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