Tag Archives: Barbara O'Brien

  • The Chorz Fitness System

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    I’m starting an exercise craze. Forget the Zumba® dance fitness craze. My exercise program is much better. I call it the Chorz Fitness System.

     

    man handling hay baleThe first module in my Chorz program is called Barn Chorz. This module gives you a good solid workout.  Exercise 1 is Feed the Horses. Reach up into the haystack in the barn, pull down several 70-pound bales of hay, and lug them one at time to three separate paddocks. To increase exercise difficulty, use one hand to drag the bale, and repeatedly wave the other hand in an arc to keep the hungry horses away while you heave the bale up and into the feeder.

     

    Now it’s time for exercise 2:  The Feed Bag Lifts. This exercise works the leg and butt muscles, and is beneficial for your arms and back as well. Begin by unloading the 50-pound feed sack from the pick-up bed. Remember to bend your knees before lifting to avoid injury. Now carry that bag over to the feed barrels and fill them. C’mon, lift, lift, lift that bag. You can do it. Feel the burn in the back of your thighs as you work those muscles. Do this exercise regularly and when you walk down the street people will admire your Feed Bag Physique.

     

    Exercise 3 is Clean the Stalls. Here we use two special sticks available exclusively from my web site in four decorator colors. Pick up the Manure Fork with both hands and flex those muscles by fishing out large chucks of horse manure from the stall’s bedding. Switch to the Pitch Fork and vigorously gather the wet heavy straw and dump each forkful into a wheel barrow. Feel your arm muscles ripple with the effort you are putting forth. Then stretch those back muscles of yours by lifting and pushing the wheel barrow out to the manure pile. Lift, lift, lift that wheelbarrow to dump the load. Variation: Use Ice Chipper(available from my web site in your choice of brass- or silver-like finish) to work those upper arm muscles by dislodging frozen chunks of manure. Shovelthe chunks into a flexible round rubber tote and drag the tote to the manure pile.

     

    Exercise 4 is Watering. This exercise is wonderful for developing strong shoulder muscles and slimming the waistline. Haul several five gallon buckets of water around the farm to the sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks. To avoid overdevelopment of your left or right side, carry two buckets at a time. Since hydration is always important during a workout, make the most of the icy cold water that splashes up on you as you walk with your buckets.

     

    Exercise 5 is called Putting Up the Hay. For this exercise you need one Hay Wagon(available from my web site in Farm Red only). To get the maximum benefit of this exercise, choose the hottest, most humid and breeze-less day of the summer. Unload bale after bale of 70-lb. hay bales off your Hay Wagoninto Barn(available from my web site in Red or Peeling Red.) Ooh, feel that sweat pouring off your body. Now that’s what I call a work out!

     

    I know you’re ready for a break, but don’t just flop after Putting Up the Hay. Remember you must always finish a workout by doing Stretches. Cover your hand with a Plastic Bag(available from my web site in many different colors and patterns). Don’t forget green for those St. Patrick’s Day workouts. Once your hand is bagged, bend your knees and reach down to pick up a pile of dog doo-doo. Repeat this maneuver over the three-acre farmyard until you feel the muscles of your entire body are stretched and smooth. This bending, stretching and reaching is so good for the core, you know.

     

    At any time, to increase the difficulty of your Barn Chorz workout, augment your workout clothing with insulated coveralls and Sorel snow boots.

     

    Whew! Wasn’t Barn Chorz a great workout?

     

    But wait, there’s more. The great thing about my Chorz Fitness System is that it’s unlimited. Once you’re breezing through Barn Chorz and you want more, you can add on exercise modules like Fence Building, Gardening, and Keeping Up Old Farmhouse. You’ll have enough exercise for a lifetime of fitness.

  • The Big Snow

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this but I live not more than five miles from the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Her life story is taught in the local schools and I drive by her family’s historic log cabin site every time I head down to Pepin to the little grocery store or the school.

    When I whiz past the tiny cabin at 60 miles an hour I rarely think about what life must have been like for Ma and Pa and little Laura, Mary, Caroline, and Grace. But yesterday as I fought through eight foot snow drifts and the wind bit into my face and tried to freeze my eyelashes together, I thought about it.

    Everyone in the region had been warned about the big snow. The weatherman predicted a snownami, a snowmaggedon, and a snowpocalypse. And, just as it does when he warns us about tornados, it went in one ear and out the other.  They are exaggerating, we Midwesterners say. 20-24 inches of snow? It can’t be that bad. They always say things like that. It will never happen. Life threatening wind chills of -25 to -35 below? We’re tough. We can take it.

    And then we act like we had never even heard the weather guy. Even as the snow started coming down and it snowed for 18 hours straight people continued to try and go about their business. At least the big city and town people did.

    Out here with our mile long driveways and dirt roads that amble and curve up and down the valleys, nobody is going anywhere. At least until the plows come. Our township roadman, Mr. Robert Stein, does a great job of plowing snow. But on days like this we understand that he has to keep the big roads open. And when there are 22 inches of snow and sustained 40 mile per hour winds it makes it a lot harder to get the job done. We are content to sit back and ride out the big storms.

    Living on a farm and knowing that the snow was coming we prepped as best we could. Snow began falling late Friday night. By Saturday morning as we did chores we already had at least six new inches of snow on the ground. We were still able get the tractor out (thank you, John Deere), and we made sure that we fed twice as much hay as we normally feed to the horses so they could eat enough calories to keep warm. We put the older, more vulnerable horses in stalls thickly bedded with shavings and extra hay so they could handle the storm without being harassed by the younger, more dominant ones.

    The sheep and chickens who normally bound joyfully out of the barn each morning, greeted me warily as I opened the door. The lead sheep ran out and, repelled by the blowing horizontal snow, immediately reversed himself and headed back. A few brave chickens who normally don’t mind the snow, stepped gingerly out, and quickly turned tail and fled inside. I put extra feed and hay in the sheep pen and filled the chicken feeders and told them they were on their own. With the door shut, the barn stays pretty warm from the heat generated by the nine sheep, three goats, and the 40+ chickens. Chores took longer than usual as we fought the wind and wet snow. We were happy to finish and go back inside to warm up.

    The rest of the day felt like the snow days we had as kids. My younger boys were disappointed that it wasn’t a real snow day (it was a Saturday) but enjoyed having everyone home together. Even my oldest son, Wes, was home from college for a few days.

    Because I own an animal actors agency and I am also a professional animal lifestyle photographer, I stay pretty focused and try to squeeze the work into every moment I have. But the big snow that had been falling for hours made me want to slow down and just appreciate the beauty of it from the warmth of my cozy farmhouse.

    I didn’t edit any images, and the dishes and the laundry could wait as we watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Wes did his best to imitate Jimmy Stewart, changing the dialogue just enough to make us laugh, and the other boys said the all of the familiar lines with the actors.

    As it grew dark, Wes and Warren started preparing dinner. This was a treat for me, as I am usually the chief cook around here. I smiled as I looked back on the relaxing day.

    But being a farmer and an animal lover and responsible for our animals’ welfare, I knew it was time to go out and check on the animals one more time and feed our two recently rescued Morgans their second helping of grain for the day.

    My two youngest sons, William and Walker, and I bundled up in fleece-lined hoodies, our Carhartt bibs and jackets, and double thickness rag wool gloves. Walker wore snow goggles, vestiges of Wes’s army service. William wore a Russian ushanka hat that ties under the chin to keep the wind out.

    We headed out into the storm. The wind and snow hit my face and eyes like a frozen hurricane as I paused for a moment to survey the scene. Over 20 inches had accumulated throughout the day and the wind had whipped up drifts higher than the shed’s rooflines.

    I sloughed through the drifts, making my way to the new barn to check on the mares first.  They seemed surprised to see me; all four were tucked into the shed. Beauty the Morgan, and the two ponies raised their heads and looked at me as if to say, “What are you doing here? It’s snowing out, Dummy. Go back inside!” And Jenny my rescue Morgan mare, snorted impatiently as if to say, “It’s about time you gave me my grain.”

    I fed Jenny in her stall and broke the ice out of her bucket and refilled it so she would have enough to drink during the long night. I turned off their lights, and told them I’d be back in the morning. I didn’t need to climb over the wood fence as I normally do because the snow had drifted over it and most of it was hidden. I waded through the drifts and made my way over to the granary where the geldings can get out of the wind.

    Although they had plenty of hay inside the barn to eat, most of them chose to continue to chew on the round bale I had placed by the granary wall that serves as a wind block. They looked like the bison you sometimes see in National Geographic. They were covered in chunks of snow and frost lined their delicate eyes and nostrils. The geldings don’t seem to mind the cold. As long as they had hay to eat and could keep out of the wind they would be okay. I checked on Jack, my other rescue Morgan, and made sure he was happy in his stall with his new buddy Louis, one of my elderly horses, nearby. I gave them fresh water also.

    I made my way to the chicken coop, which is actually a small gabled barn that houses the chickens, sheep, and goats. It was surprisingly warm inside; their water had not even froze.  I gathered the two eggs that the laying hens had decided to give to me today and closed them up for the night.

    Knowing that everyone was safe and warm, I started walking the 200 yards back to the house. In the distance, the house appeared to be smiling at me, as all the lights were on and I could see that William and Walker had gone in before me.

    It was just me and the three dogs outside in the storm now. As I forced my way through the drifts it occurred to me how lucky I am that I could see where I was going. I glanced up at the powerful yard light that illuminated the farmyard and wondered about the people who owned this farm before electric power came in the 1940s. I remembered tales of farmers dying in their own yards by becoming disoriented in the blizzard and unable to reach the safety of the house.  They weren’t kidding when it was said that farmers would have to tie rope between the barn and the house so as not to lose their way.

    About halfway up a particularly deep drift I got stuck. After working myself out of it by leaning forward and crawling out, I decided to rest for a moment. I began to wonder what it would be like to freeze to death.

    I lay there on my stomach with my face cradled in my arm in an effort to block the wind. I wondered how quickly the cold that was just beginning to seep through my heavy clothes would chill me to the point of hypothermia. The wind howled and raged around me and blasts of snow came off neighboring drifts and hit me square in the face whenever I looked up. I wondered if anybody missed me yet and what would happen if I were truly unable to move for some reason.

    It was the dogs that discovered me. Hawkeye the Border Collie, Apple the Aussie mix, and Lisle the German Shepherd all descended upon me with a flurry of kisses and much jumping back and forth over my prone body as they tried to get me to respond. When I didn’t move, Hawkeye and Apple gave up. But Lisle lay quietly down beside me as if protecting my head and face from the wind. So it is true that dogs will do their best to protect their masters, I thought to myself as I pulled myself up and told Lisle that she was very good girl.

    I caught my breath and made it the rest of the way to the house. Inside, the warm air was a welcome change from the bitter winds outside. I looked around at the comforts of modern life: heat that pours off the radiators, music coming from the iPod® in the kitchen, food in the fridge, the world at our fingertips through our computers, and I smiled, gratefully. I’m glad I’m not Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family in that little log cabin with no electricity. I am happy sitting in my warm house and just imagining what life would have been like five miles and 140 years from here. Where’s my copy of Little House in the Big Woods?

  • Right Where We Belong

    Written By Barbara O'Brien

    Sometimes we get lucky in life and end up right where we belong.
    It all began in early spring of 2002. I, my husband Kevin, and our four sons had been living in my hometown of South St. Paul, Minnesota, for the previous ten years. We both had our work and the kids were more or less happy in school. We had moved there from our small farm in Hastings, Minnesota to be closer to Kevin’s job and our extended family. I loved our little rambler in town but as the traffic grew on our suburban street and it became unsafe for my youngest to play in the front yard, I began to yearn for a place in the country to call our own.
    And then there were the horses. One free horse grew into five. The older boys were showing in 4H and we were paying a large bill to the boarding stable each month. It occurred to us that the cost of our current house payment and the boarding of five horses really added up. Perhaps we could afford a place in the country.
    Thus began my obsession with finding the right farm for us. I became familiar with the Multiple Listing Service ads, and I pestered all the local real estate agents for their latest hot listings. We wanted to stay within driving distance to Kevin’s job, but far enough out to really be in the country.
    We soon learned that any plot of land (no matter how small) in the seven county area surrounding Minneapolis/St. Paul was completely out of our range. Even five-acre homesteads were priced way too high for us.
    It was not long after that, when a friend’s father (a longtime farmer) suggested we look across the river at western Wisconsin. “Wisconsin?” we said, “that is too far away and we don’t know anyone in Wisconsin.” “There is still good land there,” he insisted. “And the prices are not too bad, either.”
    And so I began my quest anew. I scoured the Internet and asked on the online horse forums I belonged to, if anyone knew of any farms for sale. We even looked at a few places. One was right on the road and not safe for children or animals. The other was a cute little house set on 10 acres that we liked. But in the neighboring yard, not more than 300 feet away, there was a large circular concrete pit of liquid manure, which belonged to the neighboring farm.
    In early April, after I had just about given up all hope, a small quiet voice said to me, “Go to Prescott and pick up the Shopper.” The Shopper is a little local ad paper that covers Pierce County, Wisconsin and the surrounding area. I loaded my youngest child up in the van and drove across the river to get the paper. I brought him a treat and he ate it while I glanced at the ads.
    There was a new listing for a 40-acre For-Sale-by-Owner farm with a house and outbuildings. It was over an hour away from our home, but at this point, we were willing to give anything a try.
    I called the number on the ad, and talked to a nice fellow named John Larson. He told me he had inherited the house from his aunt. She had died the previous fall, and now that the estate was settled, he was putting the place up for sale. I made arrangements to take a look at it that weekend, and I eagerly called Kevin to tell him the news.
    He suggested that we drive there after work. “Just to take a quick look at it,” he said. “That way, if it’s no good, we won’t be wasting anyone’s time.”
    The farm had a long driveway that led to a house flanked by a few large, but ramshackle, barns. Faded yellow paint and a cracked window or two belied the house’s real beauty. From what we could see, the walls were still square and it had a new roof.
    I couldn’t help feeling that there was something sad about the place. The house reminded me of a shy young woman at a dance who was waiting for just the right man to come along and take her hand.
    Kevin and I walked around, peeking into the barn and outbuildings. The large granary still held the remains of an oat crop from years ago. The barn walls were tipping dangerously to one side and full of hay that must’ve been baled in the 70’s. We saw that many generations of raccoon families had lived there and there were numerous holes in the tin roof from long-ago shotgun blasts.
    Sunlight streamed in the cracks of the century old barn boards and I was struck by its beauty. Even now, all these years later, when I think of the farmers who came before us -- their lives, their hopes, their dreams, what it was like for them to be here -- it feels like a sacred place to me.
    The paddock fences were overgrown with weeds and the fields were lined with old barbwire that would have to be pulled, but we knew that with a little hard work (ok, a lot of hard work) our horses would be happy here.
    We surveyed the house by peeking in the windows, and our excitement began to grow. I knew in my heart that this was it; this was meant to be our home.
    “We have to find John…before it gets too dark,” I said, as I dashed off to the car. A bemused Kevin followed. “We can’t bug him," he protested. “He doesn’t even know we are here.” I started the car and said, “I know where he lives, he won’t mind.”
    A few minutes later we pulled into John’s old home place. I knew I would find him in the barn, as it was chore time. I quickly swung the milk house door open and as John likes to tell it, “And in walked Barbara” I introduced myself to a startled John and his son, Randy, and John agreed to show us the house.
    As we toured the house, John showed us the oak floors, the beautiful china hutch and untouched woodwork. The house, with the exception of the kitchen, was just as it was in 1931 when it was built. The light fixtures, the floors, the windows, everything was original. Even the walls retained their original paint and wallpaper.
    I grabbed Kevin’s arm, trying to hide my eagerness from John as I whispered, “I want this house. Please, God, help us get this house.”
    We went outside and John pointed out the boundaries of the 40 acres that the house rested on. While he was doing this, the wind picked up and I covered my ears with my hands, as they were getting cold. Without a word, Kevin removed the warm winter hat from his head and placed it on mine. Little did I know that this little act of love and care would make all the difference.
    We told John we wanted the farm and to given us a day or two to make an offer. John agreed and told us that although he had several different people who wanted to see it that weekend, he would hold off until he had our offer. Within a few days we came to an agreement and the farm was ours. Within 45 days, we had sold our house in town and moved out to the farm. I have never felt more a part of a community than I do here. All of our neighbors, including the Larsons, have turned into good friends and there is no place that we would rather be.
    In the weeks that followed, I found out from a neighbor that John had been offered much more for the farm than we had settled on. When I asked him why he chose our offer over theirs, he smiled and said, “When I watched Kevin give you his hat, I knew that you were the right people. Any man who takes such good care of his wife, will surely take good care of his farm.”

    And I am happy to say that John was right.

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  • The Animal Connection: How it All Began

     Written By Barbara O'Brien

    I had seven (count them, seven!) jobs in one year before I started my own business, the Animal Connection.
     
    Ok, I was young. Twenty-one to be exact. Kevin and I had been married for three years and we had moved at least that many times. We were now renting an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Woodbury, Minnesota.
     
    We met in college and eloped the beginning of our junior year. We soon discovered that we both needed to work full time, and then some, to make ends meet. Something had to give and, sadly, it was school.
     
    So began the year of many jobs.
     
    Even though we were in the middle of recession, low paying jobs were still easy to find and I was quickly hired as a waitress at a hotel restaurant. I enjoyed meeting the business people and families that were traveling but I hated the lack of hours and even more, the lack of tips.
     
    My sister hosted a Tupperware party and as I watched the demonstrator, I thought, “I could do that”. I talked to her after the party and within weeks I had immersed myself into the world of party selling.
     
    The first few months were great. My friends and families hosted parties for me and sales were good. But it didn’t take long before everyone I knew had purchased all the Tupperware they could possibly use. Finding new customers was really hard so I even tried what they called a fundraising party. I took my little sales pitch a meeting of my local high school band backers meeting. They were polite at first as I explained how they would get 10 percent of the sales from their party but after a few minutes they began to get irritated with me and pertly much booed me from the podium. I was devastated. I was just trying to help them and they thought I was a joke. Maybe I was a joke. 

    “What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road.

    I started to cry as I was driving home. “What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road. What I did see was a police car flash his lights, signaling for me to pull over. I did and the police officer came to my window. I rolled it down, and choked out the words, “Yes…what did I do?”   He shined his flashlight at me and into the car and asked, “ Have you been drinking tonight?”
     
    “No…no…!” I sobbed. “I am a Tupperware lady and I had a really bad night.” He must’ve pitied me because after of few minutes of making sure I wasn’t a danger to others he let me go. Thus ended my career as a Tupperware lady.
     
    I answered an ad in a newspaper for a survey taker that paid five dollars per completed survey. It was a fun job. All I had to do was go into small main street type businesses and ask them to fill out a questionnaire about their insurance needs. The people in the small towns I visited were kind and most of them took the time to answer my questions. I liked seeing what they were doing and they seemed happy be running their own business. I liked the job and completed over 30 surveys in the first two days. On day three when I went to pick up more surveys the doors were locked and the company gone. I found out later that the Minnesota Attorney General booted them out of the state for fraudulent business practices. Apparently you couldn’t use false surveys to generate insurance leads.
     
    I then talked my way into a desk job at the Minnesota Humane Society. It was not a shelter but more of a legislative and enforcement agency. I did paperwork and accompanied the humane investigator when she went out on calls. It was a great job but after a few months a new director came and, "in with the new and out with the old." I was part of the old.
     
    After that I tried to make a living as an artist and sold some of my animal designs to stationery companies but that wasn’t moving fast enough to pay the bills. I took another restaurant job but, again, not enough tips and hours. I tried to work as a fitness instructor but I have to tell you, I almost died. How do those people do that?
     
    It was then that I was hired as a receptionist at a one-man construction company.  The company built waste treatment plants. And since the company only built one plant at a time there wasn’t much to do except answer the phone and water the plants. The owner was rarely in, so I entertained myself by reading whatever magazines came in the mail.

    "It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times."

    My favorite was the Minnesota Business Journal. It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times. I was inspired by these articles. If someone else started a business and succeeded why couldn’t I? I certainly wasn’t going anywhere sitting in an office and just wishing it was so.
     
    One day as I paged through the new business section, I spotted a piece about a modeling agency that had just opened in Minneapolis. It said they represented adults, children and most importantly to me, animals.
     
    Animals as models. That was something that I had never thought of. I have a dog, I mused. She is relatively well trained and of course, really cute. She could be a model.
     
    I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A young voice answered and I said, “Hi. I am Barbara O’Brien and I have a dog that could be a model.” “Ok,” the voice said. “Send us a picture and we will call you if something comes up.” I thanked her and hung up as I leaned back in my chair.
     
    I sat there a moment and then suddenly it occurred to me, I know lots of animals. Through my years of showing in 4H, my stint at the Humane Society and selling my animal art, I had developed a list of animal people contacts. I knew where everybody was and if I didn’t, I knew how to find them.
     
    I picked up the phone and dialed the number again.
     
    “Hello, it’s Barbara O’Brien again. I was the one with the Airedale. I was just thinking. I know lots of animals. I can help you find whatever your clients need.”
     
    There was a pause and then the voice said. “Ok, why don’t you give me your number?”
     
    A few days later there was a message on the answering machine from Sue Wehamn, the owner. She was wondering if I could provide a kitten for a photo shoot the next day. I called her back and told her I could. She told me the studio’s name and the time they needed me and when it was all done, I thought to myself, I just booked my first assignment.
     
    I called a friend of mine that worked at a vet and asked her if she knew of any kittens. She did and put me in touch with the owner. I called the owner and asked her if she would like to bring her kitten to Minneapolis for a photo shoot. She agreed even though she didn’t know me, but she knew my friend and that was good enough for her.
     
    Since I was still working for the construction company, I couldn’t go to the studio myself but from all accounts the kitten performed beautifully and soon was on the package of Purina Tender Vittles Cat Food.
     
    A few weeks after the kitten shoot the agency called and wanted to know if I could get my hands on a bunch of rabbits for a major department store chain called Daytons.
     
    I quickly located seven white rabbits and sent the owner to the shoot. The session went well and, as agreed, the agency sent me a small finder's fee for my efforts.   This was really cool but still not enough to live on. It was then I decided I should run my own animal modeling agency.

    "To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad."

    I called Sue and asked her how she felt about me starting my own agency just for animals and she said, sure. She was focusing on people and didn’t really want to bother with animals anyway.
     
    Now that I had Sue’s blessings I figured there was only more thing I needed before I could start my business—a name.
     
    To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad.
     
    I told him about my plans and that I had booked a few first shoots already and what should I name my company. He smiled and said, "Start it with an A. You will be first in the phone book."
     

    I laughed at first but the thought, why not? And it only made sense to have the word animal in the name. My job was to bring people and animals together and that is how, in 1984, the Animal Connection was born.

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