Rural Missouri Magazine

Horse'n around
Wayne Lough builds hand-crafted rocking horses from wood and imagination

by Jarrett Medlin
Wayne applies the first coat of finish to one of his wooden rocking horses. “Look at the way the finish brings out the wood,” he says. He will eventually apply three coats of polyurethane.

He begins with a piece of wood and a memory. First, he pencils the profile of a Tennessee walking horse — head held high, front leg lifted elegantly, long tail sweeping the ground. Then, he cuts out the body and limbs one part at a time. He sands the wood smooth and attaches the limbs using glue and screws. Slowly, the horse comes to life. He flips the beast on its back and screws in its rockers. After attaching handles and brushing off the sawdust, he adds a coat of finish.

“A child is born,” says Wayne Lough, stepping back to admire his creation.

The 79-year-old smiles and slowly circles the horse, gazing at it from every angle. His blue eyes peer out from behind small wire frames that rest atop his button nose. Wayne bends down to look at the creature’s underbelly and touches up a spot on its back rocker. The horse will sit for several days and get two more coats of finish before being saddled and sold. In the mean time, it will rest in its stable — the small shop behind Wayne’s country home outside Salem.

Wayne’s rocking horses are more than children’s nursery toys; they are a work of art. It takes Wayne nearly a week to completely finish a single horse. The mane is carefully carved with a router bit to show long strands of hair. The hooves are created from dark wood to reflect the contrast in color. Special attention is given every step of the way — from the selection of the wood to the type of leather used for the horse reins.

Wayne offers a variety of horses. They cost between $250 and $450.

“That sassafras almost gives you the color of a buckskin horse,” says Wayne, pointing toward a large pile of wood in a corner of the shop. Wayne utilizes many types of wood to construct his horses — ash, red oak, sassafras, cherry, mesquite, walnut, birch, maple. From this wood, he builds the Tennessee walking horse, the Arabian, the American gaited saddle horse, and even Missouri mules. He takes pride in the details that set each of his creations apart.

“The beauty in this wood just blows your mind,” says the Intercounty Electric member as he picks up a piece of mesquite hauled from Texas and closely examines the wood’s grain. It is the quality of the wood Wayne uses that makes his horses so special.

Whereas most rocking horse manufacturers use plastic or inexpensive lumber, Wayne gets a discount on high-quality timber from nearby relatives. These connections make it possible for him to afford the lumber needed to build such exquisite horses. Still, the expensive lumber and long hours force Wayne to sell the finished products for anywhere from $250 to $450. Such a high price tag means Wayne usually only sells to true horse enthusiasts. Rather than set up at arts and craft shows — as he has tried unsuccessfully in the past — Wayne attends horse shows all over the nation. In a year, he usually sells about 30 rocking horses. At the shows, people often stop and admire his work.

“I’ve had thousands of people tell me how impressed they were by the detail,” he says.

The materials for each horse are carefully selected — from the reins to the mane. The body of this horse is made from cherry wood.

Of course, Wayne didn’t always build horses. At one time, he rode them. As a boy growing up during the Great Depression, Wayne would ride his fox trotter, Sookey, bareback more than 16 miles each day to and from the Dent County School. After Sookey there was Chalky, a gaited albino. He still remembers the animal’s light blue eyes and the way it would stand in a river for hours while his five children took turns diving off its back. “That horse had a personality like you’d never dream,” he says, gazing at a picture of the creature.

After those two horses, he never bought another. He worked as a carpenter for most of his life, traveled with the Navy to the island where they loaded the atomic bomb during World War II, served as Salem’s presiding commissioner for eight years, and briefly managed apartments in Springfield during the 1980s.

Wayne drills a hole in the horse’s saddle. Building a rocking horse requires many small, arduous steps.

Not until heart surgery in 1985 did Wayne return to his first love — horses. Following a double bypass, doctors told him to exercise more. Being a life-long carpenter, Wayne already knew how to saw and hammer. He wandered into his shed one day and built a love seat with arms like leaping horses. From there, he continued by building rocking horses, which he stacked up in his living room.

“When you have seven horses in your house you’ve got to do something with them,” says his wife, Helen. So, the Loughs began traveling the country in their motor home and selling at horse shows. Over time, Wayne sold more than 600 horses.

Amazingly, Wayne’s designs come purely from his own knowledge of horses — the way a Tennessee walking horse lifts its front legs while marching, the elegant curves of an Arabian, the upright posture of an American gaited saddle horse. He has never once consulted an arts and crafts magazine or used another person’s pattern. “I never copied a thing in my life,” he says.

Wayne’s innovation also helped him create one of his proudest accomplishments — a wooden adaptor that makes it possible for disabled children to ride his rocking horses. The adaptor is detachable and slides over the horse to keep a child from falling off.

One young rider, Eli Rader, was born premature, weighing only 1 pound at birth. Eli’s grandfather, David McDonald of Salem, heard about Wayne’s adaptable horses and bought one for Eli. Now 2 years old, Eli climbs onto the horse and rocks back and forth with a huge smile on his face. “The adaptor lets him stand clear up,” David says. “He absolutely loves it.”

Wayne examines a wooden plug for a horse saddle he’s building. The rocking horses’ saddles are detachable.

The first time Tyler Lough, Wayne’s 6-year-old autistic nephew, mounted his wooden steed he shouted, “Go, Buck!” Those were the first words Wayne ever heard from Tyler. Until that point, the child had communicated solely through yelling and physical gestures.

“We had never seen him smile like that,” Wayne says. Doctors had given Tyler only two more years to live, but from that moment on his health began to improve. It was a miracle, Wayne says. His rocking horse helped Tyler build muscle strength and gave him a newfound joy. Today, Tyler is 16 and going strong.

In a way, the rocking horse also helped save Wayne. “Exercise has really been the thing that kept him alive,” says his wife.

She goes on to list places they have traveled while selling rocking horses — Tennessee, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Ohio. She talks about local schools and children’s hospitals where Wayne has donated the horses. She notes the countless compliments he’s received. Wayne just grins.

“I have nothing to do with it,” he says. “The good Lord grows the trees and I just put them together.”

To contact Wayne Lough, call (573) 729-2258, or write to him at Rt. 5, Box 442A, Salem, MO, 65560.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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