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Meet Virginia: Cindy Patterson

It’s raining hard, but Cindy Patterson’s barn on Green Spring Road is cool and dry. She’s brushing Royale’s face when she remembers there’s something sweet in her pocket. The horse already knows.

“I know you like that,” she tells the horse. “Here’s your peppermint, Was that all one crunch? My goodness.”

Patterson has lived on the same Abingdon farm nearly her entire life. She’s also had horses her whole life, 75 by her count, from the pony named Pearl her grandfather traded for four tires in the 1960s to the four Gypsy horses she has today, including 17-year-old Royale, who was born here.

Some people break horses, but Patterson isn’t one. Instead of using pain and punishment to make the creatures comply, she’s used “natural horsemanship” to train her horses since before she knew what the term even meant. It’s the same gentle approach that’s brought her success in horse obstacle competitions from Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio to Tennessee and Georgia.

"She’s got to trust me that I’m not going to get her hurt,” Patterson explained. “And that’s the thing about obstacles … to get them prepared for life. Fight or flight—that’s their nature—you get them to think. Control the feet, get them to think, then they don’t freak out.”

Equestrian obstacle competitions are a lot like dog shows. Everyone is impeccably groomed. While some trainers navigate the course on horseback, others, like Patterson, lead from the ground, using their voice, body language, eye contact, and their hands to maneuver the animal around the ring.

Horses might cross a narrow bridge, side-step like ballet dancers over blocks or hay bales, navigate shallow pools filled with water and floating yellow rubber ducks. They might trot around flickering flags, squish across mattresses, and brush against pool noodles. Crinkling tarps are tossed across their backs or brought snug against their faces—anything to try to unsettle them.

None of it gets to Royale. Unlike the average horse that spooks at mailboxes, helicopters, firetrucks, dogs, and fireworks, Patterson’s six-foot mare is unflappable.

“Every horse show we’ve ever been to we’re just partners,” Patterson said. “We melted together. She knew what I wanted, and it just took a touch, just a touch. She knows what we’re going to do. She thought it was a playground.”

Another of Cindy's horses, Arte D'Oro
Elaina Eppinger
Another of Cindy's horses, Arte D'Oro

Gypsy horses—sometimes called “people-sized Clydesdales”—are adept at obstacle competitions, Patterson says, because they’re naturally calm, eager to please, and intelligent. With their long manes and tails and thick-muscled legs draped in “feather,” they’re also striking.

So is the quiet trust they have in Patterson.

“When they are born here, that starts right there, you know, a lot of times they’re imprinted at birth. I used to pick the baby up, maybe 125 pounds or more. They say they never forget your strength that way. You handle the horse all over, you halter the horse so many times, you put your fingers in their nostrils, their mouth, their ears, you pick their feet. I’m sitting down holding them in their stall, and they’re laying in my lap, and you’re talking to them, and you’re saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ they start understanding that right away. Once they start trusting you, then they trust you pretty much for life, unless you do something that they fall out of it.”

Patterson, a former town councilwoman and entrepreneur who runs a bed and breakfast near one end of the Virginia Creeper Trail, which stretches just over 30 miles between Abingdon and Damascus, says horse lessons apply to humans, too.

“That’s the same thing with relationships, and life, you know. Don’t hurt others. Be kind to one another. You’ve got obstacles every day in your life, and you just have to trust that you’re going to come out OK on the other side and have faith in the Lord. And go through those obstacles, whether it be a short time or a long time, just have faith that God will bring you through it. If He’ll bring you to it. He’ll bring you through it.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.