rabies, working as a farm rep during the Canterbury earthquakes, dealing with the sickness and loss of loved ones and, lately, serious physical health issues herself.

Chronic pain and back reconstruction surgery have increasingly limited what Vicky can and can’t do on farm. For example, it’s preventing her helping with lambing and calving this year. It’s even put on hold one of her favourite past times – horse riding. She’s doing that tough; she describes her horses as ‘soul mates’.

What’s got her through is an extremely resilient mindset. “Ten weeks ago, my back gave way again. This wasn’t unexpected but came a lot sooner than I’d hoped. The extreme pain hit and still hasn’t left me. I’m now scheduled for further spinal surgery. But I always look at what I can control. Let’s face it, everyone has their own baggage. Mine is full of my shit, yours is full of yours. But we each have a toolbox of things that we can use to do something about it and that’s different for everyone too. So, don’t look over the boundary fence and compare yourself to others. Look at what you can do, not what you can’t.”

“For instance, I’d put on weight during my immobility so I thought, I can do something about that. So, I ate well, kept moving, made sure I got enough sleep etc. When you start to succeed in those little goals, you feel stronger as a person and you give yourself more choices. I guess I’ve learnt the sort of positivity that comes from necessity.”

“That’s why I’m keen on helping Farmstrong. I can see it gives people strategies and skills to add to their toolbox so they can deal with what life sends their way and move forward.”

Finding your why

Vicky says her recent health setbacks have not only made her appreciate farming life more, but also rekindled her other great passion – photography.  Many years ago, she took photos to help one of the children’s oncologists raise funds for Children’s Cancer Research creating cards and calendars that earned over $200,000. She went on to capture rural life with iconic images of high-country mustering and life on farm. Now she’s picked up her camera again supplying images of rural life to different agriculture companies, newspapers and magazines.

“When we shifted from south to north, I’d just lost my father and was going through this traumatic health experience. I didn’t even feel well enough physically or mentally to go out and meet neighbours. It was extremely challenging. So, my photography has been a key part of re-connecting with the world.”

“It’s also given me back my ‘why’. Everyone needs a purpose in life that makes them tick, it doesn’t matter what it is, and photography is mine. Doing something creative made me feel better and I realise now I need to do that off-farm stuff to keep well.”

Vicky’s familiar with Farmstrong’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing – staying active, connecting with others, giving back to community, learning and taking a few moments throughout the day to be grateful for what you have. She says photography ticks many of those boxes.

“I kept my photography low key for ages, but it has brought huge benefits for my health and wellbeing. After all, the essence of photography is about recognising the little moments in life that most of us miss because we are in such a hurry. It’s also a great way of meeting new people and giving something back to them. I’ve been fortunate that I’m close friends with the couple who’ve been managing Molesworth Station for many years. Years ago, I got invited to do a cattle muster. I hadn’t been on a horse for ages and riding the flats and documenting things with my camera was an amazing thing to do. So many people have thanked me for those images. It makes it very worthwhile when you can do that for people.”

Taking personal responsibility

It’s no exaggeration to say photography has given Vicky a different lens on her own life.

“Everyone has a story, and this is mine. I never gave up and I never will. Agriculture is who and what I am. Photography has shown me that we can be connected with agriculture in many different ways. I’m proud to be able to use my photography to showcase our agriculture industry, here and overseas, in a positive way.”

“Everyone in the farming sector has to deal with challenges. The challenge for me at the moment is just being able to throw my leg high enough to get over the fences! I’m at the middle stage of my life and I can no longer do all the things I wanted to do, like take the horse out and ride around the farm. But I’m determined to get back in the saddle and ride again, so watch his space.”

“In the meantime, I’ve learnt to focus on what I can do, and I’ve also learnt there’s only one person who can do it for me and that’s me. If sharing my story can help anyone else out there who’s struggling a bit, then that’s a really good thing.”


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