Sunday, September 27, 2009


When I was 19, I eloped so I could have a horse. When I tell some people that I eloped so I could have a horse their eyebrows go up and they say “You eloped…so you could have a…horse?” in a confused tone.
When I tell horse people that I eloped so I could have a horse they nod and murmur, “Well of course,” and hardly ever ask any more about it.
I’ve always been in love with horses. No one in my family was particularly horsey. We lived in a little suburban ranch house with a tiny back yard.
When I was nine my parents took me to a rental stable for my birthday present. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The smell was intoxicating. The trail boss put me on a big black horse named Ringo. I was actually riding! A horse! I would never be the same again.
For months afterward, I begged my parents for riding lessons One day in the summer before seventh grade I heard that a neighbor boy was taking riding lessons.
I got all the details and ran home as fast as I could. I burst in the door to announce “Pat Forsythe is taking riding lessons from his great aunt, an old lady named Mrs. Villaume who has a farm in Sunfish lake and that is only 5 miles away and I can take lessons every Saturday for $30 a month and she has lots of horses and I can work real hard to earn the money. Isn’t it great that she is so close, and so can I take lessons, please, please, please, please!”
Mrs. Villaume was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with a men’s plaid shirt over that. She wore her long gray hair in two tight braids that she coiled, Swedish style, around her head. I was frightened of her at first, she seemed stern and gruff but then she smiled and her blue eyes sparkled. “You must be Barbara,” she said, and then dismissed my parents.
She led me to a small bay mare who was tied up to the white fence eating grain out of a black rubber bucket. “This is Babe,” she said. “She is thirteen years old and she is a Morgan. I have two other girls riding her this year so don’t fall in love with her."
She could have not made a more ridiculous demand of me. Not love Babe? How was that possible? The moment I felt her smooth shiny coat and scratched her under her chin I knew that I was completely, hopelessly in love.
So it began. From that summer until well into high school my dad dutifully drove me to the farm every Saturday where I would work in the morning doing chores in exchange for riding time in the afternoon. I learned to build fences and take care of all kinds of livestock.
Like most kids I had my share of crisis, both real and imagined, and the farm was my place to escape. I couldn’t wait to get Babe out of the pasture, feed her, brush her, and tack her up, all the while telling her about my week. Horses really do listen and understand. In school I felt big and clumsy and rather foolish. When I was riding Babe it was like I was graceful and, perhaps, even beautiful. We floated over the ground, her mane brushing my face as she carried me away to a better place.
As I grew older and had more school and work responsibilities, I had less and less time to go out to the farm. I was involved in speech and theatre at school and I worked part-time as a waitress. I missed Babe and the other horses. It seemed like a part of me was missing when I wasn’t with them. But I had to grow up, right?
Now this is the part of the story where the paths of most horse crazy girls split. The true devotees never give up. They work hard, their parents let them get a horse, and they just manage to hang on all the way through. Some of them even go on to become trainers, breeders or vets. The vast majority of horse crazy girls let go, as school, work and college become more pressing. They just do not have the time, money, or, in some cases, interest, to put into horses anymore.
I clung to what I could. Although my visits to the farm were few and far between my senior year, I still managed to get out and see Babe at least one a month. It was like nothing had changed when I was there. Babe was still herself, a chubby, somewhat cranky, Morgan mare that loved to toss me by stopping too fast when I was riding bareback. Mrs. Villaume was always the same, her long gray hair neatly parted and wrapped in two long braids around her head and her face filling with laughter as we discussed boys and life and the future.
On the first day of college I saw a boy in my Minnesota History class. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was tall. He had green-blue eyes and a shock of black hair that would not stay in place. He wore a forest green turtleneck sweater and jeans and appeared to be a couple of years older than the other freshmen in the class. Of course I chose a seat next to him. I kept stealing glances at him hoping he would notice me so I could talk to him.
He didn’t look at me, but he also didn’t look at anyone else that day, so I didn’t get to talk to him. I soon discovered that he was shy. He was 20 years old and he worked nights and weekends at a hardware store. His name was Kevin. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Yeah, I’d like to go out with you sometime,” he said. There was a pause. Then he said shyly, “And what is your name again?”
I suppose some of you are thinking: Hey? Isn’t the guy supposed to ask the girl out? Well this was the 80s, you know, and if Mrs. Villaume taught me only one thing it was to ask for what you want. There is no harm in asking, she said, as long as you were willing to give back when asked yourself.
So I started dating that boy with the black hair and the green sweater. He came from a family of dog and cat lovers, so fitting in was really easy.
Kevin had never been around horses, but I quickly remedied that with trips to the farm. He grew to appreciate the horses. Mrs. Villaume liked Kevin and thought we made a good couple. His feet were always firmly planted on the ground while I was up in the clouds. He was stable and steady while I was impulsive. If Kevin and I  were dogs, I would be a Border Collie racing from chore to chore and always wondering what is around the corner. Kevin would be more like fiercely loyal and protective German Shepherd, always ready to do what needs to be done, but not wasting energy on foolish things. It’s no coincidence that all these years later we own both a Border Collie and a German Shepherd.
In the fall of my junior year in college, after Kevin and I had been dating for about a year, Mrs. Villaume approached me with the idea of moving into the upper apartment in her big farmhouse. Are you kidding me! I could actually live at the farm. I could see Babe everyday if I wanted. I would have to help out with the chores once in awhile but I was used to that. “I’m in!” I said. She laughed and shook her head. “Not so fast. I don’t want you and Kevin playing house up there. You are going to have to get married if you want to move in,” she said.
Married? Don’t get me wrong, I loved the guy, but I hadn’t finished school and was only employed as an assistant manager at a boutique cookie store. I wasn’t really ready to get married.
It was all Mrs. Villaume’s fault. She dangled the thought of independence from my parents, horses, the farm, in front of my face like a bucket of oats in front of a fat pony. How could I turn all that down? Here was my chance to be free. To live my own life, make my own choices. I could even decorate the apartment the way I wanted.
It all, of course, depended on if Kevin wanted to marry me in the first place. I knew he loved me and we had talked about marriage, but that was years away. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career yet and he was still working as a clerk at the hardware store.
We met after work that day and we went to our favorite place to eat, a little restaurant called Chesters. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hey, I can move out to Mrs. Villaume’s if I want. She says I can have the little apartment upstairs. The rent is $250 a month, so that’s not so bad.”
    “There is just one thing, though.”
“What’s that?
    “She says we have to get married.”
“Okay.” And then a moment later he said, “When?”
I almost spit out my coffee. He would marry me? Just like that?
Kevin: “How soon?” He asked.
Me:     “How soon, what?” I replied, still a little shocked.
Kevin: “How soon do you want to get married?”
Me:  “Right away. I can move in right away. It’s empty right now.”
Kevin looked at me, “Now?” he said. Reason was beginning to creep across his face and I was waiting for the reality to hit us that this was really a crazy idea.
“Well”, he said slowly, “I love you and I would marry you tomorrow if you want, but that wouldn’t be fair to you. You should have a real wedding, you know, with a dress and a reception and presents and all that.”
I thought about it for a moment and then I realized that all I really wanted was to marry him, ride horses every day, and live at Mrs. Villaume’s farm forever. I told Kevin that and once again he said “Okay.” So right then and there in Chester’s we grabbed a napkin and we made a list of pros and cons on whether or not to get married as soon as possible.
Pros: We love each other and why wait to start our life together. They say two can live cheaper than one, so we had that going for us. I would get to be around horses all the time. We would get to move out of our parent’s houses and be on our own.
Cons: People would think we got married because I was pregnant. However, time would prove that to be false soon enough. Our parents would be upset, but we felt they would get over it. We would have to work more hours to make the rent but we could do that. We would have to move out of our parent’s houses and be on our own. That part was scary. I had never lived away from home before. But I loved and trusted Kevin so I felt it would be okay.
And so it was decided. I imagine we could have told our parents about our plans, but we feared they would try to talk us out of it. We were, after all, only 19 and 21 years old. Did I mention before that I could be impulsive? We went to the county and applied for marriage license. A few days later we were married by a clerk of court. My older brother and his wife, who were sworn to secrecy, were our witnesses.
We moved into Mrs. Villaume’s house that night. We didn’t have much in the way of possessions. We had  twin mattress to put on the floor and a few boxes of clothes between us. It didn’t matter. We were together, we were in love, and I had full-time access to the horses. Now, almost 30 years and four sons later, Kevin and I are still together, still very much in love, and I still have the horses. 

all images © Barbara O'Brien Photography Barbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Now I am only going to tell you once. If you happen to be the parent to a horse crazy, dog crazy or cat crazy kid and you try to keep them from having a pet they will do everything their power to find animals on their own. Once they leave you and start their own lives, they may end up with a houseful of stray cats and dogs a barn full of horses and chickens and sheep and an always empty pocket just make up for lost time.

Or at least that was the way it was with me. If you remember from my last column, my parents were not keen on the idea of letting me have a pet so it became my mission to be around animals no matter what.

I remember being only about eight or nine when I began searching the neighborhood for houses that had dogs. There was a dog a block or so away that I could only catch glimpses of between the boards of their 6 foot privacy fence. From the pieces of it I did see, I could tell it was big and yellow.

It would run to the fence and try to press his nose through the boards while I lay on the ground and reached under the fence to touch him. He would comply by lying on his back so I stroke his soft belly fur. I could only reach with the tips of my fingers. It was awful to be so close yet not be able to really see or play with him.

When I was a little older I began to approach people out walking their dogs and beg to pet them. Pretty soon I became known as that kid who was crazy about dogs and that I would be happy to take them for walks when their owners didn’t have time.

By the age of 12 I had a pretty tidy little business going. I would take a dog for a walk for the princely sum of 50 cents. Word spread and soon I had up to 6 clients a week. Everything from a nosy Beagle to a high strung Siberian Huskie that could pull me on my bike like the wind. One of my favorite dogs was a big male German Shepherd that acted like he owned the world but would never hurt anyone. Because of him, I have always tried to have a German Shepherd in my life.

About this same time I joined 4H. I was to participate in the horse project and the dog project. I had the horse thing figured out, I had begun to lease a horse from a local barn but the dog project required I find a suitable dog to train. I signed up for the free dog obedience classes offered by the county extension office on the hope my parents would see that I just had to have a dog of my own.

Again I pleaded with my parents to let me get a dog but again I was told, NO PETS.

It was clear that my parents were not going to give in. No matter how many tears and promise of extra chores it just wasn’t going to happen. Family allergies and a hectic lifestyle made that perfectly clear.

So I had to settle for the next best thing, one of my dog walking customers had a beautiful sable collie and they agreed that I could take the dog to classes and show him at the county fair. His name was Cheetah and he was to become my partner for the summer.

And so began my first taste of real dog training. Every Tuesday night for the next eight weeks our 4H leader would load us up with our dogs and haul us to a school grounds in a nearby town where we fell under the watchful eye of the 4H Dog Obedience Instructor. She dutifully taught us how to work with our dogs and make it fun for them while they learned to sit and stay and prepare for the big show at the county fair.

Cheetah was a quick learner and worked hard at understanding what I wanted from him. He seemed to know when I was down and would rest his head on my lap while I petted him. He was a good dog and I loved him but it always made me sad when I gave him back to his real family he seemed to forget me the minute I let go of the leash.

We went to the fair and we did well at the show. Cheetah and I earned a blue ribbon. My parents were pleased that I seemed to filling my dog needs and I was happy to have at least one dog to love, even if he wasn’t mine.

Things probably could’ve gone on for some time like this. My parents were happy, Cheetah and his owners were happy, and I was as happy as I could be with a borrowed dog.

The fair was over and we were still meeting on Tuesday nights preparing for the state 4H Dog Show when Cheetah and the dog next to him decided to get into a fight. It was a good sized shepherd mix and I grabbed at Cheetah’s collar to separate them. Cheetah reared back still fighting and bit me in the face. I fell back, pulling Cheetah away as the dogs owner, a teenage boy got control of his dog.
Blood begin to drip from the puncture wound on my cheek as I fought back tears.

How could Cheetah bite me? The Instructor came to me and handed Cheetah to my friend to hold while she gently took me inside and washed my face. The bite didn’t hurt so much as the fact that Cheetah had turned on me. I was devastated. The dog leader tried to explain to me dogs act out of instinct and Cheetah’s aggression wasn’t directed at me.

We went outside and I took Cheetah back. He wagged his tail and licked my hand as if nothing had happened. I petted his head and tried to forgive him, but I was still hurt.

When we dropped him off and the owners saw what had happened they told me that perhaps it was better I didn’t walk Cheetah anymore. And although they weren’t blaming me for the incident, they didn’t want to see me get hurt again.

Not only had I been bitten by a dog I loved, but now he was being taken away from me.

I held back my pain the rest of the way home, but when I opened the door and found my parents watching TV in the living room I burst into tears. They held me close as I told them what had happened and how not only did I get bit, but also that they (Cheetah’s owners) had told me I couldn’t see Cheetah anymore. It just wasn’t fair!

And then it happened. Something changed and my Dad looked at my Mom and said that enough was enough. They couldn’t have me getting bit like this. I had to have my own dog. My mother began to object but one look at my anguished face convinced her that maybe the time had come after all.

I could not believe my ears. Did my dad say I could get a dog? A real dog! Visions of collies and shepherds and goldens and mutts began to dance in my head. A dog! A dog! My own dog!

I began to jump up and down wanting to shout this to the world when my mother suddenly laid out her conditions. It would have to be a Wire Haired Fox Terrier and nothing else. Her sister in Idaho had one and they didn’t shed. It had to be a male and to top it off it had to be $50.00 or less.

My heart sank. She may as well have told me to find a needle in a haystack and I would have better luck. Fox Terriers were a rare bred in our area and even common breeds of purebred dogs didn’t go for less $200.

Even though it was fairly late, I found the paper and quickly scanned the want ads, Beagles, Cockers, English Setters, Lab puppies and then I saw it, an ad for Fox Terriers. In all my years of scanning the ads for dogs I wished I could have, I had never seen an ad Wire Haired Fox Terriers. I joyfully showed the ad to my parents. They were surprised that I had found some so quickly and my dad said, call them up. I picked up the phone and a man answered. Breathless, I asked if he still had any puppies. I have one left, the man said. It’s a little male with a black patch on his eye. My heart leapt in my throat. What does he cost? I asked. Waiting for bad news, I said a prayer under my breath, please please, please…

Well, he is the last one, the man said. You can have him for 50 bucks. Miracle of miracles! I turned to my parents and said, 50 bucks, he wants 50 bucks! My dad seeing how close he was to having a dog said, tell him you only have $40. I only have $40, I said and he said ok, you can have him.

I was stunned. It was really happening! I handed the phone to my dad and he got the address and arranged to get the puppy the next day. I hugged my parents and jumped around and danced around the room, it was finally happening!

My mom began to cry when she saw how happy I was. Maybe she never realized how important to me having a dog was. She smiled and told me I better go clean my room if I ever to hope the find the puppy again in all that mess once I brought him home.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, God! I was happy as a child could be.
The next morning my dad and I drove to St. Paul and picked up the eight week old Fox Terrier puppy from the breeder. We didn’t have a crate so I held him in my arms all the way home.

He licked my face and I knew that even though he wasn’t a shepherd or a collie or a lab at least he was mine.

That was many years ago and much to my chagrin my parents have always had a dog ever since.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

all images © Barbara O'Brien Photography Barbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home


Some people just know. They know right from the start that life without animals is just not possible.

Oh my parents tried all right. They refused all of my requests for a cat or dog or most of all, a horse. They explained over an over again, in patient quiet tones that my older brother was allergic to fur and having a horse in the city of South St. Paul Minnesota was not only against city ordinances but also not very practical. What would it eat? Where would you keep it?

This made no sense at all to my five-year-old mind. Couldn’t I keep a cat confined to my room? Surely I could keep my nosy siblings out. And even though our back yard was small, couldn’t we fence it and let the horse graze, as long as it stayed out of the garden? And as for my brother’s allergies to hair and fur, couldn’t he just not breathe if the dog was around?

So it began, my childish attempts at secret pet ownership and my parents half-hearted attempts to appease me with trips to the zoo and visits to my uncle’s farm. The zoo was okay but I couldn’t touch the animals and I didn’t want any of them for a pet. I loved my Uncle’s farm but we only got to visit him once a year since he lived so far away and for an animal-crazy kid, that was not near enough.

It wasn’t until a few years later, on that one glorious day, when a stray cat ventured into my yard and began rubbing against my legs, that I thought all of my wishes had come true. I bent down to pet this wonder, a friendly well-behaved cat, who stayed right at my feet and was letting me pet him. Amazing! The cats on my Uncle’s farm were skittish and ran away at the sight of us and they also scratched and bit, which I had learned the hard way, when cornered. But this cat, with his handsome gray tabby striped coat and white chest and paws seemed to truly like me. His whole body vibrated with his throaty purr and he arched his back and raised his tail as I stroked him.

I asked him his name and when he didn’t say I decided to name him Jerry after the clever mouse from the Tom and Jerry cartoon. I asked him if he wanted to be my cat forever and ever and he completely agreed. I scanned the street and side yards making sure there was no one looking for him and then tucked him into my jacket and snuck him into my room.
I stashed him in my closet and quickly closed the bedroom door behind me as I headed to the kitchen to find him some food. One of my older sisters eyed me suspiciously for a moment and then went back to her portable hi-fi, turning up “Hey Jude” even louder than before.

I climbed onto the counter opened the cupboard door and looked at the possibilities. Cheerios, noodles, cake mix. None of these looked like things a cat would eat. And….. definitely not Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Even I wouldn’t eat that. Then I spied it. It’s bright red label with the long silver fish leaping from a mountain stream shone like a beacon in the dark recess of the cupboard. Salmon! All cats like fish, especially premium red sockeye salmon from wild Alaskan streams.

I would have to be careful. We all knew the salmon was off limits. It was my mother’s special treat that she would occasionally have for lunch with slices of lemon and saltine crackers. She would always share it with me since we were the only ones who liked it. It was our special little thing together in a house full of brothers and sisters vying for her attention.

I stuck the can of salmon under my shirt and grabbed a can opener out of the drawer, along with two small bowls from the dish rack. It was then my other older sister came in the door and saw me sliding off the counter to the floor.

She demanded to know what was I doing. I quickly turned to hide the evidence and darted out, pretending not to hear. Thankfully she didn’t come after me as I ran down the hallway and into my room.

I waited for my heart to stop pounding and listened to make sure the coast was clear. My dad was at work and I could see my two brothers out in the yard, both of my older sisters were now in the kitchen singing along to the “Beatles” and my Mom was hanging clothes out on the line. Relieved that no one would bother me for a while, I opened the can and scooped some salmon into one of the bowls. I had forgotten a spoon so I used my fingers and licked them clean to cover my crime.

Jerry began to meow and started to scratch the closet door. He jumped out when I slid the door open and made a beeline to the salmon. He began to gulp it down like he hadn’t eaten in days and only stopped for moment when I left to get him some water. I filled the other bowl in the bathroom sink and pushed both bowls and Jerry under my bed in case someone decided to come in.
After Jerry had eaten his dinner I tucked him back in to the closet for safekeeping. Not wanting to draw attention I went out to play with my brothers and didn’t go back to my room until it was time for bed.

Jerry was catnapping when I opened the closet and happily leaped onto my bed like he belonged there. I turned out my light and brought him under the covers close to my chest. He rumbled with pleasure and as I petted him. I caressed his silky ears and scratched him under his chin. He rolled over on his back as I massaged his belly and ran my fingers through his thick velvety fur.

How heavenly to have a cat for my very own. Someone to tell my secrets to, someone who would understand how difficult it was to be me. I fell asleep to the sound of Jerry’s purrs and comforting warmth.

The next morning I stuffed Jerry back in the closet and was getting dressed for school when my mother stepped into my room. She greeted me cheerfully as was her way when suddenly her nose twisted and she turned her head to take in what could only be the result of an indoor cat without a litter box.

She began to sniff the air as I vainly tried to distract her with small talk and questions about breakfast. She ignored me as she continued her search for the source of the SMELL. I positioned myself between her and the closet door as she picked through dirty clothes and scattered toys. She saw me by the closet door, my eyes wide with feigned innocence and asked me to please move away. I did as told and held my breath as she slid the door open.

What she was expecting to find, I do not know, but I do know she did not expect a gray furry creature to leap out like a shot and scurry under the bed. She shrieked in surprise but quickly composed herself after I told her that it was just Jerry, my new pet cat.

My brothers and sister, tuning into the strange noise coming from my room, all seemed to burst through my door at once, excitedly crowding around my mother wondering what terrible thing had happened to cause me to cry out No! No! No! My mother quickly told them of the cat contraband hiding under my bed and what happened next is the only possible thing that could have happened when five exited children and one harried, overworked mother try to catch a determined cat in a small one-level rambler.

Cat runs under the bed, children try to reach cat by poking at it with a broomstick. Cat tears out of bedroom door between the legs of the youngest child and finds refuge under the large queen-sized bed in the master bedroom.

Loud, highly excited children swarm into the room and the cat darts out and down the hall into the living room, where it finds refuge behind the large blue Lazyboy chair.

When my mother had finally had enough, she called for silence and for everyone to stop. She calmly told me to retrieve the cat and in spite of my tears and that I would just die if she got rid of my only pet, she calmly took Jerry from my arms and handed him off to my older brother who gleefully took Jerry to the back door and without ceremony dumped him onto the back step.

I wailed and rushed to the door but my mother gently took me in her arms and explained once again that we could not have cats and Jerry most likely belonged to a neighbor who was probably at this very moment out looking for him.

It just wasn’t fair. Why did I have to be born in a family that couldn’t have pets? Didn’t they understand I just didn’t want a cat I needed one to live. My mother reminded me that I was still breathing and we all had to get out the door to school. She hugged me and wiped my face and left to go clean up the mess that Jerry had deposited on my closet floor.

I was feeling pretty peevish when I finally left for school and even though I called for Jerry and searched for him as I walked, I never saw him again. I imagined a joyful reunion with an elderly owner who was grateful that some anonymous 9 year old had kept Jerry safe for the night.

And as I type this with one of my many cats nestled in my lap. I do remember getting some satisfaction out of the fact that my older brother’s face swelled up and his eyes watered uncontrollably due to the cat dander and that he was miserable for days.
Thank you, Jerry, wherever you are.

all images © Barbara O'Brien PhotographyBarbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home